An Easier Way to Read Rhythms…

Last time, I gave you 2 simple tricks to read music notes. In many school districts, teachers are pressured into putting on concerts right away, and are told by administrators that the students have to read music right away.  This goes totally against how we learn music, which is by using our ears to listen and our bodies to feel rhythms.

There are many systems that teachers use to count rhythms, with the most popular being the number counting of beats in every measure. I was trained that way myself, but noticed quickly that some of the same syllables for certain rhythms (i.e. 8th notes) were also used to count triplets (i.e. 1 + a).  This would be confusing because triplets are felt differently than 8th notes. I somehow managed to learn how to feel the rhythms in those situations instead of relying on the counting.

The number counting system is good for determining where the beats fall in a measure, but there’s a simpler, well-researched system that is based upon rhythm function. Edwin Gordon’s system allows the student to recognize and feel the big and small beats in duple (based upon 2 small beats for every big beat) and triple (based upon 3 small beats for every big beat) meters.

Since most students are taught the number system, I will explain how this works, but I also want to compare that with Gordon’s syllables to give you a choice. Whatever works is what is best for you!

Number System of Counting

This is based upon determining where the beats, and their subdivisions (8th and 16th notes) in a measure fall.

The most common meter signature is 4/4:  where the top number tells you there are 4 beats in a measure, and the bottom number tells you that the quarter note (that’s what the “4” represents) gets 1 beat.

Graphic 1 meter sig 2



From the beginning, students are taught to think “1+, 2+, 3+, 4+” to feel the beats divided into 2 smaller beats. Students are instructed to tap their foot as they are saying these numbers. The downward motion matches the number of the beat, while the upward motion matches the “+” of the beat.

Procedure for Number Counting:

  1. Whatever is first in the measure, whether it’s a note or rest, will always get counted as beat “1”, so we write that underneath the note or rest.
  2. If the 1st beat was a full beat by itself, the next note or rest gets the number “2” to represent the start of the 2nd beat.
  3. If the 2nd beat is an 8th note, it would be labeled as “+”, because it’s the other half of the 1st beat.
  4. Continue on with beats “3” and “4”. If there are rests, still label where they fall in the measure; I like to also put them in parenthesis so I know not to play anything on that beat but I still need to count it.

Graphic 3-counting measure




5.  When you get to the next the measure, start with beat “1” and go through the process again.

Graphic 4-2 measure counting



6.  If there are triplets, or you are in a 6/8 meter, a recent variation of this counting system is “1,La, Li; 2, La, Li, etc.

Graphic 8-La Lis




Dr. Edward Gordon’s System

When we learn music, we understand rhythms by experiencing the elements of weight, space, time and flow. Some pieces feel “light”, while others feel “heavy.” In Gordon’s System, all the big beats get the syllable “Du”, whether in duple or triple meters. Small beats in duple, get the syllables, “Du, De”, while in triple, they are labeled, “Du, Da, Di.”  Since there are different labels for the small beats in triple, there is no confusion. Students can feel the big beats and know that they are always going to be labeled, “Du”.

One of the great things about this system is that we learn by experiencing the opposite, meaning that students would truly understand duple meter when they are also exposed to triple meter. (Many beginning method books stay in a duple meter for 15 pages, then have a few examples in ¾ time, then return to 2/4 and 4/4 meters for the rest of the book.) The meter of 6/8 is rarely introduced in beginning method books, and when it is, the counting system is not presented in a way that the music is felt.

With Gordon’s system, students are exposed equally to triple and duple meters from the start, and the counting system follows the feeling of the music.

 Process for Rhythm Counting using Gordon’s System

It is important to note that with this system, as with note reading, labeling does not occur until the student has experienced big and small beats in various meters and tempos, and has moved to many styles of music, especially world music, where the meters are more complex. Students are exposed to, and chant many rhythm patterns by ear well before reading them on paper. When the student sees the rhythm pattern, they are able to read rhythms with a better understanding.

  • If the music is in the common meter of 4/4, there are 4 big beats in the measure, and the quarter note gets the big beat (same as above). The first note or rest in the measure is labeled, “Du”. If it is a full beat, the next beat would be labeled, “Du”.
  • If the next beat is grouped in two’s, it would be labeled, “Du,De”.
  • If the next beat is a full beat, it is labeled, “Du”.
  • If the last beat is grouped in two’s, again label it as “Du,De”. (See first example below.) Any time there are rests, they can be labeled following this process; I still like to place the label in parenthesis to recognize the rest.  (See 2nd example below.)

Ex. 1:

Graphic 5-Gordon 1 measure




Ex. 2:

Graphic 6-Gordon rest




  • If you examine the example in triple below, you will see how this is labeled.

Graphic 7-Gordon triple




Some teachers would complain that the Gordon system doesn’t show where the beat falls in the measure. While that is true, it is important to remember that rhythms are felt, not read, and while feeling the rhythms as one is hearing them, the pulse is also felt. This is what determines where the strong and weaker beats are placed.


