Aural Comprehension Guide

David Loberg Code          Western Michigan University

Rhythmic Syllables

Your ability to perform rhythms without pitch should be more advanced than your sight-singing. Rhythms should be performed in as many different ways as possible: clapping, tapping, speaking, singing, dancing, and so on. When speaking rhythms, you will be expected to use some type of counting system (to be determined by your individual instructor). The purpose of using counting syllables is to increase your awareness of the relationship of the rhythm and meter. In addition, they help in the recognition of specific rhythmic patterns that recurr often, allowing you to `chunk' together groups of notes by beat. Below is an example of one counting system:

The emphasis of the above system is on where a note begins within the measure or beat, not necessarily how long a duration the note is held. (In otherwords, the same syllable might be used for a quarter note or an eighth note followed by an eighth rest.) The consonant of the syllable indicates the level of division within the beat. A 't' or `l' always the first division; a 'k' the second division. (The next level would use an 'n'.) The vowel indicates the type of division, either two-part ('a') or three-part ('a-i'). Below are some examples of rhythms, along with their corresponding syllables:
        1    2  ta 3kataka  1 taka  2  ka 3kata      ta  2 lali 3ka ka
      ( 1    2  &  3ee& ah  1 & ah  2  ah 3ee&       &   2 titi 3ee ah )

         1    2 la li  1ka la lika  2   ka li   1    ta      la li
       ( 1    2 ti ti  1ka ta tika  2   ka ti   1    &       ti ti )
When practicing rhythms follow the same principles as for sightsinging melodies. Also, you might try to:
  1. Read passages at twice or half the speed
  2. Conduct the meter with one hand while tapping the rhythm with the other.
  3. Tap both rhythms of melody duets (or sing one/tap other).
  4. Read a passage backwards (rhythms only!).
  5. Sing melody using counting syllables instead of solfege.
  6. Speak (don't sing) a melody using solfege.
In the time signatures employed in the examples above, the top number indicates the number of beats per measure, while the bottom symbol indicates the beat duration (this note is not meant to be played). This system more accurately reflects the actual meter of a piece of music (as heard and performed) than the more commonly used integer time signatures, especially with regard to compound beat units. Since it is not possible to represent dotted notes with a single integer, an unfortunate compromise was adopted wherein, for compound meters, the time signature would indicate the number of divisions of the beat per measure and the duration receiving the division of the beat. It is a common misinterpretation that, for example, 6/8 indicates six beats per measure with an eighth note receiving the beat. Most pieces of music notated in 6/8 have two beats per measure with a dotted-quarter receiving the beat. The meter of a piece should be determined from the sound of the music itself, not the notation. Any and all musical notation, is but an imperfect means of representing visually something which really exists only as sound. Even this number/symbol time signature notation is inadequate for representing many types of metric structures found in both contempory art music and various indigenous musics.

The number/symbol signatures employed above are perhaps best known from the music of Carl Orff (e.g., Carmina Burana), and are used in the sightsinging text Rhythm and Pitch by John Stevenson and Marjorie Porterfield. The earliest use of them which I have seen is in the Church of the Brethren Hymnal published in 1901. If you have any more information regarding the origins of this system I would be most interested.


David Loberg Code, School of Music, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, 49008. E-mail: 
Revised: 28.Feb.99       (c) 1999