Power Up! Visual Rhythms

Visual Rhythms

Musicians are multitaskers. Our brains, fingers, and bodies do so many things all at once to perform with our instruments. When approaching practice, I encourage students to break things down into small OMGs—Obtainable Musical Goals—rather than attacking everything at once. Similarly, when planning out my year as an orchestra director, I break down instruction into different units such as Left Hand, Right Hand, and Rhythm. This article addresses some of my tricks for helping students understand rhythm.

When teaching rhythm, I have found success in explaining rhythm not only as a unit of time but of length. To get from the start of beat one to the start of beat two takes time, and that is a concept that can be tricky for some students. To alleviate their confusion, I came up with some visual aids and activities equating time with length.


rhythm legoTo teach simple division of quarter notes into eighth notes and sixteenth notes, I use a childhood favorite: Lego bricks. A 1 by 4 brick equates to a quarter note, a 1 by 2 brick equals an eighth note, and a 1 by 1 brick equals one 16th note. I printed out a mock-up of these units on magnetic paper and used the magnets to create rhythms on the board for the class to read and manipulate. We would make 16th note and 8th note combinations and compare them to the length of the quarter note “brick,” or create whole phrases on the board in Lego. The genius in using Legos is that the studs on each 1×4 brick show the subdivision of each beat–while the brick itself shows rhythm as a length in time.


humans 1Another classroom favorite is to use the students themselves as the units of rhythm. When expressing that rhythm takes a certain length of time, I often first demonstrate by asking for volunteers to lay flat on the ground, head to foot, in a single line. I will then stand near Person A’s head and explain that Person A represents beat one. I will then move towards Person A’s feet and ask if I am still on beat one. By seeing that I am still near Person A, students begin to recognize that beat one has length, and we do not arrive at beat 2 until I get to Person B.

humans 2Using student volunteers is also a great way to show dotted eighth/sixteenth note combinations. Ask four students to stand in a row and give each a sticky note with a syllable on it designating them as either “1”, “e”, “&”, or “a.” If two people link arms, a la a tied note, they become an eighth note. When the first three people link arms, they become a dotted eighth note. The 1, the e, and the & still exist in space and time, but we only count the “1” and the leftover “a” out loud.


For those who are a little more cerebral in their learning style, I like to express dotted rhythms as an algebraic equation: X + 1/2X = Dotted X By substituting a note value (such as a half note) for X, we work out the following in steps:  


We then take this concept further by changing X to a different value, such as quarter note or eighth note, and my math whiz students inevitably get very excited.


Finally, one of the simplest ways to express rhythm as a unit of length in time is to show students a ruler. You are in your first inch whether you are at the start of that inch, or near the end of that inch. You can break the inch into half an inch, or a quarter of an inch, and equate that to eighth notes and sixteenth notes.

Putting It Together

I hope some of these tricks help your students visualize rhythm in a new way! As they explore the world of rhythm, feel free to use some of the following rhythm books and exercises found in MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic), along with each of the activities above. A bonus of MakeMusic Cloud is the wealth of resources that you can access, and since the focus is rhythm, you can choose from any instrument—not just the one(s) you teach.

Count Me In by Darcy Vogt Williams & Brian Balmages

This book is searchable by rhythm topic in MakeMusic Cloud and includes some counting and visual aids to help students subdivide.

Habits of a Successful

Each of these books contains a section on rhythm that gets progressively more advanced–don’t feel locked in to one book—they all have great material.

MakeMusic Cloud ExercisesRhythm

Progressive, free rhythm exercises are built right into MakeMusic Cloud in both simple and compound meters. Using MakeMusic Cloud’s interactive features will allow students to hear the beat, turn on subdivisions, and follow the line as it scrolls through each beat.

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Katie O’Hara LaBrie is a composer, conductor, clinician, and cellist from Northern Virginia. An educator at heart, Mrs. LaBrie spent the first 15 years of her career teaching orchestra in Fairfax County, Virginia. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from St. Olaf College, where she studied under Steven Amundson, and Masters of Music in Instrumental Conducting from George Mason University, where she studied with Anthony Maiello.

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