I often use old fashioned Cuisenaire Rods to demonstrate rhythms, but this blog by Tom MacPherson is very cute and effective as far as I can see. I am dying to try it out.
RHYTHMIC NOTATION IN LEGO
Understanding time values can be a bit of challenge for some students. Sometimes measuring the duration of sound by beats or by fractions of beats can get a little complicated for young minds. Really, if you stop to think about it, “half a beat” is a rather odd concept. Beats are precise moments in time, so when discussing fractions of beats, our music vocabulary is rather clumsy and misleading. What we are really doing in music notation is trying to depict different lengths of time, so I wanted to find something to represent that visually. In short, I wanted to create some kind of visual tool to help my students understand the relationship of one kind of note to another.
I always liked playing with LEGO as a kid. Among other things creative and mathematical, LEGO was (is) such a great toy to help explore fractions. When building anything out of LEGO bricks, if you didn’t have enough of one length of brick, you could always substitute a combination of other bricks that added up to the same length. With that concept in my brain, so began my experiment with rhythmic notation in LEGO!
In this little system I created, when notating any rhythm, an important first step is to determine which blocks represent which time values. The example I’ll be using in this demonstration is the opening of German Song by Daniel Gottlob Türk. It’s in the Royal Conservatory’s Grade 4 book, yet I imagine many students skip over it because the rhythm in it looks a bit too scary compared to other pieces in the List B category. Anyhow, in this piece, the thirty-second note is the smallest time value, so that will be assigned to the shortest brick. Sixteenth notes will be represented by bricks twice as long as those, eighths will be twice as long as sixteenths, and quarters twice as long as eighths.
Have a look at the photo below. German Song is in 2/4 time, so each line represents the number of bricks required to fill a complete measure in that time signature.
Don’t be concerned about colours, at least for now. In this system, a change of colour simply means a new note — whether the same pitch or a different pitch.
Can you imagine the discussion you can have with your student when faced with a dotted note? Having a dotted note will require using a brick that’s 50% longer. (Be thankful there are no dotted thirty-seconds in this little piece!)
Regarding rests: Rests are lengths of silence that correspond to specific lengths of sound. If an eighth rest is required, for example, empty space equivalent to the length of an eighth-note brick must be included.
Have a look at the opening melody of German Song…
And now have a look at the rhythm as depicted in LEGO…
In the printed music, notice that the measure numbers are included in little squares. In the LEGO version, the little blocks periodically placed on top of other blocks indicate the start of a new measure. They’re the measure numbers if you like. Also notice that on the board we used, we could fit exactly two measure of music left to right. This is one way to check for accuracy — all measure must be the exact same length.
Also, notice the tie in measure 2 of the printed music. See how we’ve done it in LEGO? It may be hard to see in this photo, but the orange eighth-note brick is followed by an orange thirty-second brick. That’s how we indicate ties — two bricks of the same colour side-by-side.
A supporting activity could be to rewrite German Song in 2/2 time. Using the LEGO notation as a guideline, we just need to rethink which time values are represented by which blocks. The first brick will now be a dotted quarter note, and the next two bricks to follow are sixteenth notes, etc. Once German Song is written out in 2/2 time, it doesn’t look as complicated for Grade 4 students.
German Song is an example of something in simple time. However, rhythmic notation in LEGO can also work in compound time. In 6/8 time, for example, the dotted quarter will be a brick that is as long as three eighth-note bricks. It’s nice to watch a student discover that two dotted-quarters equal the same length as a dotted-half, and that compound time is no big deal — it’s just that beats are subdivided into threes rather than twos.
My students and I have enjoyed using LEGO for rhythmic notation. Since it’s a toy, it’s not at all threatening for them. And I’m secretly happy to go shopping for more LEGO for myself!