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Steady Beat at Every Age

by Sarah Hruska-Olson Olson.Sarah@MacPhail.org

During my early experiences sharing music with young children, I was surprised by the rhythmic way infants responded to my singing and guitar playing.  Babies who could not yet walk or crawl would bounce up and down or move their arms rhythmically.  As our in-house Early Childhood Music expert, Cheryl Henningsgaard points out; this should have come as no surprise.  She explains:

 “Music begins prenatally. It is the steady beat of the maternal heartbeat that develops the human condition for musical aptitude (Gordon, 1990) … The maternal environment is the catalyst for musical enhancement and growth.  Humans are attached to the patterns of steady beat, based on their prenatal experience.” 

And yet, “beat competency,” as Phyllis Weikert calls it, must be developed in children through experiences and repetition over time.  We all have met children and even adults who struggle to keep an underlying sense of pulse as they sing or play an instrument.  The fact that not everyone can perform a steady beat demonstrates that it is a skill that must be learned and practiced over time.  Along with singing in tune, beat competency is a wonderful musical gift we can impart to children through carefully planned activities and repetition.  Weikert points out that the benefits of steady beat skill go far beyond music making:

 “Standardized testing shows that children with steady beat independence are better readers and more successful in mathematics. Further, teachers report that children with better abilities in steady beat are more well behaved in class and have less aggressive physical contact with other students. Steady beat seems to help in these areas because it contributes to children’s ability to concentrate, to understand space and distance, and to have better control of physical movements.”[1]

 At MacPhail, we are fortunate to have colleagues with a wide range of expertise and experience with teaching steady beat and rhythm to children. All of us agree that beat is an intensely physical concept:

ECM Faculty Member, Cheryl Henningsgaard writes:

"The kinesthetic experience of the steady beat is later replicated cross culturally as infants are best soothed though rhythmical, steady rocking motions, and steady beat patterns founds in lullabies."

Community Partnerships Director, Pianist, and Percussionist, Katie Condon explains:

"Personally, I feel like rhythm is so physical and I want students to have a kinesthetic awareness of beat pretty much any time they are making music."

Community Partnerships teacher and Percussionist, David Birrow writes:

"Movement is first. All major pillars of music ed: Dalcroze, Gordon, Orff, etc.. all agree that the basis of rhythm comprehension is movement."


 Here are some tips from teachers on how to teach beat and rhythm at various age and developmental levels:

Early Childhood instructor, Nora Paoli writes:

“The song "Clap Clap Your Hands" is great for birth to 4 to reinforce steady beat.  Also the poem 1,2, Buckle my Shoe.  I now make a bigger point to emphasize to the parents that when they bounce their kids on the ball that they should bounce to the beat of the poem/song, otherwise they sometimes don't!  I usually sing/chant and pat once to demonstrate.” 

Caitlin Lucic adds:

With younger children, it is often helpful to tap the SB on the child's arm/shoulder and move from imitation to student initiation of the SB (Susie is going to start, then we'll all follow her beat.)” 

Katie Condon shares:

“Maybe this sounds over the top, but I try to build rhythm into pretty much every aspect of delivery. I tend to give instructions to a steady beat, and ask children to perform tasks (getting in line, putting things away) to the rhythm of my speaking. Sometimes I play along on a classroom drum, other times I might just snap or clap. I often count during these transitions which is also a good classroom management strategy.

 I also like songs like "Oliver Twist" or "The Monkey Claps His Hands" that encourage different kinds of larger motor motion where you can continue to keep a steady beat while singing for a long time but vary the movements, using both small and large motor muscles…. Finally, I like to do a lot with macro- and micro beats because I think the very next step after "getting" steady beat is subdivision.”

David Birrow also stresses the importance of macro and micro beats, and also the fundamental idea of meter as an underlying context for beat:

“I think the key to steady beat development is actually the discernment of meter. At first this means helping students differentiate between duple and triple meter.  That in turn makes the "pulse" or "steady beat" or "tactus" relevant because it is in the context of meter.

For instance, I'll play a song and students will move large muscle groups to what they consider the "beat" or what Gordon calls the "macrobeat." Large muscle groups could include marching, rocking shoulders, bouncing on heels (if standing), or tapping heels on ground (if sitting.) What students consider the macrobeat is subjective at this point. That is, one student could discern the macrobeat as the notated quarter note and the other to the notated half note.

At first it doesn't matter which one a student decides is the steady beat. What is important is that the student audiate something steady. Then it's the teacher's job to guide the student listening by making subjective meters objective. Later the process can be refined by incorporating microbeats and make a judgement call as to whether it is duple or triple meter.”

Although David works mainly with older students, his point about meter is a great reminder to early childhood musicians to expose children to singing, chanting, and moving in various meters.  A book of nursery rhymes is a gold mine of various musical meters!

Caitlin Lucic has some great ideas about teaching children how to distinguish rhythm from beat. (For the purposes of this article, I define “beat” as the steady underlying pulse in music and “rhythm” as the varying durations of sound that fit with the beat.  K-5 Music teacher and percussionist, Caitlin helpfully refers to “the way the words go” as a useful term for her younger students.) 

 One thing I do is differentiate the timbre between the beat and the rhythm.  For example, in preparing "tika-tika", I would have half of the class play the steady beat on hand drums, etc. & the other half play "the rhythm of the words" of the song on maybe a woodblock or other instrument that has a distinctively different sound from the SB instrument.  Then I ask the children to compare the differences/similarities until they can arrive at an understanding of four sounds on the beat.”

All three percussionists interviewed for this article stressed the importance of subdivisions or “microbeats” as a necessary step in the process of rhythmic development. 

 David explains:

Asking students to move to music at different beat levels immediately gives the teacher insight into the students rhythm development. Once macrobeats and microbeats are being audiated by students, a rhythm pattern vocabulary can be built. As a percussion teacher,the very first thing I do is ask students to move in order to check their coordination. If they can move their feet to macrobeats(ex. quarter notes) while tapping their hands to microbeats (ex. eighth notes) then I know that they have the prerequisite readiness for learning rhythm.”

Pulse, meter, and subdivision are at the heart of so much of our music making with children.  The importance of steady beat cannot be overstated!  Thanks once again to all who contributed their thoughts to this article


[1] “Value for Learning and Living-Insights on the value of music and steady beat,” by Phyllis S. Weikart, Child Care Information Exchange September/October 2003

Photo credit: James Lee via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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