This post may contain affiliate links. You pay the same and I get a small commission. Yay! (Please see my/our full disclosure for further information.)
If you are a new elementary music teacher, chances are one of the first things you want to teach is rhythm. But you can’t use the same method as your music theory teacher used in college– I mean, these are five year olds! So how do you ACTUALLY teach rhythm in elementary music? It’s part art, part science, and not as hard as you may think.
In this blog post, we’re going to talk about the exact steps to teach rhythm in elementary music. We’re going to focus mostly on the younger kids and the basics, because once you know those, teaching the higher level rhythms is much more simple.
I will never forget the first time I went to teach rhythm. I wrote in my plans, “Then I will introduce quarter and eighth notes.” I got up in front of a class full of little kiddos. I looked at my plans. I looked at their expectant faces.
I had no idea what to do.
It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
I think I ended up chickening out and pushing it to the next week, when I gave the most ridiculous explanation of rhythm that has ever been given.
Thankfully, kids are very forgiving. I was able to learn more and more, and now my kids do a really good job with rhythm.
And yours can too!
PS– If you are a new music teacher (or you just want some help!), you can sign up for the FREE New Music Teacher mini course. It is one week long. Each day for seven days, you’ll get a (short) video that explains one of the keys to teaching elementary music– what to teach, how to plan, classroom management, tons of lesson ideas, and more!
Click here to sign up for free (and get INSTANT access to the first module!).
Step 1: Steady beat
First thing’s first– you’ll send most of kindergarten teaching steady beat.
We typically practice steady beat every day in kindergarten and most of first grade.
Here’s a few ways to teach steady beat:
Put it in your body: Listen to music or sing a song and keep the beat in different places on your body! This includes clapping, snapping, stomping, marching, tapping your head, moving your shoulders, etc. The easiest thing to do is to put on a piece of music and have the kids follow you as you move the beat around your body. This is super effective AND it gets the wiggles out! Win win!
Instruments: Of course, we have to play some instruments! Have kids listen or sing and play instruments. I love to use instruments that you can play different ways to keep the kids entertained, like egg shakers, rhythm sticks, and xylophones. But you can use anything you want!
Beat tracking: Print out a page with hearts or icons and have students tap the steady beat. You can get a free set of heartbeat charts in my free resource library– just click here to gain access!
Beat passing games: Once we can do the steady beat pretty well, then you can do beat passing games! A few of my favorites include Bounce High, Bound Low, Acka Backa, and Pass the Shoe.
Step 2: Beat v. Rhythm
After your kids have a solid foundation of beat, then you can introduce rhythm. I tell my students two main things about rhythm:
- Rhythm is the way the words go
- Rhythm is long and short notes
First, we practice this is to just try clapping the beat and then the way the words go (AKA the syllables). I’m usually working on this in October, so I like to do this with the Music K-8 song Hey Jack! We play the rhythm on the chorus and the beat the rest of the time.
Having kids do this GoNoodle video about syllables also helps them to understand the idea of “the way the words go”.
Before they ever see a quarter note, you’ll want to talk about long and short –short. Long is a quarter note and short-short is a set of barred eighth notes.
To get used to this, you can have students echo patterns like “long short-short long long”. They can play those on the instruments. You can use long and short-short to teach them a new song. They can even read or write patterns with lines and dots to represent long and short-short.
Step 3: Sounds on beats
One we start to understand that long and short-short have a different number of sounds (syllables), then you can put those sounds on beats.
The best way to start with one and two syllable words. Ask the kids if a word has one or two syllables, then you can write a line for one syllable or two dots for two. You can print out cards with words on them and sort them into the two different camps.
Then, take a song that you are working on and break down the rhythm. I like to use the chant Engine Engine Number Nine (check out a Youtube video with how I use that chant to introduce rhythm here).
Put four hearts on the board with the words underneath. Then go beat by beat and ask the kids whether it would be one syllable or two. You can draw the lines and dots to go along with it.
Another option is chair rhythms! I love doing this. Put four chairs in the front of the room. Have students sit in the chairs– one student for quarter notes and two students in one chair for eighth notes.
Another option is to give the kids laminated versions of the heartbeat charts and have them put bingo chips, mini erasers, or dots with dry erase markers onto the hearts to show the sounds.
All of these help students understand the concept of sounds on beats.
