I Got Rhythm

In this project, former LPO Young Composer Ailie Robertson has created a body percussion and verbalisation template for teaching rhythmic notation, along with some flashcards and games for children to become really familiar with the rhythmic notations and their meaning.

Getting children familiar with rhythmic notation is an excellent starting block for any further musical learning, and can be a lot of fun!

We hope that through using these cards and actions, children will eventually be able to internalise pulse and rhythm, supporting future musical learning. These activities have the additional benefit of enhancing physical coordination, energising the group and gathering group focus (try some of these at the beginning of other lessons, not just music). They can also be built upon to compose more formally, or layers can be built up to create an impressive class body percussion piece.

The aims of this activity are:

  • To help pupils internalise a sense of pulse and rhythm
  • To help pupils recognise basic musical symbols and know their meaning
  • To encourage verbal and physical coordination

Resources needed:

  • Note symbols printed out or displayable on your whiteboard, to teach each symbol (download file below)
  • Rhythm flashcards printed out on separate pieces of paper or card, or displayed on your whiteboard (download file below)
  • Table showing notation, action and verbalisation, for quick reference
  • Optional: interactive whiteboard, classroom percussion instruments

How to use the notation flashcards

1. Start with just the crotchet:

Using the individual note symbols PDF (download in resources list above), start by teaching the crotchet and its action:

The action for this is a stomp. Start by showing the symbol, then doing a stomp. Children copy you. Demonstrate several stomps and get children to copy the number you do. Try to do the stomps in a steady beat.

2. Then teach the pair of quavers:

The action for this is two chest taps (use one or both hands), in the same time it took to do the stomp. Again, show the symbol and demonstrate 2 quick taps, and get children to copy you. Demonstrate several pairs of taps, and get children to tap back the exact number you did. Again, stick to the steady beat.

When children get the hang of the stomp and chest taps, mix them up and get children to stomp/tap back to you.

3. Slowly introduce the other symbols one by one in this way.

Only when children are confident with the new symbol should you add the next one.

How to demonstrate each of the actions:

Semibreve – Hold hands on head for 4 beats (i.e. for the same amount of time it would take to do 4 stomps)

Minim – Pat lap and hold on knees for 2 beats (i.e. for the same amount of time it would take to do 2 stomps)

Crotchet – Stomp foot (for consecutive crotchets alternate left and right)

Quavers – two chest taps, one for each quaver (we have displayed them all as pairs here). Use one or both hands, whichever you find easier. The two taps should fit into the same time as one stomp.

Semiquavers – put palms together and rub back and forth to make 4 rubbing sounds (in same time it takes for one stomp)

Crotchet rest – put a finger to your lips and be silent for 1 beat (same duration as a stomp)

4. Introduce the sequences

Once children are familiar with all the note symbols and actions, print out the rhythm flashcards large enough for your class to be able to see them if you hold them up to the group, or display them on your whiteboard. If you require a simpler version, just teach a few of the symbols (perhaps omitting the semiquavers), and just use the flashcards that show these.

Hold up or display each card to the group and get children to perform each card.

You might start by choosing just a few cards and rotating between them, building in an extra card as children become more confident.

5. Introduce the verbalisations

Semibreve – Say “head” for 4 beats

Minim – Say “knees” for 2 beats

Crotchet – Say “stomp”

Quavers – Say “tapping”

Semiquavers – Say “rubbing fingers”

Crotchet rest – be silent for 1 beat – it can help to nod your head once, to keep this in time

Now challenge children to perform the sequences on the cards by saying the words, rather than doing the actions. This will help cement their learning of the rhythms.

If you prefer, you could teach the verbalisations with the actions together, then remove the words, or vice versa.

6. Combine (if you wish)

Sequences can be performed using actions or verbalisations or both, or even with just clapping or percussion instruments.

Ideas for games

Once children are familiar with all the symbols and their actions and/or verbalisations, there are plenty of games you can play to keep practising. Here are some ideas:

Basic flashcards – hold up a card and get the pupils to perform the actions for it. Build up to 2 cards, then 4. Lay out one card and get class to perform it. Keep adding another and another – can they do a whole chain in a row? You could do this as a full class, or go into “battle” mode, challenging individuals or groups to go head to head against each other in a tournament. Gradually increase the speed to make it more difficult.

