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Teaching Quarter and Eighth Notes To Your Elementary Music Students

Updated: Mar 21

The transition from hearing and echoing long and short sounds to reading music notation might seem daunting. After all, quarter notes and eighth notes will follow students for the rest of their musical careers. Teaching it well is important! In this post, we'll talk about how you prepare kids, scaffold, and bring in critical skills to set your students on a path to becoming proficient musicians.

Are you a music teacher who feels unprepared to teach rhythm, or like traditional methods aren't resonating with you or your students? Wondering how to get started? My free 12-page guide is jam-packed with lessons, activities, and resources to further your learning. Click to download your copy!

Be sure to read to the end to learn how to use my free resource you can try in your first week of teaching quarters and eighths. You can even grab a year's worth of simple assessments if you're planning to implement these strategies or make student proficiency your teacher goal for this year.

The first steps in prepping kids for notation begin perhaps years earlier with lots of practice in broad categories that you're probably already doing, like:

  • finding and showing the beat (with lots of teacher modeling and kinesthetic strategies- think keeping the beat by clapping or tapping, or by pointing to iconic beats like hearts or other shapes)

  • echoing patterns of long and short sounds

  • performing simple ostinatos using long and short sounds

  • chanting and singing songs using long and short sounds

  • reading iconic notation representing sounds in groups of ones or twos

If you've done any of these, you're ahead of the game! Now here's how those things relate to the big end goal.

And hey- if the idea of specific music teacher toolbox strategies and resources is something that excites you, you’d get a lot out my email newsletters as part of the the ADM community. Sign up with this link!

Beginning steps

Remember: music is like a language in that learning by ear first, then by eye, is important to understanding. Letting students hear you model is crucial to developing both their aural and literacy skills. Whenever you model something, let them echo it. I always say, "One, two, me then you" so they know to repeat after me. (And if a kid tries to clap or chant with me, I stop, make a silly face, then ask if they can predict the future :) )


I begin kindergartners reading iconic notation with examples like this:

Scaffolding quarter notes and eighth notes - fruit rhythms - A Different Musician - Sarah L. Mauro - music education
Scaffolding quarter notes and eighth notes - fruit rhythms - A Different Musician - Sarah L. Mauro - music education

Each example uses a fruit with one syllable and a fruit with two syllables. For the first few classes, the students echo me as I chant the fruit patterns (ex. Cherry, grape, cherry, grape; this translates to quarter, eighth, quarter, eighth). Then they echo my simultaneous chanting and clapping.

Eventually, they independently read and clap these iconic representations. If they're showing deeper understanding, I put two patterns on the board and only clap the rhythm of one of them; then, they tell me which pattern it was by matching the sounds to the syllables of the fruits.

If your students are ready for more independent practice...

Let them sort pictures on their own or in teams as your circulate and check their work.

These Cut and Sort rhythm activities are great for when you are ready to take a facilitator role while the students guide their own learning.

How to use them:

Students sort 16 pictures into quarters or eighths depending on their syllables. Using a strategy like clapping, they figure out the rhythm of each picture. These can be individual activities or centers (I'd laminate a few copies then cut out the pieces for kids to sort).

Here's a Winter themed activity as an example, but I have a bunch more you can browse through here.

First grade

First grade looks similar to kindergarten. Another activity I pair with reading picture notation is having them draw their own fruit rhythms (or vegetables, or candies, or colors) to share with the class. It doesn't really matter what they draw as long as they can chant the rhythm to a steady beat instead of just reading it like prose. Adding a percussion instrument, like a woodblock or drum, can help reinforce the musicality of their reading. Feel free to use this template I made!

Rhythm Circles_A Different Musician
Download PDF • 294KB

I also find that doing this type of chanting helps students perform rhythms ending with eighth notes more accurately in the future. Because a rhythm ending with an eighth note pair has energy at the end, students tend to want to clap more than twice. Or, when I clap such a rhythm, students often aren't entirely sure when to begin their echo claps. Usually many of them do a slight pause, and I think it's because a quarter note at the end sounds more final. But eighth note endings are real-world examples, so they should not be avoided.

