Eighth Notes are Faster

After years of trial and error, I have decided that the best way to explain eighth notes to 4th graders is to say, “Eighth notes are faster.”

Try it. Works like a charm.

My previous technique involved reserving about 23 minutes of class time, rolling up my sleeves, drawing elaborate diagrams of various note values and their proportion to eighth notes, getting students to tap their feet in quarter notes, explaining downbeats and upbeats… You get the idea.

This new technique employs the concept of “play it now, understand it later” and “eschew obfuscation.”

Now before any of you left-brained thinkers like me get all worked up, please understand that we always circle back to those diagrams in the method books that explain eighth notes in detail. I lead my ensembles in rhythm studies on a weekly basis.

But when giving the initial explanation for new concepts like this, I’m becoming more and more convinced that students benefit the most from hearing a demonstration, playing the music, then understanding the theoretical concepts afterward.


8 thoughts on “Eighth Notes are Faster

  1. Haha! I learned this last year as well when my kindergarten piano students could count and clap eighth notes (ta-di ta-di) better than my beginning band students. This year I stated students on eighth notes way before they ever saw them in the book. Since they knew what they sounded like already, it was a piece of cake reading new music with eighth notes. They just had to play faster!

  2. It’s true: play it now, understand it later. The concept isn’t new, but anyone who has ever been thoroughly trained in anything (such as, for instance, professional music-making) has to unlearn the front-to-back explanations for stuff. New learning almost always happens from the middle-outward. Research backs you up, Steve.

    My only concern is the word “faster”. How do you prevent students from confusing note values with tempo? Not that they need to know those words yet, but surely you don’t want to set them up for later confusion?

  3. Actually I think the problem for most teachers is that they do stay too technical. Telling fourth graders it’s “faster” helps more than the diagrams sometimes. You can always go back to the technical, but learning a different way to instruct is good too. Being an educator means you’re educating people. If they don’t understand your teaching method then you have to find a new way, or not so new way, of educating them.

  4. That’s interesting…I specifically tell my students that eighth notes aren’t faster! The tempo is what dictates the speed; it’s just that when you have [beamed] eighth notes, you are fitting two notes into the space where you would otherwise have one quarter note. In my experience, students who think of eighth notes as being “faster” tend to play them irregularly, without an even feeling of pulse leading them to the following note.

    I totally agree with the idea of hearing and playing first, and then seeing and understanding. That’s so important if we want students to understand that music is ultimately the sound that they hear, and what’s on the printed page is just our best shot at representing that sound in a way that is transferable from one person to the next.

  5. I think part of the difficulty for beginner instrumentalists is that there is so much on their plates! The complexities of tone production and fingerings can be overwhelming.

    I am the general music instructor at at 4/5 intermediate school. I get to show the students how to count/clap/say/label rhythms without the extra complications of the new instrument. We use clapping, rhythm sticks, recorders and other classroom “found sounds” to practice rhythms, and have even created a benchmark that the kids really gear up for. I think it makes life a little easier in the band room and orchestra room, because the kids have a ready system for figuring out rhythms.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    For the most part, I stand by the approach to “play it now, understand it later.” I think high school students should be able to “figure out” (decode/sightread) written music without hearing it first. But Liz is right on: to an elementary student, it’s ALL new.

    For now, I think I’ll stick with my phraseology that eighth notes are faster until I hear something better that’s not too theoretical. Maybe “2 notes in one beat?” Since reading your comments, I’ve been more atuned to students playing eighth notes too fast, like two 16ths and a rest, but the problem is pretty easily correctable.

    One more clarification: I teach eighth notes to my 3rd grade general music students. So for my 4th grade instrumental music students, the concept is hopefully a review.

  7. A breath of fresh air to hear the “play it now understand it later” philosophy. I totally agree as if you spend too much time talking and not playing you’ll lose the child’ interest. Kids learn by doing.

    We talk about eighth notes as being “running” notes (we draw pictures of notes holding hands and running) and quarter notes being “walking” notes. The actual sound of these words helps with the understanding too as “running” sounds faster than “walking” and you can fit the two syllables of “run-ning” into “walk”. Really – if you obtain the same end result it doesn’t matter how you get there!

  8. I am a first year band and general music teacher. I stole from one of my college in the field experiences calling quarter notes “bop” and two barred eighth notes “touchdown.” Football is huge here, and we had an exceptionally successful team. The whole town was into the team and especially my kids. This was very, very successful in my beginning band. I taught 16th notes to 3rd and 4th grade using “cardinal football” with different body percussion for quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes, then we read them, together, we also talked about them being “faster” than quarter notes, but my 3rd grade was successful. I used this to teach my 4th grade recorder students and they can ALL speak the rhythms in this way. It was such a success I made rhythm counting caterpillars for my younger (k-2) classes and we nicknamed them the same. I had a chance to hear each and every one of my k-2 successfully count and clap using our silly words (half notes, quarter notes, quarter rests, and barred eighth notes) it works, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and in the upper grades we spend time talking about their “real names” rather than nick names and also learn to count them in a more traditional way. Just food for thought. it just gives them a new way to look at them and wrap their brain around. It has worked like a charm for me this year!

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