Teaching Eighth-Notes

Teaching eighth-notes is tricky. There are things you can do to make it easier, though!

Tips for Teaching Eighth-Notes

First, don't introduce eighth-notes until the student is absolutely fluent with quarter-notes as the smallest note value. For children, this may be 3 years. For adults, at least one year. This obviously flies in the face of many method books, some of which introduce eighth-notes as early as the third song! Remember that what we as professional musicians are used to seeing and doing is entirely different than a beginner's perspective. I urge you to leave eighth-notes until quite a while later. Even if "the books" have eighth- note songs early on. Just skip them and come back to them.

Second, don't introduce eighth-notes to children until they are developmentally ready for them. For most children, this is grade 4. Jean Piaget, noted educational theorist, says that the child's brain is not developmentally ready for partiality until about age 9. Haven't you noticed that the public schools don't teach fractions before the 4th grade? It's like teaching a pig to sing; you'll be unsuccessful, and you'll annoy the pig. While a child as young as four can cut a candy bar in half with great accuracy, he cannot manipulate partiality in his brain. "Half a quarter-note" doesn't mean anything to him because it's an abstract concept; "half a candy bar," on the other hand, is a concrete item as long as he's doing the cutting of an actual candy bar (a manipulative, as elementary school math teachers like to call them).

There is *plenty* to do with children that doesn't involve eighth-notes! Expand their range of note-reading. Give them first and second endings; da capos; dal segnos; minute/trio format; codas; dal segno al codas. Spend extra time in technique and music theory. Talk about ornaments, rubato, phrase shaping, dynamics, structures such as ABA and rondo form, structures such as question-and-answer. Explore improvisation, composition, accompanying, basso continuo playing. How about jazz, blues, boogie, and rock? There's easily three years' worth of lesson content here...and all without eighth-notes.

Third, when you do introduce eighth-notes, make them the focus of the piece: cut back on all other aspects of the music and focus only on counting. Don't introduce eighth-notes in a sonatina, where the student may also have to learn a couple new notes, deal with dynamics, phrasing, sharps/ flats, etc. Use a song that has only eighth-notes. If necessary, take something which is exclusively in quarter notes and rewrite it in eighth-note notation. Use a one-note melody divided between the hands. Really focus on the counting.

Fourth, after you introduce eighth-notes, spend at least a month (with an adult; longer with a child) using these simple songs before jumping into intermediate literature. And stay away from sixteenth-notes for a while, too (until the student understands what I call "pizza" counting--see below).

How to Teach Eighth-Notes

I feel that it is crucial to produce musicians with accurate rhythm skills. To this end, I withhold eighth- notes. I explore related areas and touch on details students will need in earnest starting with sonatina literature. Then, when they learn eighth-notes, they take off like a shot because they have all the basic musicianship skills already in hand. I've been doing it this way for 35 years, and I'd have to say it works like a charm. I invite you to try it.

Here's how.

After you are confident the student thoroughly understands counting with quarter-notes as the smallest value, tell him he is going to learn a new counting system: eighth-note counting. "An eighth-note is half a quarter-note." To use this system, he must shift his brain and consider the eighth-note the new "one" unit, not the quarter. Make a chart and show the eighth-note as "one;" draw the quarter-note and ask him to figure out how many counts it receives. Draw the dotted-quarter next but skip over it for now. Do the half, dotted-half, and whole note. Return to the dotted-quarter. "This is a new kind of note used in eighth-note counting." Based on where it falls in the chart, he can probably guess it gets three counts. If not, tell him. I also point out that "a dot means three of something" and ask him prove it to himself by breaking down a dotted-half and a dotted-whole. I also mention there are no 5- and 7-count notes ("You have to make those using ties").

Now you need to drill, even with adults. I make rows of unrelated notes and ask the student to write the number that corresponds to the number of counts. The first rows are single notes only. I recomend that each note a quarter-note or larger be written out as 1-2, not just 2. This reinforces that "two things" must happen on this note.

To get more complex, beam 2, 3, and 4 eighth-notes together and intersperse them with the single notes. Each of these should be counted 1-1 or 1-1-1 or 1-1-1-1 (not 1-2 or 1-2-3 or 1-2-3-4). What you want to emphasize is the value of a single eighth-note, whether it is in a ligature or standing alone. Insist; don't take shortcuts. A youngster might need a page of these for 1-2 weeks for drill before you introduce a song with eighths; an adult or teen usually picks it up immediately and can play an eighth-note song the same lesson.

