In this blog post I'd like to look at several different rhythms syllable systems that are generally used and explore some pros and cons for each method. I absolutely believe that each one of us should sit down and think through what syllable system we're using and how it benefits our students (or not). “Because I’ve always done it that way” is not a good enough reason to continue doing something. So, no matter what rhythm syllable system you currently use, read through and decide what you think would work best for you and your students.
What is a Rhythm Counting System?
In the United States, the generally accepted norm is that students will eventually transfer from a rhythm syllable system (like Ta, Titi) to a number system of counting (1-e-&-a). Often times the rhythm syllable system will last through 3rd or 4th grade and in some cases even into middle or high school. For better or for worse, eventually most students in the US transfer to a more mathematical number system based around numbers and subdivision. It's unclear how or when this shift to a number system became so widely accepted or if there was any specific thought as to why this system might be the best to end up with. It might be that this system benefits instrumentalists as it came to prominence with the rise of public school instrumental music programs at the end of the 19th century. In any case, rhythm syllable systems are most commonly found in elementary schools and last for several years until they are replaced by a number counting system at the middle or secondary levels.
Kodály - Ta, Ti-ti, Tiri-Tiri
In this system each note value has its own particular sound no matter where the "tactus" (the accented rhythm/macrobeat) might be. Quarter notes are "Ta" but eighth notes are "Ti" and sixteenth notes are "Tir." Some would say that there is no internal consistency with this system reasoning that distinct names for each note value (Quarter note-Ta, Eighth notes-Ti-Ti) makes a note value easy to recognize, but this variation makes it difficult to relate each note to the tactus or accented beat. Some might say that this makes it easier to lose the pulse of the rhythm. The Kodaly system is often compared against the Gordon or Takadimi systems (for more on this, read on!).
"Traditional Kodály Rhythm Syllables: Taking a New Look" by Jonathan C. Rappaport published in the Kodály Envoy
French Time-Names System - Ta, Ta-Te
Toward the middle of the nineteenth century the American musician Lowell Mason (affectionately named the "Father of Music Education") adapted the French Time-Names system for use in the United States. Instead of using the French names of the notes, he replaced these with a system that identified the value of each note within a meter and the measure.
Gordon - Du, Du-De
In Gordon's approach, the beat is counted as "du" and subdivided as "du-de" and further subdivided as "du-ta-de-ta." There are many out there who would argue that the Gordon system "is easier to pronounce, and is well suited for instrumental music instruction," because it uses consonants more closely imitating the articulation movements of the tongue for playing wind instruments.
Whether you believe this system is "easier to pronounce" or not really depends on you. Personally I think something like "tika-tika" or "Takadimi" is easier to pronounce quickly than the Gordon, "Dutadeta," but I have a choral and vocal music background and I feel like the harder "ta" and "ka" are easier to say quickly than "du" and "de." Other friends of mine who play brass instruments tend to agree saying that "tika-tika" and "takadimi" lead well into triple tonguing in brass instruments. The decision about whether something is more or less easy to pronounce apparently depends on your own subjective background and context.
Gordon Rhythm Counting - GIML Website
Takadimi is similar to the Kodály Method, developed in 1935 in Hungary and both systems can be traced back to the 19th century French Time-Names system. The system developed by Hungarian composer Kodály differs from Takadimi in that is ascribes syllables to specific notational values, regardless of their placement within the beat. For example, an eighth note is called ‘ti’ whether it is on the attack/tactus of the beat or in the middle. It is also called ‘ti’ regardless of the meter. Some argue that the Kodály method was intended for use at the elementary level, and many critics say that it is not expandable to upper level classrooms. Philip Tacka and Michael Houlahan, experts who have studied Kodály at Millersville University, have stated that “the Takadimi rhythm system solves the problems associated with the Kodály rhythm syllables. We believe that were Kodály alive today, he would certainly encourage his students and colleagues to use the Takadimi system.”
Takadimi - Learning Rhythm with Takadimi
Numbers - 1-e-&-a
This system is based on numbers and counting each of the main macrobeats. For example, four quarter notes in 4/4 time would be counted as "1-2-3-4," and six eighth-notes in 6/8 time would be counted as "1-2-3-4-5-6." Subdivision of the beat are counted as "and," and further subdivisions are "e" and "a," so that four sixteenths would be counted as "1-e-and-a."
What to do with a Rest?
I've thought a lot about the various ways to teach a rest and I eventually decided to teach rest the way that my mentor teacher, Debbie Gray, teaches her students. She says that whenever they see a rest they can say the name of the rest (for a quarter note, this would be "ta") but they just can't let the sound out of their mouth. I suppose this sort of syncs up with the Gordon/MLT idea of audiation and thinking the sound in your head instead of actually vocalizing it. To make it really fun, Debbie tells students that they can even shout the rest as long as they keep all the sound in their mouth and don't let anything out. This results in a class full of students "silent shouting" out a rest. It doesn't completely solve the rest conundrum, but it does give students a way to feel the full duration of the note value in their head as they make the action of shouting/speaking silently.
Conclusion - The Choice is YOURS!
I would also say that kids are highly adaptable. When I was a first year teacher I started out in a school and had no idea what the teacher before me said when teaching rhythms. Heck, I barely knew how to teach rhythms at all, what rhythms were appropriate for each age, and where to start. I did some research, figured out what rhythm system I liked the best (and why), and then went for it. My student's had not read rhythms like this before but lo and behold, within a few weeks they were going strong. No one was emotionally scared for life because I taught "Ta-di" instead of "Ti-ti." They figured out the change and adapted.
I want to emphasize this point because it really is important. Use whatever system you want at your school and in your context but know that students will encounter something new at some point in their career. I've taught in districts where the population is pretty transient. I've had kids who have moved schools 3 or 4 times in a year. If they started in a "du-de" school and now learn rhythms in a "ti-ti" school, it won't be the end of the world. Kids are kids, and kids adapt quickly.
Further Reading and References
Do you say something different or a variation of one of the approaches above? Leave a comment and let me know! I'd especially love to talk with anyone who uses the French Time-Names system because I think it is so unique and fascinating!
"Syllable Systems: Four students' experiences in learning rhythm" a Master's Thesis by Tammy Renee Fust
A Review of Rhythm Syllable Systems - blog post by Dr. Robert Adams