How Rhythmic Speech Can Make it Easier to Learn your Instrument.

by Manuela Holmer (11.07.2022)
Translation by Edd Lee (23.08.2022)

In music lessons, rhythm often receives less focus than other aspects of the music. In this article, drummer Manu Holmer shows us the first steps to help us use speech to overcome rhythmic uncertainty.

About the Author |

Manu Holmer is a drummer, drum teacher, cajonist and blogger.

Since 2017 she has been publishing practical guides, free sheet music for making music with heart and brain, and real insights into her life as a musician on her blog Her topics in focus are rhythm, drums and cajon.

"If you can say it, you can play it." I got this invaluable tip years ago from one of my drum teachers. I will never forget the saying, because for me it encapsulates the essence of the language of rhythm in just nine words.

Just imagine: You are sitting with your instrument and you want to work on a new, difficult piece. The melody in the first bar is clear, but now it's time for the rhythm. Do you understand it? No? Then it will be hard to play it accurately on your instrument. What’s the solution? Learn to understand the rhythm… and rhythmic speech can help.

What is Rhythmic Speech?

Rhythmic speech is about underlining complex rhythms with recurring syllables and words, making them easier to grasp. This makes learning a musical instrument noticeably easier, as I learnt from many years of experience. Incidentally, it doesn't matter whether it's drums, cajon or piano: where there's music, there's rhythm.

I am sure you already know how to count note and rest values ​​over the given beats in a bar. However, this is a more abstract form of rhythmic language that I would like to present. Both approaches help you to understand rhythmic peculiarities over time, but having your own unique rhythmic language has even more advantages, as I will show.

First of all, determine the basic pulse of your piece, you can usually read it from the time signature and markings. Now take a look at the rhythm you want to learn and start underlining it with individual syllables or words. Notes or rests that are the same length as a beat in your basic pulse are assigned a syllable or monosyllabic word, those that are twice as fast are assigned a two-syllable word, and so on.

Here is a simple example:

In my drum lessons, for example, I like to use the syllables ‘Bum’, ‘Chack’ or ‘Da’. I assign these to note and rest values. For example, I would write the well-known drum beat from Queen's “We Will Rock You” as follows: the two low notes, the bass drum beats, as ‘Bum’, and the snare as ‘Chack’.

This example shows that it is also possible to incorporate different sound characteristics into the rhythm using rhythmic language. Try for yourself, and see what helps you the most whilst learning your instrument. Your rhythmic language shouldn't get too complex, this combination of rhythm and sounds is well suited for percussion instruments such as the cajon, for example, since the sound spectrum is more limited than that of the piano.

A famous example of another rhythmic language: the Kodály method

What advantages does rhythmic speech offer you?

Music is very complex and is made up of various building blocks, including melody, harmony and rhythm. The rhythm gives the music a time structure, thus giving it a clear framework.

Despite its basic function, when it comes to rhythm, people are often afraid to get their hands dirty. Often at the beginning of our musical journey, it seems quite intangible. As a result, many people only deal with it reluctantly or not at all. This in turn creates persistent rhythmic insecurity. The belief that one has a bad sense of rhythm or no rhythm at all can also arise.

Rhythmic speech can work to counteract this. It helps you to understand note and rest values ​​in a playful way, and helps reduce the fear of delving into the wide world of rhythm. For example, if you spice up two quavers with the word “drumming”, it gives the rhythm a positive bounce.

Understanding the abstract construct of note and rest values ​​is easier for us through speech because it is a natural part of everyday life. I often notice this with adults, particularly when it has been decades since they last touched on music theory. In these cases, and in most other cases, it makes sense to make the introduction, or reintroduction into the world of rhythm as easy as possible.

Tips for your first steps

Still having difficulties with rhythm? With these first tips you will slowly but surely rock it!

1. Start small, but start now: Start speaking comparatively easy rhythms. Feel free to clap them if you like. Note and rest values ​​with crotchets or quavers work well for a first attempt. Why not give it a go today?

2. Find out which rhythmic language suits you best: Do you prefer sounds or words, are you more of the “da-da” or “drumming” type? You won't know until you try it, so grab a simple rhythm and replace the musical notes with words or individual syllables. Feel free to write down your ideas and experiment with different words or syllables. I have put together some examples for you of words (on the left) or syllables (on the right) you can use to underline simple rhythmic figures.

3. Have fun with music and language: What would music be without fun? So don't miss the opportunity to have a laugh with your exercises. Who wouldn't like to explore the rhythmic possibilities of the English language?

How about “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia”, which rather ironically means the fear of long words! Maybe there is a two-syllable word like “lovely” that always makes you smile? It doesn't matter what it is, have fun, then rhythm will quickly become very easy!

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