The first week with a song, assign one which is totally 1-count eighth-notes. A good example is the famous Irish jig called "The Irish Washerwoman" (sometimes this is known simply as "The Irish Jig"). Use 3/8 as the time signature. (Yes, NOW is the time to explain what both numbers in a time signatures mean. Each eighth-note should be counted "one." Ask your student to write in all the counting, count aloud, and use the metronome (set at about 80). Some will balk, but say, "Please do this for only 4 weeks, and I promise you will never have difficulty counting." Then require it at the lesson and remind the student to do this at home because you will require it in your studio and he won't be able to do it for you at the lesson if he hasn't done it at home! (Busted!)

For the next song, try "Little Piece" by J.C. Bach and F. Pasquale Ricci (found in Alfred's "The Harpsichord Manual," edited by Margery Halford, published 1980, p. 8). It has eighths, quarters, and halves only and a very thin texture. Search for other similar pieces (more in this book, by the way). All counting of notes should be by unit counting (1 for each eighth-note, 1- 2 for each quarter, etc.); DO NOT count 1-2-3-4 yet! Please!

Now we're going to deal with every teacher's favorite counting bugaboo: the dotted-quarter. With eighth-note counting, it's a piece of cake, I promise! Dividing it between the hands, write out the melody for Brahms' Waltz Op. 39 #15 (key of G is good; start on the B just below middle C). Note that again we are cutting back in difficulty--no hands together--because we are introducing a new concept. Other familiar pieces with this dotted rhythm: main theme from The Trout by Schubert, main theme from Sonata in A Major (K. 331) by Mozart (try this in A Major), My Country 'tis of Thee, and so on. Drag out all those songs you've slaved over in the past!

By this time in my students' careers, they are on a sight-reading program, for which I use "Very First Piano Solo Book" (edited by Allan Small, published by Alfred). The section of eighth-note songs, starting at about the middle of the book, are all excellent, thin-textured pieces appropriate for beginning eighth-note reading. (Paint out the copious finger numbers, however!)

With a child, go back to all those eighth-note songs you skipped in the method books and pass those off. Then move to Alfred's "Essential Keyboard Repertoire," edited by Lynn Freeman Olson. Soon these pieces will present insufficient challenge, so use the balance of them for sight-reading. With an older student, you might want to use this book for sight-reading and go right to some easy sonatinas:

Note: DO NOT mix eighth-note triplets in with standard eighth-note duplets yet! Skip over these pieces for now. And no sixteenth-notes!

The student obviously cannot go on forever counting all quarter-notes as 1-2. In a piece where only one or two of them occur, this is terribly cumbersome (a good example is "Sweet Betsy from Pike" in Small's book). The student will probably groan over having to count 1-2 all the time, so this is when you introduce "pizza" counting. Substitute "pizza" for the duplet. You may have to work a little bit on evenness, but I doubt this will be much trouble for your student.

Of course, now you ask why not just use "pizza" to begin with? You may certainly try it and see what happens. Repeatedly I discovered that taking this shortcut did not work. Students seem to need an acclimatization period of eighth-note counting before they are ready to deal with "pizza." Several songs later, I note that, "Most musicians use -and- and a number instead of -pizza-." Some switch to "one-and" counting right there, and some stick with "pizza." Some use both methods. In any event, point out that this counting is still "two of something."

At this point, or even earlier, students may also prefer to count a group of four eighths as 1-2-3-4 instead of 1-1-1-1.

At each new song, ask, "Eighth-note counting or regular counting?" If there is anything at all tricky-- such as a single dotted-quarter-eighth, insist on eighth-note counting. You won't regret it. Students will need at least 6 months of confident counting with 1-2-3 for dotted-quarters before they can switch to "one- and-two." Don't rush this process. Let each student progress at his own rate. And remind your students that if they ever become confused, they should go back to good old eighth-note counting because it always works.

When your student is at either the pizza or one-and counting stage, this is the time to introduce duplet and triplet subdivision of the quarter note.

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.


Piano Home Page | Pedagogy Topics | Home Page

marbeth@marthabeth.com