This article may contain affiliate links. If you choose to purchase, this means I receive a (very) small commission at NO EXTRA COST to you!
In my experience, there are 2 kinds of students: those who have natural rhythm and those who don't. And as I mentioned in the last blog post, some students excel at reading sheet music while others struggle.
Rarely do I come across a unicorn who's good at both. When I do, I thank my lucky stars - because there's less work for both of us to do.
There are also students who practice and don't practice - a story for another time ...
But rhythm isn't something you have to be born with, it's a skill anyone can learn. All it takes is the right approach.
What makes learning rhythm challenging? Let's use dancing as an example.
Now, in NO way am I saying dancing is easy. I admire the way a seasoned professional slides gracefully across a dance floor - while I look more like Jackie Chan.
Anyways ... the point I'm making is that with dancing you just need to focus on physical choreography - again, NOT an easy feat.
But when you play a musical instrument, there are auxiliary elements involved:
There are more precise motor skills to pay attention to. You have to take what you see on the page and decide which of the 88 keys you're going to press ... all while using the correct fingers to play the proper combinations of patterns.
And that's without keeping an (often) intricate beat. That's a lot to take in.
So rhythm on the piano is more mental, like solving a complex problem. Compare this to dancing where you just focus on the correct movements (again, NOT easy).
But the actual problem is trying to do too much all at once.
The goal isn't to be perfect at everything, it's to practice internalizing the beat. And to do that, you need to find methods that make this as easy as possible.
To that end, I'll share the strategies and tools that will help you succeed.
First, a rhythm primer - you gotta have the basics down before we get to the good stuff.
How to Learn Rhythm
Now, this is just meant to be a rudimentary guide. Even so, it's all you need to get started - once you have the right tools and resources, you'll have everything you need to learn any type of rhythm you'll encounter.
Let's start with the time signature:
The top number represents the number of beats within a measure:
Change the number and you change the number of beats.
And so on.
The bottom number is a bit trickier to understand, because it's not actually a number. It represents the type of note which receives a beat.
So instead of thinking of a digit, you want to imagine the actual note (symbol) itself.
Here are some more examples to help you put it together:
Lastly, the type of note value also determines the pulse of the music - if this is confusing to you, then wait until we discuss subdivision in the how to practice session.
Speaking of notes ...
These are all the basic note values.
And regarding rests... do NOT think of them as pure silence. It's a mistake a lot of my students make, doesn't it mean to just stop and not play anything?
NO. Think of rests as "silent notes." The rhythm carries on whether or not there is sound.
And that's it, the basics of rhythm in a nutshell. No need for additional research - just get started.
But before you gather the right tools and put the right plan into action, you first need to avoid the most common mistakes.
Throughout my years of teaching, these are the patterns (bad habits) I've noticed:
Let's look at these one by one.
Reading and playing sheet music at a high level doesn't mean your rhythm will follow suit.
It's because this is the wrong form of feedback.
If you're studying a foreign language, you don't learn pronunciation by reading books.
You won't improve because what you need is to hear someone - preferably native - speak the language.
It's the same with writing, you improve by becoming a good reader. And to become a better pianist, you need to listen.
This can only be done if you use the right resources: without an accurate model you'll have in-accurate results.
For writers, these resources are books. For pianists, videos and recordings.
If you're a beginner, I would suggest starting with videos - the added visual component makes things easier.
Once you become more experienced, audio recordings are all you really need. Although, you still want to watch performances - if you want to improve your technique.
Next, why is an accountability system important? Because even if you have all the right tools and resources, it doesn't matter if you keep forgetting to use them.
Don't underestimate this problem: because the modern world is a giant distraction machine, without reminders to help you practice you'll get pulled apart in different directions without even noticing it.
Ever tell yourself you'll watch just one YouTube video? Two hours later, you find yourself questioning your life decisions.
This was a big problem for my students ... until I created a personalized practice journal with a checklist.
But this was just half of the formula, I realized they needed a reward system on top of it.
Some people might say all you need is discipline and while I also believe that work is the reward itself, nobody does anything for nothing.
We need positive - and negative - reinforcements to keep us on track. The carrot and the stick.
How do I emphasize this in piano lessons? Students get points for completing their practice for the week - by checking off their "tasks."
By the way, you need a reward system that's enticing enough for students to want to practice. Luckily, Amazon exists.
Of course, not every student cares. And after a while the practice becomes more satisfying than the actual prizes.
But what about negative reinforcement? Look closer ...
If they don't follow through on their instructions, they receive zero points for the week.
And I always frame it as a loss - we're inherently motivated to avoid pain rather than pursue pleasure.
Lastly, your rhythm needs to be accurately measured. To do that you need the proper tool: a metronome.
Why is measurement so important? Well ... would you hire a carpenter who doesn't use a ruler?
The same principle applies with productivity - if you don't track your time then you have no idea how much of it you're wasting.
But knowing this isn't enough, the biggest challenge I face as a teacher is getting my students to use the metronome regularly.
