Rhythmic Independence: The Missing Link in Sight-Reading Literacy

SBO Staff • ChoralJuly 2008Technology • July 14, 2008

Understanding the complexities of simple and compound rhythms found in sight-reading is a huge undertaking for middle and high school ensembles, and one which is often overlooked. Without the ability to read and accurately perform rhythms, printed music is mysterious gibberish however sharp the ear or agile the technology. Rhythm is the key that opens the door to music literacy.

Theoretically, music technology should be able to make a major difference in this field. But after investigating the music technology market, rhythmic training is among the least developed areas for in-depth instruction, especially in terms of sight-reading. There are only a few products designed for the heterogeneous classroom. I will introduce several training systems that aim for rhythmic independence and mastery of sight-reading skills, goals which can be attained within the warm-up period of a choir, band, or orchestra. These tools are invaluable when used in the ensemble class to assist the achievement of rhythmic proficiency.

Counting is Fundamental
Even with the aid of music technology, a good rhythm-counting system is critically important for classroom ensemble instruction. The isolation of rhythm from other aspects of performance allows students advantages over the all-at-once instructional approach. Rhythm counting can be perfected and we must teach students that perfection is possible from the beginning of their ensemble experience.

With solid teaching and the best technology has to offer, our students’ rhythmic skill and confidence can be assured.

The RhythmBee ProgramThe RhythmBee Program
RhythmBee ( is a beautiful combination of the latest teaching theory and cutting edge technology for both Mac and PC users. Designed for students to learn to perform rhythms fluently within an ensemble rehearsal, school administrators will appreciate the fact that RhythmBee encourages and reinforces spatial temporal reasoning in every student. Created and developed by a supervisor of music, RhythmBee software consists of modules designed for all levels. One unique feature of RhythmBee is the early childhood component that allows rhythm instruction to begin before students can read or recite the alphabet. The result is a seamless Pre-K-through-12 rhythm curriculum with each unit of instruction providing simultaneous remediation and enrichment in a single class activity of five-to-10 minutes-per-class period.

The Elementary Edition transitions students from general music activities to the rhythm reading necessary for secondary ensembles. Its 36 units fill the school year, covering one unit per week. The Secondary Edition provides the middle school band, choir, or orchestra with significant additional resources which progress from beginning musicians to rhythm readers with significant expertise. The Accelerated Edition is for advanced middle school and high school students. Those who master the entire program (Units 1 to 90) will have few problems with rhythm performances in high school or the early years of college study.

The RhythmBee programs are built on two philosophies that are key to its unusual claim that “every student gets it.” First, it utilizes incremental development with practice opportunities in small “bites” of learning, so that previous and new learning are connected to the body’s involuntary response system. This process is called “automaticity.” Second, continuous review reinforces previous concepts.

Surprisingly, RhythmBee users have found that students pay better attention when they must watch for the tempo instead of listening to a metronomic beat, so there is no sound on the Rhythmbee units. Because of the multi-sensory nature and laser focus of RhythmBee instruction, a student can successfully join a RhythmBee class anytime during the school year and quickly catch up with the material.

RhythmBee stresses one physical or musical element at a time and is very thorough. The very first element that is taught is the foot tap, which is not as easy and automatic as most of us think. Because the instruction is automated, the teacher is free to roam and assist students on an individual basis.

One unusual non-musical feature of this software is the BellRinger, which begins every lesson with a huge digital clock that the teacher can set for a variety of times. With this simple aid, music educators can ensure that everyone is on task and moving forward from the first downbeat.

Beyond the NotesBeyond the Notes Rhythm Rulz
Dr. Steven J. Moore, director of bands at Colorado State University, has come up with a unique combination of products to systematically teach sight-reading. He created Beyond the Notes Rhythm Rulz ( DVD and CD to introduce and practice rhythms through a projection system during the five-minute warm-up period. Over 200 rhythms are sequentially presented on eight levels for use with band, orchestra, choir or general music classes. An innovative visual approach he calls “Ruler of Time” helps students visualize the meter and beats. It is easy to navigate these DVD flash cards. There are two primary modes of operation. In the Study Mode, rhythms are presented with pauses, which is the best method for introducing rhythms. In the Practice Mode, rhythms are flashed in the user’s choice of three tempos. Also included is a section of teaching ideas and rhythm-based games students can play.