Second grade

Second grade is the year my school introduces musical notation for quarter and eighth notes (du and du-de, or ta and ti-ti).

We begin by reviewing the picture notation from first grade. I challenge them by clapping the rhythm only, then they need to tell me which pattern I clapped from a list of two or three on the board.

But then it's time to graduate to more abstract notation, particularly notation that shows how many sounds per beat, like this dot notation.

Scaffolding quarter notes and eighth notes - dot notation - A Different Musician - Sarah L. Mauro - music education

Some things you can do with dot notation are:

  • clap and echo with the class or individuals

  • put a few on the board and clap one, then have students identify

  • have students decode an example into one- and two-syllable fruits or vegetables (ex. the one above could be "Lemon, lime, lemon, lime"

But my favorite thing to do is hand out a 4-circle template and six or seven little pom-poms so students can build their own rhythms and practice reading/clapping with peers. This is a great way to get your students synthesizing their skills (high on Bloom's Taxonomy) because they are creating, reading, and assessing.

Transition to reading music notation

The dots are a wonderful way to scaffold students' learning because the next step is doing from dot notation to stick notation.

Scaffolding quarter notes and eighth notes - stick notation - A Different Musician - Sarah L. Mauro - music education

I usually just ask students to match up which sticks would partner with which dot. Or you can be more fun than that and say your dots have suddenly been put under a spell or disguised themselves, and can your students figure out who is who. Either way, this is now the real deal!

Once they see these patterns, many can already clap them without a model. However, I can't overestimate the important of modeling and echoing. You are of course their primary model, but having students model for the class is important to building independence, confidence, leadership, and literacy. It's a way for you to assess them, too.

Assessing Students... in Fun and Meaningful Ways

Speaking of...

Oral assessments will happen as you practice examples like this in class. If I don't have time for individuals every day, I go row by row, which is usually clear enough for me to determine which students are following or leading.

But if you're looking for another way to assess students on rhythm, I have a bunch of great resources for you!

After cutting out 16 labeled pictures, students will sort them into the right category by syllable.

This example is from Camping Rhythms Cut and Sort.

You can choose from templates with dot notation, stick notation, or regular notehead notation, meeting your students where they're at.

Fruit Rhythms Cut and Sort is a good year-round option, but I have seasonal ones as well, like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Winter!

Another option that includes a composition element is these Rhythm Worksheets!

Scaffolding quarter notes and eighth notes - fruit and vegetable rhythm worksheets - A Different Musician - Sarah L. Mauro - music education

How to use:

These worksheets ask kids to identify which symbols (du, du-de; ta, ti-ti) go with each picture (one or two syllables) and write it underneath. Then, they compose four rhythms by drawing their own picture patterns and then decoding their rhythms into stick notation.

I love these as a first written assessment for quarter/eighth stick notation, and kids do too! They also help me see where I need to modify my instruction- always an important things to be aware of.

This is a Valentine's Day example, but it's the same concept for every worksheet.

I have a whole bundle of these in my store that you can use throughout the year, including for centers, periodic assessments, teacher goal evidence, and sub plans.

Want one right now to use in your classroom tomorrow? Here's an exclusive Animal Rhythms Worksheet freebie not available in my store!

Summing it all up

I hope this info helps you navigate the transition to reading stick notation with you kiddos. Of course, if you think your kids are ready for faster paced lessons, by all means do what you feel is best! Maybe my grade 2 is your grade 1. It depends on several factors and your individual circumstances.

Did you try any of these strategies? Leave me a DM over on Instagram!

P.S. Did you know I have a YouTube channel where I do music teacher toolbox chats about topics like this? If you're not connected with me there, make sure you subscribe to learn more meaningful elementary music strategies!

Happy music-making!


Music ed that switches things up while inspiring lifelong musicianship

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