Musical Subjects · Teaching


Part of a series of posts on the ‘musical subjects‘ I am working with in my classrooms and thinking about as a musician and teacher.

I often turn to Walter Piston when I want some inspiration for teaching or for my own practice. Here’s what he says about meter in his book, “Counterpoint”:

“In itself, meter has no rhythm. It is simply a means of measuring music, principally for purposes of keeping time, and as an aid in playing or singing together in ensemble music.” (Walter Piston, Counterpoint. Norton, 1947. pg. 26.)

This rings true to me. The language of meter—that of an accountant or an actuarial—gives it away. We count, we measure, we create bars and lines. Piston provides easy and obvious examples of music in which the melodic and harmonic rhythm do not agree with the grid on the page. For me the point is not that meter really exists only on the page, rather it is something we can feel as a living thing. It should be as flexible, responsive and alive as a beating heart.

In groove-based music such as jazz there is no other way to do it other than to feel it. Once you feel a regular grouping of beats into, say, three or four, there is nothing more to ‘measure’. The cycle of the meter in groove and dance based music is so much more than an ‘aid to playing or singing together’, though it certainly is that, too. Each beat has the potential to contain whatever can be imagined in time, with it’s own function in the cycle.

In the classroom, I find myself working with meter in ways that I don’t have to with other rhythmic phenomena such as beat, division of the beat or syncopation. I’ve never taught anyone to synchronize to a beat. I have simply set up the conditions in which this primal human behavior can take place. Not so with meter. For children (and even many adults) synchronizing an action to different parts of a measure takes effort, understanding, practice and often patience.

With children, the first thing I want to know is whether or not they can detect the regular, recurring grouping of beats into meter. Do they notice when this grouping changes, say, from four to three? Though I do not have any proof of this, I suspect they can feel metrical differences long before they can articulate them. This is why I like to slip different beat groupings under their basic locomotor movements. I’ll let them walk or even skip in 3 once in a while and watch them. They will sometimes look at me to see what I’m up to. Often, they’ll subtly change the way they are moving to reflect what they are hearing. Those are special moments!

By the time they are a little older (say 5 or 6 years), I can begin to get them to synchronize to specific parts of the measure. This week I (somewhat spontaneously) told a story about 3 spare parts in a warehouse that decided to find a way to work together. (One child did not understand the idea of ‘parts’ so it was not entirely successful!) In groups of 3 they assigned themselves an order and created their own movement possibilities. I improvised music with nothing but three grouped beats. As they gradually found a groove, I began to play more ‘naturally’, stretching phrases over the bar lines, adding longer durations to the melody here and there. For some groups, I even slipped in a bit of the Bach Minuet in G that many of them have heard. My 3rd-5th graders are comfortable enough with the concept of groupings of beats that we were able to explore meters of 5 in different combinations this past week (3+2 and 2+3). They were able to toss and catch stuffed bears (the balls were missing, so I had to improvise!) in groups of two and three.

For older kids, especially those that have had lessons, I also try to connect the work to the time signatures they encounter in their music books. I try to loosen the vice grip the quarter note has as representative of the beat. Any note value can be a beat after all, so I am careful with my language, “One way of writing the beat is with a quarter note, etc.” Children are taught to say that the quarter note ‘gets’ the beat. I am not at all convinced that this has lived meaning for most children and even many adults. I know it doesn’t for me. Why should a quarter note ‘get’ anything? If anything, it should be the reverse: the beat should get the quarter note as choosen by the one notating (the composer, the arranger).

When I stepped into a Dalcroze class for the first time, meter had long since calcified into ‘time signature’, a thing I ‘knew’ all about. Irregular meters perhaps could command my attention, but certainly I had long since mastered everything there was to know about 4/4. The power of creative, purposeful movement helped create a sense of mystery around this most basic subject for me that continues to unfold to this day, and that is something I hope to do for others as well as in my work with adults. The usual oversimplification applies here: the kids can feel it but can’t explain it, the adults can explain it but can’t feel it.

If I seem wary of this subject, well, it’s because I am. I notice that I emphasize it much less in my work with young people than I did when I first started teaching, perhaps because I am so aware of things I have needed to unlearn. I’ll give Emile Jaques-Dalcroze the last word on the subject for now:

“… the metric tradition kills every spontaneous agogic impulse, every artistic expression of emotion by means of time nuances. The composer who is obliged to bend his inspiration to the inflexible laws of symmetry in time-lengths comes gradually to modify his instinctive rhythms, with a view to unity of measure, and finishes by conceiving only rhythms of a conventional time-pattern.” (Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Rhythm, Music and Education. p.185.)

Related posts for personal practice:

Triple and quadruple time

Changing Meter: Reaction Game

Musical Subjects · Teaching

Subdivision, Simple Meter

Note: this is the first in a series of posts about the musical subjects I am working with in my classrooms and thinking about as a teacher and musician. If I continue long enough, I’ll eventually index and categorize them. Each one will include a subject, some notes, descriptions of some activities and  some target skills for different educational contexts, of course with an eye to Dalcroze practice.


In music education we talk of dividing and subdividing the beat. But when I play, I don’t really think of dividing anything. It feels more like simply playing faster or slower and often in the context of the prevailing beat and tempo. Dividing is a physical act: we divide a pie into pieces. Or it’s a calculation: everybody gets two pieces. But I don’t really experience those aspects in time, as such.

