Rhythm Content Learning Sequence

When teaching rhythm content during learning sequence activities, the teacher is at any given time combining a level of skill learning sequence with a level of rhythm content. Levels of rhythm content are hierarchical in much the same way as levels of skill learning sequence. Each level of rhythm content serves as a readiness for achieving the next higher level of rhythm content.

Rhythm Content

Rhythm learning is facilitated by development of a sense of meter and a vocabulary of rhythm patterns. The rhythm patterns used in learning sequence activities are organized according to meter classification (usual duple, usual triple, unusual, and so on) and rhythm pattern function (macrobeats, microbeats, divisions, and so on). Meters and rhythm functions are sequenced primarily according to familiarity. Usual duple meter, for example, is introduced first in both learning sequence activities and classroom activities because it is the most common meter in western culture and, therefore, the most familiar. Likewise, macrobeat and microbeat functions are introduced first because they are the most basic rhythm functions in usual duple meter.

Elements of Rhythm

Rhythm has three elements. They are macrobeats, microbeats, and melodic rhythm. All three of those elements must be audiatad at the same time in order to establish rhythm syntax.


Macrobeats are those beats that one arbitrarily feels to be the longest. In most cases, macrobeats are paired: one macrobeat naturally “goes with” a succeeding macrobeat of equal or unequal duration. In dancing to music, persons normally step naturally to each pair of macrobeats with one foot followed by the other.


Microbeats are shorter than macrobeats and are derived from the equal temporal division of macrobeats. In most cases, macrobeats are divided into either two or three microbeats of equal duration.

Melodic Rhythm

Melodic rhythm is the ongoing series of rhythm patterns in a piece of music. The rhythm patterns may coincide with the rhythm of the melody or the text of a piece of music.

It is essential to identify and define rhythm elements on the basis of audiation, not notation. Rhythm audiation is somewhat subjective. In a given piece of music persons may disagree about which beats are the macrobeats. This is as it should be, because persons differ in their rhythmic abilities. In general, the higher one’s rhythmic aptitude and achievement the longer the macrobeats one audiates. In music notated with the measure signature of 4/4, for example, it is common for some persons to audiate quarter notes as macrobeats while others audiate half notes as macrobeats. Some might even consider whole notes to be the macrobeats. (Note that, the subjectivity of rhythm notwithstanding, teachers must make arbitrary decisions about macrobeats and microbeats for the sake of teaching clarity and efficiency, especially in discrimination learning.)


Meters are defined according to the ways in which macrobeats are divided and paired. Notational examples of each meter are provided.

In usual meter macrobeats are of equal temporal length and are paired. In the examples below, the same rhythm patterns are written in different measure signatures. The notation for the rhythm patterns is said to be enrhythmic.

In usual duple meter, all macrobeats are evenly divided into two microbeats.

In usual triple meter, all macrobeats are evenly divided into three microbeats.

Usual combined meter results when both duple and triple divisions of temporally equal macrobeats are employed.

In unusual meter macrobeats are of unequal temporal length.

As with rhythm elements, it is also important to define meters on the basis of audiation, not notation. A common mistake is to assume that because one piece of music is notated in the measure signature of 3/4 and another is in 6/8 they are in different meters. In fact, however, both pieces would normally be examples of usual triple meter. In 6/8, paired macrobeats are written within the same measure, whereas in 3/4, paired macrobeats are written in adjacent measures. Each measure of 6/8 is audiated the same as two measures of 3/4. The below examples may be audited enrhythmically.

Rhythmic Functions

In Music Learning Theory, rhythm functions are systematically categorized and sequenced. Whereas traditional music teaching practices often sequence rhythm instruction according to the logic of notation, in Music Learning Theory sequence of rhythm functions is determined by audiational difficulty. Traditional instrumental instruction, for example, often begins with whole notes, the assumption being that longer notes are easier to “understand” and perform. Research, however, indicates that whole notes are difficult to audiate, and therefore inappropriate for beginning instruction in rhythm.

Rhythm instruction according to Music Learning Theory commences with macrobeat/microbeat patterns in usual duple meter and usual triple meter. Next come division patterns, elongation patterns, division/elongations, rest patterns, and tie patterns. 

Rhythm Solfege

Of the many rhythm solfege systems available, the one best suited for developing audiation is the beat function system developed by Edwin E. Gordon and others. Among its merits:

  • It is based on how rhythm is audiated. Other systems are based largely on how rhythm is notated. Because the same pattern may be notated in more than one way, it is confusing to hear and perform it with different verbal associations.
  • It is very comprehensive, accounting unambiguously for virtually any rhythm. Duple, triple, unusual, combined–any pattern in any meter has its own unique syllables, which facilitates the ability to distinguish between different patterns, functions, and meters.

Notated examples of the solfege for rhythm patterns in usual duple and usual triple meters are shown below:

Usual Duple Meter Solfege

Usual Triple Meter Solfege