Step 4: Introduce rhythm
Now you’re (finally!) ready to introduce rhythm! We will talk about they rhythm of the words, and then I tell them that we are going to learn the “fancy shmancy music words” for our rhythm. One sound (or long) is ta. Two sounds (or short-short) are titi– or tati or whatever you use for those.
Below is an example of a slide that I show them. It’s out of my Engine Engine Number Nine lesson pack, which you can purchase here!
Step 5: Pointing + Reading
Next up, you’re going to practice reading! I like to start by having kids point to the rhythm and say it, then we look and clap it. Then we add instruments!
There are tons of rhythm play alongs that you can do along with your kiddos, available to free on Youtube. Just search “rhythm play along”.
You can also use rhythm flashcards– there’s a FREE set of rhythm flashcards in my free resource library (sign up here!).
Pointing and reading the rhythms never really goes away, but continues… forever… and ever… and ever…
Step 6: Make rhythms
Next, the kids need to practice writing rhythms! I like to build up to this in three steps:
- Manipulatives: Give students cards with quarter and eighth notes that they can arrange. I also suggest using the beat charts so that they get used to the rhythms being on the beats. I like to do this with the song Bow Wow Wow (you can get the printable manipulatives and everything here!)
- Popsicle sticks: This is so much fun. Now we’re going to make rhythms out of popsicle sticks! One stick for ta and two sticks with one across the top for titi. Check out more info in this blog post.
- Writing: Finally, we write. I have a set of white boards in my room, which I HIGHLY recommend getting via PTA or Donor’s Choose if possible. It’s just more fun than paper. Usually we will have a practice day on white boards, then on another day, we will use paper!
You can also do these online. I have the kids drag or draw rhythms in Google Slides (like here) or on NearPod (check it out here).
They can also drag rhythms or draw rhythms the same way– on Slides or on NearPod.
What do you write? I typically start by having them copy a rhythm, then we move into dictation. Yes, just like college. I’ll say “ta ta titi ta” and they will draw that. They need help at first, but by the end, they will be doing it alone!
Then we move onto notating our songs. I’ll walk them through that, first doing one beat at a time, then doing the whole phrase at a time.
I also like to use fill in the blank worksheets for this– use a song they know, and have them fill in a couple of missing notes (I always do 5 or 10 because that’s easy math for grading).
After we do dictation, I like to have them write their own rhythm and do some composing. Annnnnd they LOVE to make up their own rhythms, so I usually let them do that at the end of every session. They especially enjoy seeing who can make the longest rhythm, which I find hilarious.
Step 7: Add new rhythms!
Now your kiddos know quarter and eighth notes! It’s a lot of work to teach rhythm in elementary music!
The good news, though, is that the rest of the rhythms get much easier to teach. Yay!
After quarter and eighth notes, you can use the same method for other rhythms– pick a song with the rhythm in it, figure out how many sounds on each beat, practice playing or clapping, introduce, tap, create.
You can do the other rhythms in any order you want, but here is my favorite order in which to teach them with the grades I prefer to teach them to:
- Quarter + barred eighth (1)
- Quarter rest (1)
- Half note/rest (2)
- Barred sixteenth notes (3)
- Dotted half note (3)
- Dotted quarter + single eighth (4)
- Whole note/rest (4)
- Triplet (5)
- Syncopa (eighth quarter eighth) (5)
That’s usually as far as we get!
Remember, everyone is different. This all depends on how often you see your kids, what they already know, and more. Plus, there are other things to teach! My second graders focus a lot on melody, so they don’t do as much rhythmic work. And that’s ok.
You are in charge. (as scary as that feels!) That means that you get to decide what’s important and what you teach.
To Remember when Teaching Rhythm
Reading, identifying, writing, dictating, and playing are all different skills. Make sure that you hit each one of those with each of the different rhythms. This took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out, and I didn’t understand why kids could read a rhythm but not dictate it. Or they could identify it but not play it correctly.
Well, if you made it to the end, you are already doing well! If you have questions about how to teach rhythm in elementary music, come message me on Instagram @beccasmusicroom I share a lot of ideas, lessons, inspiration, and I’m only a DM away. I also share on TikTok if that’s more your style!
Don’t forget to sign up for the free new elementary music teacher course by clicking here!
I can’t wait to meet you!