Smart MusicOther Creative Options for Rhythm Development
SmartMusic by Makemusic ( offers a wide variety of rhythm exercises that students can practice with their instruments at home. There are 27 Simple Time exercises that include 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 with whole, dotted-half, half, and quarter notes and rests. There are 33 Simple Time 2 exercises that include 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 with whole, dotted-half, half, dotted-quarter, quarter, and eighth notes and rests. The 25 Simple Time 3 exercises include 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 with whole, dotted-half, half, dotted-quarter, quarter, dotted-eighth, eighth, and sixteenth notes and rests. Compound Time 1 has 26 exercises that include 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, and the 16 Compound Time 2 exercises include 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8 and whole, dotted-half, half, dotted-quarter, quarter, dotted-eighth, eighth, and sixteenth notes and rests.

The SmartMusic system includes more than 50,000 skill-building exercises and 30,000 accompaniments. The biggest news is in the area of repertoire. MakeMusic is releasing between 50 and 100 new concert band, jazz ensemble, and orchestra titles each month. These titles have on-screen notation, professional audio recordings, and pre-authored assignments for all parts. Currently, SmartMusic includes 776 of these titles, and plans to have more than 1,000 available in time for school in the fall.

Ars NovaPractica Musica
Of the conservatory-level music theory software programs that offer rhythm instruction, there are three that are particularly strong. The first one, Practica Musica by Ars Nova, has added an innovative rhythm activity entitled “rhythm drop.” This a fun variation on rhythm tapping also provides visual guidance. When the exercise begins, users see the rhythm excerpt notated as large blue notes with no staff lines. An inch or so below is a horizontal “goal line.” As the music begins to play, the notes start dropping toward the goal line, and they sound as they each reach the line. First the computer plays the excerpt with the animation, then the student plays it, tapping keys to “catch” each note as it hits the goal line. This resembles video dance games. The program can generate an infinite number of new exercises at any level of difficulty, though rhythm drop is probably more appropriate for the beginning levels.

Auralia is an outstanding aural training software program by Rising Software (distributed by Sibelius) that contains hundreds of exercises organized in 41 topics. One key feature is that it monitors the student’s progress with good record keeping. Aurelia’s aural training program also includes:

  • Meter Recognition Aural recognition of the meter of a musical extract including standard and irregular time signatures (5/4, 7/4, 5/8, 7/8, et cetera), notes/rests up to a 32nd, and syncopation.
  • Pulse Tapping Tap along to a musical extract in simple and compound time signatures.
  • Rhythm Comparison Aurally compare two played extracts and identify the extracts as same or different, highlight the rhythmic changes, or notate the changed rhythm.
  • Rhythm Dictation Notate the rhythm of the played extract.
  • Rhythm Elements Auralia will play a rhythmic fragment and users identify which one was played. This includes simple and compound meters with eighth-note, 16th-note, eighth-note triplet, quintuplet, and septuplet subdivisions
  • Rhythm Element Dictation Notate the rhythm of the musical extract.
  • Rhythm Imitation Tap the rhythm of a musical extract. This includes simple and compound time signatures and note durations up to a 32nd note.
  • Rhythm Styles – Aural recognition of 17 different styles.


Musition, also manufactured by Rising Software, is comprehensive music theory software for learning and testing music theory. I especially appreciate its interactive tests covering all levels from beginner to advanced, and many styles of music, including classical, jazz, rock and pop. It is organized with hundreds of exercises over 34 topics. Following are some of the best topics for rhythm development:

  • Beaming Correctly beam a set of displayed notes.
  • Drum Sticking Tap the displayed sticking pattern. This is designed to assist with development of left/right hand co-ordination for percussionists and includes many different patterns including single/double/triple paradiddles and paradiddle-diddles.
  • Drum Styles Tap the displayed rhythm along with the other parts of a drum groove. Users may be asked to tap a displayed kick drum part of a rock groove. There are 14 different styles, with many patterns in each.
  • Meter Recognition Visually identify the meter of the phrase or click in the bar lines, or define the meter.
  • Rhythm Notation Visually identify rhythm values.
  • Rhythm Tapping Tap the displayed extract.
  • Rhythmic Subdivision Identify the relative values of two rhythms (for example, how many eighth notes would fit into a half note).

Closing Comments

Reflecting on this topic with Dr. Moore, he provided a word of caution about the complexities of teaching sight-reading. He states, “In terms of developing sight-reading skills in an ensemble, these are important technology components, but I also include other aspects [in my classes].” Dr. Moore likes the strategy for sight-reading in sequential steps outlined in Robert Garofalo’s workbooks published by Meredith Music Publications for choral, band, and orchestra students.

A comprehensive program that prepares students for sight-reading success will need to use more than just rhythm software and theory methods.

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