Though the metaphor of division is strained, I still use it since it is so widespread. I say division (in both simple and compound meters) to mean a primary level (e.g. 2 eighth notes with a quarter note beat) and subdivision to mean a secondary level (e.g. 4 sixteenth notes with a quarter note beat). (A quirk I picked up from my colleague, Jeremy Dittus, in his quest for specificity!)

Subdivisions in music are often too fast to move by stepping. They can be performed by speaking or with smaller body parts like fingers.

Children can experience subdivisions as a single event, lasting a beat, or as a continuous event, that is, a kind of continuous shift. Even young children are very sensitive to this. I can see by the way they respond that when I play with subdivisions the music feels faster to them. It is, but technically, as long as there hasn’t been a tempo change at the beat level, it actually isn’t! I look for ways to draw this truth out.

Even the young can hear one set of subdivisions if played the right way. The easiest way to test this is to play an inhibition game: they move with the music when they hear one set of subdivisions, and hold when they hear another set, toggling back and forth. (I avoid saying ‘freeze dance’, which has become popular because I don’t want them to freeze, just hold themselves still.) By changing the character, tempo, style, mood of the music the game does not become tiring. The children can even suggest ways to move, though at some point you will have to ask someone for “a slow way”. I imagine that even youngest children, can feel the relationships between beat and subdivision when we do this. There will be plenty of time to articulate it later when their math skills have caught up. Hopefully I am making the lives of their private teachers and band directors that much easier when they begin to encounter “1-ee-and-ah” in their written music. Older children (late elementary) love this game, too. They love to be right, and they love to detect things according to rules. This gives them both plus the opportunity to stand still, which they value much more than their younger counterparts.

To introduce the subject to my early and late elementary classes, I used the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, whose theme is built on a very declaratory 1-3-5 statement, ending with two sets of subdivisions. I gave the kids a movement task (“find joints in your body and move and mirror your partner”). I asked them to change partners whenever the theme appears, which provided some hilarity as the theme kind sticks out like a sore thumb each time. (Give him a break — he was nine when he wrote it!) I wish the theme emerged just a bit more for this purpose, but if was fun anyway and primed them to listen for both subdivisions and the major tonic triad.

Target Skills:

Early Elementary:

  • Recognize one set
  • experience as continuous event
  • associate with
    • a rhythmic language
    • notation in simple meter, with quarter note beat
  • create patterns
  • improvise with

Late Elementary (all the above plus):

  • Understand the relationship to the beat and division
  • Perform on command in movement that travels and movement in place
  • notate in at least two different meters
  • read patterns
Musical Subjects · Teaching


I enjoy working with the subject of ‘beat’. The phenomenon itself is so fundamental it can be a challenge to define it. It’s like asking, “What is air?” We can all produce a quasi-scientific definition of the air we breathe, but our experience of it could not be more fundamental to our existence. Yet it is very difficult to capture this experience with words. It is the same thing with ‘beat’.

The definition of the word itself is slippery. Older children or adults more oriented to popular music are likely to associate the word with drum patterns. Classical musicians who primarily learn music through notation tend to associate the word ‘beat’ with groupings of beats, i.e. time signature or meter. Jazz musicians relate the concept of beat to a player’s sense of “time”: one’s personal style might be associated with being “ahead of the beat” or “behind the beat”.

Like many fundamental motor experiences, people can’t really be taught to feel a beat in music any more than they can be taught to walk, ride a bike or skip. We can “teach” by setting up the right conditions for it to happen naturally, but I do think the we have to say “teach” in this case. With the Dalcroze approach, based on teaching through direct experience, I feel comfortable removing the scare quotes from the word.

When I begin to plan a lesson related to this subject, I ask myself, “What are some things musicians need to be able to do with a beat?” The list is long and varied, but it might include things like:

  • Maintain a steady tempo
  • Change the speed (slowly, suddenly, just a little bit, a lot…)
  • Change the quality (light, heavy, in between…)
  • Feel it when it is not being overtly expressed
  • Recognize when there is no beat (recitative, for example)
  • Follow a conductor
  • Lead an ensemble
  • Return to an original or previous tempo

This is just a start, but even with this list I can begin to imagine what we can do together to immerse students of any age and background into direct experience. For young children, I will look for ways to elicit the target behavior (e.g. speeding up, slowing down, returning to an original tempo) and let the music follow them. Images and stories are very helpful. The cat prowls, slows down, stops to pounce, etc. Older children can be asked to synchronize their movement to the music they hear. I aim to give them more responsibility, though. Once they are moving at my tempo, I’ll gradually give them more space, forcing them to take charge in maintaining the tempo. Students of all ages can lead an ensemble or partner (or even myself at the piano) in tempo changes of all kinds, as well as fermatas and ceasuras. The possibilities are endless, which can make choosing specific activities for a lesson overwhelming. (It’s the same problem you might have with an empty plate at a buffet.) I try to remind myself that these are foundational skills that will be revisited time and again under the auspices of many other related musical subjects: divisions of the beat, dynamics, tempo, meter and all the rest.

This is an example of a playlist I have to explore this subject with students of all ages. In some selections the beat is very strong and clear, in others almost totally obscured (but still present).

What would you put on your ‘beat’ playlist?