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Which came first: the rhythm or the melody?

Ah, the age-old question.

The first time I realised that this was a matter of contention was when I was on a student placement (as a classroom teacher, not a music teacher). The music teacher was talking about how she never introduced pitch until Grade 3 (age 8), because children simply didn’t understand it before that. According to what she was saying, she only worked on rhythm with children in the first few years of school.

Now, in her defense, she did in fact do a lot of singing with her students. What she really meant was that did not teach the western structures surrounding scales, melody and harmony.

Was she right?

At the time, I was horrified. And I have to say that I hope you’re a bit horrified too.

Why, I wonder.

You, as a music teacher yourself (or an enthusiast, anyway) will probably already have an answer.

To state it plainly, to teach rhythm without any mention of melody, would be like telling a child to only eat the skin of an apple, and leave the rest of it.

Musicians and teachers are responsible for spreading the same idea beyond just rhythm and melody; we separate timbre from melody and rhythm as though they are not entirely dependent on one another.

I’ve mentioned before that students are excellent listeners. Even if we are not teaching them about either melody or rhythm, they will most certainly hear it. And independently play with it, and wonder about it.

Music is not a science experiment that can be separated into discrete parts without destroying the whole. It’s the interaction of sound that goes beyond the labels that we put on it.

Now, this might make you feel a bit overwhelmed.

Does this mean I have to teach everything all at once?!?

Yes, and no. Don’t overthink it. You are not teaching something that doesn’t already exist. When you sing a simple tune with your students, they’re already hearing rhythm, melody, tone, expression, all of it! And as excellent listeners, they will understand a lot by being exposed to music in a variety of forms.

One particularly useful tool in covering multiple elements of music at once is teaching a canon, such as ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. I’ve created a simple (and cheap!) resource and guide to use in music lessons to play with combining melody into harmony, altering rhythms and giving some creative license on the way. Find it here.


Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

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  1. Pingback: To teach or to play? - the music educator

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