Part of it is that they're not adhering to their accountability system, but it's mainly because of ego.
I hear these complaints all the time, but I know where they're coming from - I never used a metronome ... even as a college music major.
It's one of my biggest regrets, I can't help but wonder how much better I would have played - and how much time I would have saved.
But like I always tell my students, "doing the right thing is supposed to feel hard."
You don't want to use a metronome for the same reason you don't step on the scale - the truth hurts.
And it's definitely going to hurt if you've never used a metronome before, I guarantee you're going to crash and burn on your first attempt.
To add insult to injury, it's like every tick of the metronome is telling you, "you suck, you suck, you suck ... "
Even worse when the tempo is Ã la presto.
And no matter how much you tell yourself that failure is part of the process, it's not like you look forward to it.
So I suggest zooming out, realize that it comes down to gaining experience - a whole lot of it. The more you use a tool the better you get at it.
And don't wish the metronome was easier to use - if you wanted to paint, you wouldn't blame the brush.
Stick with it, if you're patient you'll eventually see results. And buck up, I have many tips for you on the way to make the process as easy and painless as possible.
Here's some motivation for you: after using a metronome becomes second nature, it will actually make your practice a whole lot easier.
When you're not over-fixated on rhythm, your mind will be free to focus on other elements of music (dynamics, articulation, etc.) which will add a whole level of expression to your playing.
But before you get to this point your brain will fight you tooth and nail. This is because of concentration (lack of it).
Learning anything unusual - a metronome is as unnatural as it gets - will sap your attention, fast.
My suggestion? Think of it like going to the gym, if you've never worked out in your entire life then you're going to be pretty damn sore after your first day.
But keep at it, your (mental) muscles will strengthen over time.
And after all this, if you still don't feel the need to use a metronome, ask yourself: what's more important, your feelings or actual results? The tape doesn't lie.
Besides videos and recordings, an accountability system and metronome, what else do you need?
The rhythm app I recommend is Rhythm Sight Reading Trainer
What makes this app great is you have over 200 exercises to choose from. This means you're exposed to a variety of patterns at different levels of difficulty.
And it's fun.
You also get instant feedback - a foolproof way to gauge your accuracy.
And since the app is purely a rhythm game, all you need is one finger to tap with.
Flashcards are a great way to supplement your rhythm practice. The strategies I'll mention later are active - think of flashcards as passive learning, they help you identify note values faster.
When you use sheet music, it's not enough to just feel the beat. Many of my students have difficulty recognizing the type of note (quarter, half, etc.) while they're playing.
So just like a rhythm app helps you isolate the physical sense, flashcards help with the visual aspect.
Using a rhythm app and flashcards helps you shorten the learning curve with sheet music.
You can also use these two tools with interleaving, which I'll talk about when we get to strategies.
The One Thing
Now before we learn some strategies, let's first talk about the "master" skill you need to ... umm ... master.
This skill is subdivision. Once you fully comprehend this concept, there won't be a rhythm you can't handle.
To help illustrate, imagine you have a square. You divide this square into smaller squares.
Then, divide it again.
Let's do it one more time.
This is the essence of subdividing rhythm.
To further explain, subdividing helps you understand rhythm on different levels.
It's like taking apart a machine and putting it back together - you know it inside out.
Another example is what I had to do in grade school: dissect a frog (thankfully I didn't have to go Frankenstein and put it back together).
Subdivision is also a version of varied practice: practicing one thing many different ways, rather than doing it the same way over and over again.
Let's see how this helps you count better when it comes to sheet music.
In sheet music, longer notes are the ones you'll have the most difficulty counting - it's definitely what my students struggle with.
Quarter notes are the easiest to count since they fall on each beat of a 4/4 time signature.
But when you see a half note, you have to visually imagine, or feel, the beats in between.
It's hard enough with a half note - with a whole note you have to keep track of the next three beats.
So when my student sees a whole note, they erroneously move onto the next measure because there aren't extra notes to help them track each beat.
Practicing subdivision solves this problem: you'll be able to sense the pulse of an entiremeasure.
This also helps with rests: many students tend to think of them as when the music stops.
Remember, this is wrong - treat rests like silent notes.
Next, let's dive into 2 effective practice methods.
The first tactic involves a scale.
Important note: make sure you use a metronome at all times.
Play one octave (up and down) counting 4 beats for every key you play (whole note).
Repeat the octave, this time counting 2 beats per key (half note).
Continue this process with quarter notes (1 beat), eighth notes - this time playing 2 keys per beat - and even sixteenth notes (4 keys per beat).
You can also reverse the order (in fact, I recommend it):
This idea is a simple and versatile method to master any odd rhythm you come across (5 notes, 7 notes per beat), while simultaneously increasing your range of motion (several octaves).
Now back to sheet music: we'll use the same tactic, but the difference is changing the beats per measure.
For a 4/4 time signature, set each quarter note at a BPM of 120 - count 4 beats per measure.