I predominantly use the Gordon system of rhythm counting for the following reasons:

  1. Students feel the rhythms, the big and small beats, without a complex discussion of subdivision.
  2. Students are exposed to triple meter at the same time as duple meter, which helps them understand each meter better.
  3. Students can identify songs that are in duple and triple meters much easier.
  4. When the time comes for reading notation, students have been exposed to so many rhythm patterns, it is like reading a familiar book. Reading is more natural and the rhythms flow better. When students are taught number counting as beginners, there isn’t that same feeling of flow that is felt while reading Gordon’s syllables. Students tend to try to sort through the numbers and wind up not chanting the rhythm as it is supposed to be felt.
  5. Gordon’s syllables have been well researched and documented in music education journals.
  6. There is less confusion over labeling with the Gordon system.

For more information on the rhythm syllables that Edwin Gordon uses, please read his book Learning Sequences in Music or Eric Bluestine’s The Ways Children Learn Music.


Fun Activities:

Regardless of which system you are being taught in school, it is always a great idea to start recognizing how certain rhythms feel, so:

  1. When you listen to the radio, or iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, etc., try to feel the big and small beats in each song.
  2. Try to determine if those small beats are felt in groups of 2’s or 3’s (duple or triple).
  3. Feel where the beats are the strongest to get the pulse of the music. This can help you determine the number of beats in a measure if you are using the number counting system.

Action Steps:

  1. Did this article help you? Let me know in the Comments section below!
  2. If you enjoyed this article, please Like it and share it on your social networks.
  3. Need more Reading Music tips? Click here for more articles.




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  1. Peggy Rakas says

    I have been using the Gordon method for many years and find it the best of all the counting systems to use with small group instruction…I LOVE it!

  2. Thank you for this article. I struggle with students who do not “get” rhythm right away: what to do next, or instead? This gives me some leads to pursue. My son, who is also a piano teacher, is learning the Gordon method and told me about it. So with his and your information, I will definitely be reading Dr. Gordon, especially for my unspoiled (by me) beginners!

    • Thank you Susan! I would suggest for you to read Eric Bluestine’s The Ways Children Learn Music. That is a fantastic book that gives a great summary of Dr. Gordon’s ideas. You may want to tackle Gordon’s Learning Sequences in Music next. Not an easy read, but very important. Then I would suggest, Gordon’s The Aural/Visual Experience of Music Literacy:Reading and Writing Music Notation. Keep me posted on what you think….

  3. Very good info, I liked reading about Gordon’s system and will start using Du de and Du da di with violin students! Counting is too abstract for young ones and distracts them from essential, as you keep mentioning, the feel, the weight and movement.
    I am the thinking, to myself here and note I haven’t read the books so I might say something that is already being used I don’t know, that at a later stage I would add the concept of different weights of each beat (ie pulse) which is especially important for classical music that is phrasebased and less beat based as popular and jazz: why not say “Dum du du du” for quick 4/4 meter, “Dum du dum du” for slow 4/4, “Dum du du” for 3/4 especailly waltz with its relation to dance and a marked difference between heavy 1, light 2 and very light 3 (and its varation depending on the phrase, that beat 3 can also be heavy sometimes when it is an important pickup to the next phrase, so inclusing the exception of “Dum du Dum…”), and eventually baroque dance beats as slow Sarabande being labelled “Du Dum du” and with subdivisions “Du de Dum de du de” or so. When it comes to other rhythms, like Mexican huasteca, Arabic uneven beat cycles, etc., this system will be awesome to expand and seems to work more simply and universally. Good learning, thanks from a teacher recovering a cold in bed this Sat., best wishes! Eva Vo

    • Thanks Eva-glad you got something out of it! I’ll be writing more about how I teach beginners in future blogs on my site.

  4. Interesting concept. It reminds me of the Ta Ti system . Just curious and wanted clarification of pronunciations. Du and dum- is the u a short oo as in do or is it uh as in duh or dumb? Do you use the ah, ay, ee, oh, oo pronunciations for a e i o u when applying it to these syllables? Beginning musicians might be helped by giving them phonetic spellings to get them started.

    • Sharon, the system you are referring to (Ta’s and Ti-Ti’s) is similar to Orff and Kodaly counting systems, except with the Gordon syllables, every rhythm is accounted for. With Ti-Ti, we don’t know if the 8th note is on the upbeat or downbeat. With Gordon’s system, we know that Du (pronounce Doo – thanks for pointing out the pronunciations!) is always on the downbeat, and De (pronounced Day) is on the upbeat. Especially with triple meter, it is really important to note that the regular number counting system can confuse beginners with 16th note rhythms. Ex. 6 16th notes would be counted 1&2&3& – those &’s are not equal in value to the &’s in Duple meter. Gordon’s syllables for this example would be Du ta Da ta Di ta. (Da pronounced with the “a” as Ahhh; Di pronounced with the “i” as Eeee). Thanks for your comment and great point about the pronunciations!

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