How to Learn Rhythm

. . . the Heartbeat of Music


Here’s a question students ask a lot: “Is it okay to learn the notes first, before I learn the rhythm?”

Here’s the answer: “Never.”


Ask any music teacher what single element sets apart the struggling musician and the accomplished one, and 99% of the time the answer will be RHYTHM.

Music is about flow, about pacing, about sounds created in harmony and rhythm with one another.

If you train the notes into your ear without the intended rhythm, you’ve trained them in with an invented rhythm. If you’ve done it 7 times, your brain now “knows” the piece that way. Do you know how many times you’ll have to do it right to retrain your brain? Thirty five. That’s right, 35!!

Okay, so you’re going to practice smart and get the rhythm BEFORE you learn the notes. Now what?

Feel the Heart Beat

If you are new to music, or if you never “paid attention” to rhythm and know it is a weak spot, you probably have trouble feeling and keeping the pulse.

Your metronome is your new best friend. Practice counting and clapping with your metronome until you can walk into another room, out of earshot, still clapping, and then come back and find that you are still in time with the metronome.

Practice keeping the beat along with a recording of your piece, or along with any recorded music, for that matter. Get in the habit of tapping your foot, and you can learn to do that while you’re playing (this is especially useful if you want to play with other people).

Make Your Music Count

Learn rhythm inside and out. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Rhythm has an alphabet and it’s not very big.

Remember that the subdivisions of each beat have to add up. If a dotted note has “stolen” half of beat two, the eighth that comes next will fall on the “and” of 2. Need some help with this? Try this site.

Practice playing rhythm by clapping and counting all sorts of rhythmic patterns. This will allow you to learn rhythm by feeling it in your body on a deep, automatic level. There are many rhythm drills that you can download to practice. Here are a bunch of them.

Rhythm notation is a fairly simple system, and, like, pitch notation, just takes a little dedicated effort to learn. The payoff? You’ll be playing music that sounds like music.

Connect the Dots

You know how counting works, you’ve written in “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” in every measure, and you still can’t count and tap? You’ve probably written your counting in without aligning every number or symbol with the correct note. This little problem can completely derail your efforts to learn rhythm.

Write your counting straight down the middle of each measure, with each symbol precisely placed, and you will find counting while tapping or playing so much easier.

Be Silly

Try this: learn rhythm by practicing with words instead of numbers. Suzuki piano teachers use “plum” for a quarter note, “apple” for 2 eighth notes, “watermelon” for 4 sixteenth notes, and “cantaloupe” for the 3 notes of a triplet.

Practice counting measures of plums and apples, fitting the apples into the same amount of times as a plum. If you don’t like the fruit idea, use “da” for quarters and “dee” for eighths. Dee dee dah dee dee dah . . .

You may feel silly, but you already know how to say two syllables in the space of one, so you can easily learn how to tap (and play) two notes in the space of one. From there, every other possibility follows. Make it fun, with your own silly words, and learn rhythm at the same time!

Breathe and Glide through the Long Notes

Never, ever shorten a long note or ignore a rest. Listen to singers, and imagine how it would sound if those glorious long notes ended abruptly, replaced by what comes next. What would happen if they never took a breath between phrases? Don’t be in such a hurry to place and play the next measure that you cheat the one that came before–you have more time than you think. Play at a consistent pace and let those spaces breathe for exactly as long as they’re supposed to.

The best shortcut? Singing! Even if you “can’t carry a tune”, singing as you play will teach you how to play more musically as well as help you learn rhythm.

Spot the Troublemaker

If you keep starting at the beginning of your piece, every time, you will keep stumbling at the same spots. This makes it especially difficult to learn rhythm correctly.

If you want to make the piece flow, the shortest route is to use practice spot techniques to make the trouble spot better and better–all by itself–so that it improves. Check out this page for help with practice spots and other smart practice techniques.

Be Tap Happy

Look at the hardest part of your piece. Set your metronome to a tempo slow enough that you can count and clap that practice spot (and any others). Once your are through learning the rhythm of hard parts, use the same metronome setting and count and tap the soundboard of your harp all the way through, first the right hand’s part and then the left.

When that is easy, use two hands to tap both the left hand and right hand parts together as you count. You will find that you have to pick an even slower tempo.

Next, try playing one hand while tapping the other. If that’s a struggle, often it helps to have the right hand “learn” the left hand’s part. Somehow, once the right hand “knows” the pattern, the left hand has an easier time.

When you can do that, try playing the whole piece while counting out loud, still using the metronome.

Be a Turtle

Want to avoid sounding like you’re struggling? Don’t start at a fast clip and slow down when the “hard part” arrives!

Always choose the tempo at which you can place and play the hardest spot, and start the piece at that tempo. Use a metronome to keep you there. Then you can start inching up the tempo with the metronome.

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