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Reading Rhythms in a Circle – Fractions, Za Time, TED Ed, Note Knacks & Figure

When we read music, or the English language for that matter, we read from left to right. This left to right movement expresses a certain amount of time, and it’s something we all grow up getting pretty accustomed to.

But as often as we read time from left to right, be it in a graph, a book, or in sheet music, time is often easier to represent in a circle.

Just think of a clock…it makes it very to see how the hour breaks down into minutes, quarters of an hour, halves of an hour, and so on.

Another classic example of cutting a circle into easy-to-understand fractions, is of course, pizza.

And if you’re familiar with our very first (and arguably most popular) music lesson, Sweet Beets, then you know that we here at Preschool Prodigies (and Primary Prodigies!) love representing rhythms with food!

So when we started on Primary Prodigies, we were eager to get into the idea of reading rhythms as a circle as soon as possible! We almost introduced the concept in Preschool Prodigies, but were afraid of getting a little too complex with the fractions, circular rhythms and notation that would go with Za Time.

Teaching fractions and rhythms with a circle isn’t a brand new idea however, and there are a lot of really amazing videos, toys, apps and lesson plans that tackle this idea.

So as more and more of Playground students are getting into the syllables, toppings and rhythms in Za Time, we wanted to put together a list of some of our favorite “rhythm as a circle” activities that our members could use to follow up Za time, and that anyone else could use to have some really fun and engaging rhythm lessons with their students!

1. John Varney’s TED Ed Lesson on Reading Rhythm in a Circle

This video is a high level look at how music is a function of time and repetition, and how subtle shifts and differences in where we place the strong and weak beats can dramatically change the style and feel of the music. As Varney put’s it, “the continuity of a wheel can be a more intuitive way to visualize rhythm than a linear score that requires moving back and forth along a page.”

The video is pretty self explanatory but it does move pretty quickly and might go a little over the head of your younger learners. Still, the visuals and sounds are undeniably cool, and at about 2 minutes, and again at about 2:40, some easier to follow and practical applications come into play, and at 3:22, you really get a good clean look at how the rhythms of a song lay out with multiple instruments.

Toward the end, Varney concludes that “by freeing us of the tyranny of the bar line, we can visual rhythm in terms of time,” which is really the whole point and goal of reading rhythm in a circle.

2. Primary Prodigies – Pizza Rhythms and Fractions in “Za Time”

As a life-long drummer and music teacher, I’ve been itching to get to this concept and this format for reading rhythms within the Prodigies Playground for years. However, I wanted to make sure I had the right song and the right level of students before really taking a crack at using this method to teach rhythm.

This is what led me and my song-writing partner Aaron to dive in on writing Za Time.

Za Time is another food based rhythm song (like Sweet Beets), but this time, it’s about everyone’s favorite food, Pizza.

Za Time takes the idea of reading rhythms in a circle and presents it in 3 different ways. We start off by combining the popular Kodaly syllables (Ta Ti-Ti etc) with my New York roots and play with the syllables Za, Zi-Zi and Ziga-Ziga ( of coursing mimicing the famous Ta, Ti-Ti and Tika-Tika).

We then shift to using the syllables of pizza-related words like “Slice,” “Veg-gies” and “Pep-per-on-i” before bringing it all home to use the numbers “1 2 + 3 e + a 4.”

This way, by the time we get to reading the numbers, kids are used to following the music in a circle and used to the rhythms they’re seeing and playing. That way the numbers seem like a natural extension that they already understand, and not something random or brand-new.

Za Time is featured as lesson number 6 inside Chapter 1 of Primary Prodigies, and we’re really excited about the lesson. We plan to reprise Za Time throughout the curriculum, much like we reprised Sweet Beets throughout Preschool Prodigies.

We also have our first ever math lesson inside of this section, where we have a quick look at fractions. Of course, when we’re chopping up clocks and pizza into different rhythms, the idea of fractions is inevitably linked, so we made sure to put together a fraction-specific lesson to help out any music lovers who maybe haven’t totally gotten the hang of fractions yet.

We also have a fun Rainy Day/Umbrella song coming up in Chapter 2, which will actually feature both standard notation AND this circular notation (in an umbrella!) as a means of really connecting the dots.

