The activity: Rhythm rulers
My perceived initial question: How can students use a ruler to understand rhythm and to create interesting rhythmic patterns?
A Rhythm Ruler is a representation of a conventional ruler that students can use, not to measure distance or length, but to observe divisions of the beat in a measure. Rhythm Rulers are a great tool for composition and rhythmic analysis which can encourage students to create complex and interesting rhythmic compositions before ever looking at a sixteenth note. For our class activity, Professor Scripp provided us with Rhythm Rulers made out of construction paper. Instead of a standard ruler which would begin at 0, the Rhythm Rulers began with 1, so as to represent an eight bar phrase. Each unit (ex. 1 to 2,Â 2 to 3) was divided into quarters, with a larger hash mark at the half as a conventional or metric ruler may have.
Blank rhythm ruler
Before I continue, I would like to point out how difficult it is to give a description of the rhythm ruler without using too much musical terminology. While Rhythm Rulers provide an excellent lesson in quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes etc., Professor Scripp made it a point to steer our discussion of our rhythm patterns away from standard rhythmic vocabulary.
Partner work: In groups of two, we composed eight-bar rhythmic compositions, notating the pattern with X markings on the Rhythm Ruler. Professor Scripp encouraged us to be creative with our rhythms and to consider dividing the rhythmic pattern into two four-bar phrases, or to have a sort of question and answer feeling to the phrase. After ten minutes of partner work, we were to demonstrate our rhythms to the class.
Group 1: Samuel and Leslie – Hatikva
Inspired by the first eight measures of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, Samuel and Leslie composed a very thorough rhythm. As a class, we listened to Hatikva, and then Samuel and Leslie demonstrated their rhythm to us.
Click here to see Sam and Leslie’s composition based on Hatikva
Several interesting points and questions arose from this composition based on fairly straight forward anthem:
- How does “Hatikva” fit the rhythm ruler?
- How can one best divide up the ruler to fit the anthem in the best way? (ex. on the full beat, the half, or the quarter)
- Does the beat emphasis affect the sound of the anthem?
- What characteristics define an anthem?
- Does the success of clapping this rhythm depend on a previous knowledge of the national anthem?
To address the last question, Professor Scripp had Sam and Leslie perform a “retrograde-inversion” of their rhythm–(*Hint* turn the ruler upside down). Did they exhibit true mastery of their rhythm?
Watch Hatikva…backwards…Rhythmic Ruler masters!
Group 2: Justin and Sarah – Rhythmic Ruler grooving jam session
Unlike Sam and Leslie, Justin and I did not have a specific theme or idea in mind for our composition. We composed very much from off the top of our head and ended up with some fun, off-the-beat elements that were syncopated, but also felt very natural.
An interesting phenomenon that happened while we improvised was the unintentional pitch that we added to our rhythms. Personally, I found that while I sang our rhythm, I had more success in clapping it. Watch the videos below as Justin explains our use of pitch and our performance of the rhythm.
MIE’s Behind the Music – The Rhythmic Ruler Jam Session
Jam Session – Part the Second
Thankfully, Professor Scripp did not express an interest in hearing the retrograde-inversion of the Rhythm Ruler Jam Session,Â but he did ask for a performance at double time and half time. When asking that of us, I found that I had to go less on “feeling” and had to rely much more on the ruler.
As I watch our group’s videos again, a few other questions (inspired from those presented in Group 1) have come to mind:
- Although we composed our rhythm without a specific melodic theme in mind, did we continue to rely on our unintentional pitch rhythm for succesful performance?
- How would another group, who had not heard our performance, perform our piece?
- What would happen if students composed on the Rhythm Ruler not for their own performance, but for the other students in the class to perform?
- If we were to have tried clapping this piece fully realized with notes and rests, would we have had as much success as with the rhythm ruler?
Group 3: Michael and Hao Bing: Silence and the reverse of silence
Watch below as Michael and Hao Bing describe the “raison d’etre” behind their composition. In this excerpt, you will see how the musician side of Michael and Hao Bing comes out and how Professor Scripp encourages them to rely more on the Rhythm Ruler and less on counting “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…”
“What’s our inspiration?”
Let the Rhythm Ruler do its job
We found as a group that their composition was deceptively tricky given its emphasis on empty space. Michael and Hao Bing tried an experiment in which instead of singing or clapping their rhythm, they performed the space between the X’s–they performed the silence.
The sounds of silence
Teamwork: After a completely unscripted, yet genius (…just kidding) comment that I made about the difficulty of Michael and Hao Bing’s piece and how it may be a helpful exercise for playing an excerpted orchestral part, Professor Scripp segued brilliantly and placed our Rhythm Rulers one on top of one other into a “score.” Here we perform our individual compositions together as an ensemble.
Playing off of the Rhythm Ruler score
And then we added drums…
For me, this was the most gratifying component to this exercise. I was quite surprised at how great our individual rhythms sounded as an ensemble piece. If I had not participated in this activity and had simply come upon this video, I could not have imagined that each line was painstakingly realized and individual in its own nature…the piece was very enjoyable as a whole!
Reflection: Rhythm Rulers provide an infinite amount of opportunities for music and music integration. Here are a few follow up questions that could be considered for integration in other subjects.
- What makes a national anthem, and how does it relate to a nation’s identity?
- To what extent does rhythm determine pitch–AND–to what extent does pitch determine rhythm?
- How do units of measure relate to divisions of the beat?
- What fractions are discussed in this exercise?
While watching our videos and thinking back on our comments and discoveries, I am thinking of a myriad of possible variations on this exercise and I am surprised at the possibilities that exist for creativity and improvisation in a construction paper ruler.
Difficult and syncopated rhythms can be made very accessible with Rhythm Rulers. While clapping Justin’s and my rhythm, I was brought back to Freshman year ear-training and trying to clap out impossible rhythms from Hindemith’s Elementary training for musicians. Perhaps if I had had a Rhythm Ruler, I would have been able to see the divisions of the beat more precisely than with “1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a…” Maybe instead of one “inch” being equal to one beat, four inches could be equal to one beat, and I could successfully clap out 32nd and 64th notes! Could the Rhythm Ruler conquer even Hindemith?
Even more than understanding and mastery of rhythmic patterns, I found that Rhythm Rulers present a beautiful lesson in how individuality can exist within a group, and how each person’s contribution is an important part of group creativity and success. Within our final composition, it is difficult to hear each of the three group’s lines (even Hatikva, which we were all humming for the remainder of class!), but the end result is truly a remarkable piece of music, and any number of variables would have brought about a completely different final piece. Everyone’s voice is special and unique,Â and when blended together, even the simplest offering can contribute to a masterpiece.