Cumulative memory – in a big circle, the first child demonstrates an action (or short sequence). Everyone copies. Then the next child demonstrates theirs, all copy, then repeat first child’s action. Go round the circle adding another child’s action each time. (If this is too long or difficult, you could just repeat the previous child and the new child, rather than the full class!)

Which card? – Display several flashcards at once (on the board, or laid out). A child takes a turn to pick a flashcard (don’t tell anyone which one) and perform it to the class – everyone else has to identify which card it is, and copy them. Whoever guesses correctly first, chooses the next card.

Loops – Hold up one rhythm card and ask the children repeat the rhythm until the card is changed. Make sure everyone is together and keeping a steady pulse.

Crossrhythms – Hold up 2 cards simultaneously and split your class so both rhythms are performed together. Groups can continue performing their card in a long loop. Try swapping the cards and see if you can achieve a seamless changeover!

Memory master – get the children to choose 2 cards, and display these so a 2 bar rhythm is created. The pupils perform the rhythm twice. Now turn over one of the cards, and perform the sequence from memory. Now try turning over both cards and perform from memory. Build up to a sequence of 4 cards.

Rounds – Choose four cards as a longer sequence and perform as a round in groups (up to 4 groups, each joining in at the start of next card). Try performing the sequence a set number of times, so the groups drop out one by one at the end.

New actions – Invite children to create their own new (appropriate) sounds/actions to the notes – can others guess which card they’re doing now?

Familiar Song – Use a piece of simple music (e.g. ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’) and get children to work out what the actions would be. Or perform it as actions and see if they can guess the song.

Taking it further:

1. Use cards to get some music going on classroom percussion.

  • Once children are familiar with a sequence of rhythms from the cards, put them in groups with a variety of instruments in each group, and invite them to translate their sequence onto percussion instruments like drums, shakers, tambourines. Encourage them to share out the playing between them, so not everyone is playing every note in the sequence all the time.
  • Try adding tuned percussion too, like xylophones or chime bars. If you get children to stick to just 5 tones (such as C, D, E, G, A), the melodies they create should sound harmonious.

2. When everyone is confident with all the actions, you can abandon the flashcards and use the actions or words to make up rhythms for class warm-ups to gather focus. Some classic games that can be adapted for this are:

  • Don’t clap this one back –  children must copy each of the teacher’s rhythmic sequences, except the forbidden one (stomp, stomp, tap chest, stomp). Children can lead this too.
  • Simon says – the teacher (or a confident pupil) demonstrates rhythms to the class, who copy them back, as long as each sequence begins with the special “Simon says” rhythm.  First, decide on your “Simon says” rhythm (e.g. tap chest, stomp – this is the most obvious as it sounds like the words, but it could be any short combination of rhythms). If the teacher (or confident pupil) demonstrates a sequence that does not have the “Simon says” rhythm, any children who copy this are out of the game.  When children get good at this, change the game so the “Simon says” rhythm has to be at the end, rather than the beginning of the sequence.

3. Introduce new rhythms e.g. dotted notes. What action could you use for these?

Sharing your work

Did you use the flashcards with your children? We would love to hear how you got on, or if you have any other ideas you’d like to share. Contact us at [email protected]

About the author

Ailie Robertson is a multi-award winning composer, performer and creative curator whose work crosses the boundaries of traditional and contemporary music. Winner of The Sofia International Composition Competition, the SCO iCompose Prize, and 2nd in the Oslo Grieg Competition, Ailie has received commissions, awards and residences from Creative Scotland, Enterprise Music Scotland, the CCA, Culture Ireland, Celtic Connections, EIFF, and CALQ Montreal.

Ailie was an LPO Young Composer in 2017/18, chosen for the 2016/17 RSNO Composer’s hub, awarded a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship and was winner of the ‘Achievement in New Music’ prize at the inaugural New Music Scotland Awards.

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