If you want to get in on the Primary Prodigies fun, definitely check out Prodigies Pro and/or Prodigies Lifetime. Both members unlock all of our student facing and teacher facing content, which includes over 100 videos, over 600 pages of printable worksheets, teacher training videos, parent guidance and much more!

3. Figure – Making Music and Reading Rhythms as a Circle on your iPad

I’ve written about Figure in the past, but in short, it’s an intuitive app for making some pretty catchy and ear-candy filled loops of music.

If you notice the middle image above, you’ll see the four main drum instruments (which vary slightly depending on your selected kit) and you’ll immediately noticed that there are circles with numbers on the inside.

Essentially, the number in the middle tells you how many times that drum will played in each measure. So with 4 inside of the “Kick” circle, and a 2 inside of the “Snare” circle, you’re going to end up with the modern backbone for most popular dance music (a kick drum on every beat and a snare drum back-beat on beats 2 and 4).

Plus, with a 16 inside of the “Hats” circle, you’ll get a hi-hat on every sixteenth note in the measure (1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a) which will really bring home the whole modern dance sound.

But if you look at the cowbell circle with the 5 in it, you can start to see how Figure deals with non-even rhythms. If you look closely, you can see that 4 of the bars circling the 5 are the same length, while the last one (circa 9-12 o’ clock) is a little bit longer. This mimics the visualizes we saw above in the TED Ed video and in Za Time and is A LOT of fun to mess around with.

There is A LOT to digest inside of the Figure app, and if you’re curious you can check out this guide by the company who created the app, Propellerhead.

If you’re thinking about investing in Figure, I highly recommend you do. Last I checked it was .99 cents in the app store and in fact, we actually used Figure to make some of the earliest backing music for the Prodigies Playground.

Plus, they more recently added some really awesome features that allow you to connect two devices for a simultaneous epic jam session, and my drummer friends and I have spent some late nights rocking out on our iPads using Figure.

And as a final note, using digital music making tools is very helpful for children who have a hard time keeping the beat. Like using a metronome, there’s no arguing with Figure about where the beat is or what the pulse is – the machine keeps it consistent for you. So for anyone out there struggling with a-rhythmic students, certainly try this in your next lesson and let us know how it went in the comments below!

4. Note Knacks – Bringing it Full Circle

Since the beginning of Preschool Prodigies and the Prodigies Playground, we’ve been talking about the awesome-ness of Note Knacks.

Note Knacks are rhythm manipulatives that make it really easy to demonstrate and play with rhythms by means of an error-proof toy.

More recently, Note Knacks jumped on the rhythm-as-a-circle bandwagon (which btw, is a really fun and educational bandwagon to jump on) by adding their “Games Method Rhythm Clock” to their product suite.

You can see the clock pictured below, and you can of course mix and match the pieces to create multiple measures of rhythms in a circle for you and your students to tap and clap your way through.

To learn more about the Rhythm Clock, you can visit their website here.

5. Final Thoughts

IF you have an idea or a toy or a video that helps teach rhythm in a circle, we’d love to hear from you! Simply leave a comment below to let us know what you think, or if you have any questions of the sort.

And if you’re curious about Za Time and about all the music lessons we have inside the Prodigies Playground, definitely check out the details of       and if you have any questions about enrolling, please let us know!

3 thoughts on “Reading Rhythms in a Circle – Fractions, Za Time, TED Ed, Note Knacks & Figure”

  1. I would really like there to be a way for the circle to be complete without it HAVING to be 4/4 time. Otherwise it works, but then how come are 1/4 notes sometimes 1/3 of the pizza? And there are a lot of kids songs in 6/8.

    1. Melinda – yea that’s a really good point. What are some of your favorite 6/8 kid songs? A 3/4 or 6/8 pizza is definitely a good call for a future Primary Prodigies video. The note knack toys are not of our own making so not much we can about that, but for the videos that’s a really great idea

      1. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush
        Pop Goes The Weasel
        A Tiskit A Tasket
        Jack & Jill Went up a Hill
        Over the River & Through the Woods

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