How to Count Rhythms Much Easier by Using Words

Have you ever noticed the patterns in your speech? Try listening to the rhythm of your communication with others...not only do we each have our own key that we tend to speak in most of the time, we also have unique rhythmic (percussive) patterns that we use to emphasize certain emotional aspects of what we're trying to say to someone.

This lesson is about utilizing that part of ourselves to help us learn rhythmic patterns on the piano.

There is a rhythm in our words and we're going to learn how to use that rhythm that we already know, to learn new rhythms in our piano music that will make it much easier to understand and play!

Lets find out what words we can pair with which rhythms in our music so that they make much more sense.

Step 1: Counting Sixteenth, Eighth, and Quarter Notes Using Yummy Words

If you've already started learning 16th notes in your piano playing, you know that counting 1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a, is quite a lot to say and remember when your fingers are having to move with those syllables at the same time.

Well, OK...so let's think of a word that has 4 syllables in it...how about peanut butter?

Now, remember how we talked about the fact that we all speak with different rhythmic patterns? Make sure that when you say "peanut butter", that you aren't emphasizing one syllable over another one...at least right now. In other words, don't say "PEAnut BUTter"...or "peaNUT BUTter"...make sure you say "peanut butter".

Peanut Butter is the same as 4 sixteenth notes on the piano. Try playing middle C while saying peanut butter...playing 16th notes. Is that easier than counting them out as we did above?

So what happens when we want to connect one type of note to another type of note...say a 16th note to an 8th note? We do the same thing, except we come up with a different word to use in combination with "peanut butter".

Since 8th notes are slower in tempo than 16th notes, we need to think of words that we don't usually say as quickly as we do "peanut butter". I like the word pancake. It has 2 syllables and we tend to say that word in a more 8th - note type of tempo than a 16th - note one.

So now we're going to say, "peanut butter pancake". Oh yum!

Do you hear how they fit together well just like the notes do on the piano? Try playing this "peanut butter pancake" rhythm on middle C. You will find that playing the notes this way is easier than counting out each one: 1 e & a, 2&.

Now we're going to add in one more type of note to this group; quarter notes. They are the slowest of the group in this case. We have 2 of them in this example so we need 2 words that go together, that can be said at a slower tempo. I chose "popcorn" as they are easy to place with each quarter notes in this sequence. Make sure that when you say and play the word "popcorn" that you remember that they are paired with quarter notes, not 8th notes or 16th notes.

If we put it all together, we have: "Peanut butter pancake pop-corn"!

They represent 4 sixteenth notes, 2 eighth notes, and 2 quarter notes...all on one measure.

Using words, especially food words, is not only an easier way to learn rhythms than counting them out, it's fun!

Once you learn this one pattern and see how the words match up with the specific rhythmic value of each note, you can then apply this same technique to any rhythm that you're learning. <---Let's see how this works in the next step.

Step 2: Finding New Words for New Rhythms

It is important to at least know how to count the rhythm you're trying to play, and it's especially helpful if you have it written down so you can look at it. Notice what different rhythmic values each note in the measure has.

Now, start coming up with words that match the tempo of the syllables in your notes...just like we did before.

If you have an 8th note connected to two 16th notes, you need one slower word connected with 2 faster words...or syllables. I picked Strawberry; "Straw ber ry"...see how the 1st syllable is longer than the next 2, but they all flow together?

We have a challenging one in the image above...a dotted quarter note followed by an 8th note. We count dotted quarter notes by saying 1&2, the move on to the 8th note for the 2nd half of beat 2.

Instead, try saying Pineapple, or Pineap ple...you hold the dotted quarter note through the first half of the word apple...and the second half of the word apple...the "ple" is for the 8th note. Also, notice how "Pine" is longer than each of the "apple" syllables.

These are just 2 examples out of so many that you can come up with for each rhythmic pattern you have to learn...make sure you watch the video part of this lesson in the last step as I and my students come up with lots more examples and I play them for you on the piano.

Let's go over a few tips to make sure you are using this method in the best way.

Step 3: Tips for Using This System Anytime You Don't Understand a Rhythm

Take time to review any rhythms you have learned just to get the feel of tempos and how each note or groups of notes fit together.

Start with easy rhythms when you first match words with the notes. You don't have to use food...but it's just such a common thing that when we eat we'll end up thinking about our piano rhythms which is a form of practicing in itself! <---added bonus!

The more you challenge yourself to come up with new words for each rhythm, the more you're teaching yourself the actual pattern in your music and on your piano. It's a bit like sneaking veggies into your kids' pancakes to get them to eat some vegetables. It tastes good and you're getting extra benefits.

Parents...what a fun way to help your budding pianist learn rhythms and maybe even to cook at the same time! There is no end to the fun that can be had in the kitchen with a keyboard close by.

Now it's time to get your own keyboards out and come and work through this lesson on the piano, with me, and with the added input from several of my online students who are learning all of this as well.

Step 4: Come Practice With Me

If you've never tried this method of learning rhythms before, this video will really help you to see how it works in real time at your keyboard and the fact that you can play along with me will really make a difference in understanding how this works.

This video is a part of my LifeStream Weekly Video series that many of my students attend each week so you'll get some added expertise and hear what their experiences have been as well.

The next time you go food shopping, don't be surprised if you're humming the rhythms of what you see on the shelves without even realizing it. Grab your keyboard and let's go and practice together!

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