To The Teacher (excerpt)

Music is made up of various sounds, which are more or less pleasing to the ear, and which are generally grounded in an underlying rhythmic foundation. Musical beats and rhythms do not exist without sound or motion moving through time.

From earliest times musicians have had a desire to remember and reproduce their compositions. They have also had the desire to sing or play compositions created by other musicians. As a result, a system of written musical notation (notes, rests, and accompanying markings and symbols) was developed. The traditional system of notation used in the Western world has been developed over the centuries to represent the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic aspects of music. This musical notation system adds the element of sight to the musical equation. However, music notation, which is visually static, and rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic expression, which is audible and sometimes shown as a dynamic visual (hearing sound and seeing movement through time), are two separate and distinct systems. Music notation is superimposed on rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic expression, as a glove over the hand. Thus, the person who understands the relationship of these two systems can produce music from the notation. But to a student who, at the beginning of his or her music education, does not yet grasp this “hand-in-glove” relationship, the concept can be eluding.

As soon as I started teaching music I became aware of this problem. While some students grasped this relationship very quickly, others did not. To bridge the gap between traditional music notation and audible rhythmic expression, I created simple pictorial images to represent beats. My desire in doing this was to develop a dynamic visual representation of rhythmic expression. Symbols expand and contract to represent the amount of time they occupy. This helped my students understand the relationship between rhythmic beats and the unchanging standards of time; the second and the minute. When I had my students use these images as an intermediate visual aid to learning, I found that their ability to grasp the concept of beats and rhythm was greatly enhanced. Once this concept was thoroughly grasped, my students began to superimpose the traditional notation system over the dynamic visual representations that I created. In time, the students progressed beyond their need to rely upon the intermediate symbols, and these were eliminated. However, they remain a tool that can be used to decipher complicated rhythmic patterns at any time.

Let me state the problem I observed in another way by providing an example. Imagine a half note. Now let me ask you, how long is a half note? That is, how much time does it occupy? You might answer this question in one of two ways. You might say (if you understand fractions) “It is twice as long as a quarter note and half as long as a whole note.” Or, you might say, “that depends on the speed of the music.” Both answers are correct. But the answers also make it clear that you can’t tell how much time a half note occupies just by looking at it. You need more information. The intermediate symbols that I have created attempt to provide the missing information. Although the symbols I have developed are not a perfect representation of time, they provide a better representation of time than does traditional music notation, and they provide a representation that more clearly presents the concept that the student is trying to learn.