Then, switch it to 60 BPM - this time counting 2 beats per measure. Lastly, up the challenge even more by changing it to 30 BPM - 1 beat per measure.
The challenge is to keep the correct timing of notes per measure while maintaining the tempo (speed) at a consistent rate each time you change the pulse (4 beats, 2, 1).
With these 2 methods, your rhythm issues will be a problem of the past, but don't expect overnight results: precision is a master skill.
Look up a YouTube video of Marco Pierre White (master chef) chopping an onion - he chops it so finely the vegetable literally dissolves.
More evidence: in masterpieces of historical art, what stands out is the insane amount of detail - read Leonard Da Vinci's biography sometime.
It's the same with a great novel: so many attuned specifics it feels like you're living the story you're reading.
Up next, strategies.
A philosophy I've adopted when teaching students a concept for the first time is to make it as easy as possible - this means teaching rhythm is last on my list (IMO the most difficult skill to learn).
So we focus on other things: note reading, sheet music, and proper playing mechanics.
In my experience, having these skills down-pat makes rhythm more palatable.
But I've definitely come across the opposite scenario: students that have great rhythm - and are also great at playing by ear.
The flip-side: they can hardly read a note. Anyways, once we get around to making rhythm the goal, we either use music they've already completed or brand new material at an easier level.
When the music is already familiar - or simple to play - there's less for them to think about (more concentration).
A similar approach is to practice rhythm with songs or music you already know by heart.
For instance, I've never had a student struggle to play "Happy Birthday" on beat.
And not surprisingly, they pick up "Hedwig's Theme" fairly quickly.
Easier music also provides a way for you to benchmark your progress.
A useful question to ask yourself is, which of my piano skills needs work?
The notes might be easy to play, while you're having a hard time keeping the beat. Or you might be keeping the beat perfectly while missing note after note.
It's a simple, easy way to detect weaknesses and make the proper adjustments.
This is why the Faber Studio Collection is my weapon of choice: an abundance of songs you'll already be familiar with.
As a side note, I never recommend any beginning student learn piano with classical music - it's a very difficult genre to grasp if you're unfamiliar with it.
By the way, you can also opt to not play your piano music (not saying you should quit).
Instead of pressing the keys, you can just clap - or verbalize - the correct rhythm while following along with the sheet music.
To improve accuracy, I recommend playing the audio track or video while you do this.
It's another way to isolate the rhythm - similar to picking the easiest sheet music to practice.
Oh, and a bonus benefit is your visual tracking gets better.
Another strategy I recommend: the 80/20 rule - it's keeping in lines with making introduction of new materials and challenges as easy as possible.
Here's the only math you need to know: spend 20% of your time on practicing rhythm, 80% on whatever else you want (sheet music, technique, ear training, etc.).
This makes using a metronome effortless.
I mentioned earlier that students are stubbornly resistant to this tool, and without the 80/20 rule they tend to get overwhelmed.
In the past, I used to tell students to use a metronome 100% of the time.
But all it did was deflate them.
Now, I realize how unrealistic my expectations were. So when they hear they only need to spend 20% of their time with a metronome, the reaction is instant relief.
Once they get the hang of it, we don't stop there: we reverse the ratio - 80% of their time with the metronome.
But remember to do this each time you level up - when you work on more challenging music (20% with, 80% without).
The 80/20 rule works well because of the added constraint, or limit. This is why we need deadlines to finish projects or why I always work using the pomodoro technique.
This is thinking inside the box to create results.
This last strategy is one I'm betting will become your favorite: interleaving.
Out of all the strategies I've shared with you today, this one will speed up transfer the most.
Interleaving is practicing related but distinctly different activities.
If you were an athlete you could play soccer, baseball and basketball (all related but different).
For you football buffs I have one prime example: Patrick Mahomes.
Back to piano.
âIn one session, here's what you could practice:
Don't forget about the previously mentioned methods:
As an aside, there are other concepts such as small-chunking, varied practice and spaced repetition I haven't gone into.
I'm not going to mention them here because I've already covered them in this blog post.
You'll want to read that article after you're done today: when you use what you learn there, your results will be supercharged.
So I hope you enjoyed today's brain dump on rhythm.
I know it's a lot to take in, but what I strive to do with most of my articles is to teach you principles - so you don't need someone to give you the answers.
If you've read my blog posts on reading music notes and sheet music, you'll notice that the process is similar - if not the same.
If it's your first time thinking this way, realize you can apply the principles I've shown you on this blog to learn anything you want in life.
Just understand that any time you learn something new it's going to suck.
So when learning gets tough (it's inevitable), remember the Navy Seal motto: Embrace the Suck.
Things don't get easier, you just get better.
Lastly, remember that accurate rhythm is just a means to an end. The goal isn't to be a musical robot, it's to express yourself as much as possible.
Go ahead. Get rough around the edges ... and lost in the music.
Even if you wander too far, you'll always find a way back.
Did you enjoy reading this today?
Your donation helps me create free content. Every dollar goes a long way! =)