Talking Rhythm

Are you having difficulty understanding rhythm notation? Sometimes a complicated string of syncopated 16th notes and 8th notes may seem too difficult to comprehend – let alone transcribe them, or sight-read from notation. Don’t worry! You are not alone if you have difficulty understanding rhythm.

Thankfully there are ways to “talk rhythm” that will help you understand rhythm like the best of the rhythm masters. In this new series, you will learn simple methods to let you better understand rhythm by ear.

Many musicians struggle with understanding rhythm, especially if their primary musical skills are melodic like singing or playing an instrument like the flute, or they play a low brass instrument or bass guitar that usually do not have complex rhythms. In fact, percussionists and pianists often seem to have the monopoly on great rhythm! Well, now you can learn their secrets.

How to Talk Rhythm

If you have ever watched two percussionists chat about rhythm, you might wonder if they are speaking an entirely different secret language as they start spouting out a string of nonsensical syllables like “three ee and ah” or “ta ti ti ta”. Believe it or not, you don’t need a translator, and all drummer jokes aside, these people are actually quite sober… What they are doing is using simple short words like “ta” or “e” or “tika” to represent rhythm notation.

Here’s a simple and useful example: you can use a word like “superman” to represent rhythms like triplets:

In this example, each syllable of the word “su-per-man” lines up with a triplet. So you can repeat saying “superman” over and over again to “talk” the triplet rhythm.

Why Talk Rhythm?

If you are like most musicians, rhythmic notation can be daunting, especially if more complicated syncopated rhythms are involved. Learning how to talk out rhythm helps you easily read notation and use your ear training skills to develop good rhythm.

Learning great rhythm skills helps your overall musicianship whether you are in a band, sing in a chorus, or just like to jam out by yourself. Rhythm is an integral part of good solid musicianship, and developing your counting skills is vitally important for any serious artist. Good rhythm ensures that your band plays together, gives you opportunities to wow others when you solo, helps with improvisation, and lets you be expressive.

In a nutshell, good rhythm rocks!

What You Will Learn

In this Talking Rhythm series you will learn how to count rhythms out loud using two methods: count chant and the Kodály approach. Both of these are easy ways to understand rhythmic notation using simple syllables. Easy exercises will present you with opportunities to practice and apply what you have learned

The Count Chant Method

The count chant method is a very common method using syllables like “and” or “ah” to stand in for more complicated rhythms.

Here is a really simple example:

In this example the downbeat is represented by a number and the offbeats are represented by “and”. When you say “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” you are counting the eighth note rhythm out loud and keeping time.

Here’s an exercise to practice counting with the audio example above.

  1. Set your metronome to a moderate tempo
  2. Start by tapping your foot on the downbeat
  3. As you tap count 8th notes using “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”

Practice staying in time and counting the simple rhythm out loud. It is helpful if you look at the notation as you count to help your mind associate the visual image with the syllables.

If you find this too difficult, just practice saying the words without tapping your foot. You can start to practice counting 8th notes whenever you are listening to the radio.

The Kodály Method

The Kodály Method was developed by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who believed that learning music should instil joy in the student.

“Teach music and singing at school in such a way that it is not torture but joy for the pupil…”

— Zoltan Kodály.

Kodály developed this method to help young musicians develop musical skills in a simple way that was both helpful and enjoyable. His method included many aspects of musicianship, including rhythm.

The Kodály Method uses specific syllables for rhythm notation like the “ti” and “ta” mentioned earlier. In this series you will learn exercises that will help you develop your rhythmic skills using simple syllables.

So, are you ready to learn rhythm? Be sure to read the next article in this new Talking Rhythm series. Have any comments or questions? We’d love to hear from you! Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!