Together in Time: Musical Rhythm Activities for Schoolchildren
The following are a series of musical rhythm games and activities, compiled for a school workshop project for children in Years 1-2 (‘Together in Time’ workshops, funded by ESRC Impact Acceleration Account). Music psychological research has highlighted that engaging with musical rhythm activities from a young age can be beneficial to cognitive and social development. In particular, developing musical rhythm abilities may aid development of language processing (e.g. Patel, 2011) and motor skills (e.g. Zachopoulou et al., 2004), and can facilitate social cohesion (e.g. Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010).
The activities listed below are based on existing games from a variety of music teaching resources. They are grouped in terms of the types of skills they aim to develop, and include suggestions of ways to vary the difficulty level as the children progress and develop their rhythmic abilities.
The following include some activities in which children are asked to move together in synchrony. Such activities can aid motor coordination and facilitate a sense group rapport.
- The Name Game: A good introductory activity to start a class is the ‘Name Game’, where students are asked to maintain a steady rhythmic pattern by clapping/stomping or using simple rhythm instruments (such as shaker eggs or rhythm sticks) whilst seated in a circle. Once a steady rhythm is established, students take turns stating their names in time with the rhythmic pattern. This activity can be varied so children are asked to state their favourite food or colour, what they had for breakfast, etc., to keep them thinking and keep the activity fresh each time. Some examples of two variants of the Name Game are shown below:
- Composition Activities: An activity that encourages both rhythmic coordination and creativity is to ask students to compose rhythmic ‘poems’ based on the natural rhythm of language. One variant is to give small groups of 3-5 children different coloured circles or stickers to paste on a larger piece of paper. The children can decide the order of the circles, and are then asked to practice and perform saying their ‘composition’ aloud together. For instance, a short composition might be ‘red, red, yell-ow, yell-ow, blue, yell-ow, blue, yell-ow’. An emphasis should be put on keeping a steady beat during the performance, in which the whole group is coordinated in reciting the composition. A more complicated variant of this game is to ask children to compose a poem based on certain theme (e.g. trip to the beach) and more advanced students could be asked to notate the rhythm of such poems in musical notation (e.g. red = one crochet, yell-ow = two quavers). Activities like this can help to develop language processing skills by emphasising the rhythmic nature of language and also enrich reading abilities by encouraging children to read their compositions from left to right and to look ahead at the next item in each sequence in order to stay in time when reciting the composition.
A variety of beat perception tasks can be easily implemented, in which children listen to music and are asked to find and move along to the regular beat of the music by clapping, using simple rhythm instruments, or by marching around the room. These activities can also be varied by asking children to move just on certain beats (e.g. every other beat) or to do different movements on different beats (e.g. ‘clap-stomp-stomp’).
Music varies greatly in terms of how easy it is to find and move along to the beat. Some music has a very clear drum track that articulates a regular beat that is easy to find and move along to (we’ve used the chorus of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’ to illustrate this in our work). Other music makes use of syncopation (rhythms that occur off the beat), in which the beat is not actually perceptually present in the sound but needs to be mentally determined by the listener. A good example of a more complicated song that uses syncopation is the opening of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by the Beatles.
In our workshops we use materials that vary in their level of beat salience (the degree to which the beat is noticeable), from simple to more complex examples. Here are some examples of a progression from easier to more difficult songs for children to keep the beat to:
- A simple metronome or drum track with a steady, unambiguous beat
- A children’s nursery rhyme song (like ‘London Bridge’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’)
- A pop song with a steady drum track (like ‘YMCA’ by the Village People or ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by The Black-Eyed Peas)
- A pop song or classical piece with syncopated rhythms (like ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple or ‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin)
You can also vary the complexity of beat perception tasks by using music of different tempos (speeds). Adults have a preferred tempo for music of around 100-120 beats per minute (that is, around 2 beats every second), such that music at this speed is easiest to comprehend and move along to. The preferred tempo for young children is slightly faster (around 150 beats per minute, or 2.5 beats every second) and slows with increasing age.
Rhythmic turn taking tasks can help to develop attention skills and memory for temporal patterns.
It is common to introduce these types of tasks by having the teacher perform a rhythm (by clapping, stomping, using simple percussion instruments, etc.) whilst the students listen. The students then repeat the rhythm verbatim. The teacher can start with a simple rhythmic pattern and then gradually increase the difficulty of the rhythm in terms of complexity, different types of movements required to perform the rhythm, and length of the pattern.
Once students have learnt to do this type of task by copying the teacher, one can implement versions where each child takes a turn making up a rhythm and the whole class copies him/her. One can also make use of games like ‘Simon Says’, where children should only copy if the rhythmic pattern is prefaced by the words ‘Simon Says’. Alternatively, one particular rhythmic pattern could be identified at the start of the game that should never be copied and children must remember and refrain from copying this pattern throughout the game.
The types of rhythmic patterns to be copied can also be varied in their content and complexity. Common examples are:
- Patterns set to the rhythm of spoken phrases (‘I like choc’-late cake’ or ‘Run po-ny, jump po-ny’)
- Patterns set to nonsense syllables that reflect the underlying rhythm (‘ta ta ti-ti ta’ or ‘ti-ti ti-ti ta ta’, where ‘ta’ = one crochet and ‘ti-ti’ = two quavers)
- Patterns without any accompanying spoken syllables that need to be remembered and repeated just based on their sound and accompanying movements
Adaptive and Self-Paced Timing
These are the most difficult type of rhythm activity discussed here, in which children must keep the beat with music that changes speed or are required to maintain an internal (imagined) beat. These types of activities can help children to develop temporal prediction skills, which are needed for activities like conversation and planning of movements.
- Tempo changes: Children are asked to move along to the beat of music that speeds up (called an accelerando in musical terms) or slows down (called a ritardando in musical terms). During joint singing games the teacher might also introduce tempo changes that the children need to listen out for and adapt their own singing to stay in time. Children can also take turns leading the singing task (e.g. by conducting the beat) and introducing tempo changes.
- Fading the beat out and in: Children establish a steady beat (by clapping or using rhythm instruments) in time with a drum track or piece of music. Once a steady beat is achieved, the teacher lowers the volume and fades the music out and the children must keep the steady beat going without the music. After a few seconds, the teacher fades the music back in and the children check how well they have done at maintaining the steady beat without the music. Results can vary widely depending on the tempo of the music and skill level of the children- sometimes it is very surprising to the children how far off the original beat they have gone!