V.com weekend vote: Which is more difficult to teach/learn: pitch or rhythm?

June 4, 2023, 4:50 PM · I used to think that it was fairly impossible to teach someone how to hear pitch or how to feel rhythm - they either came to the table with those abilities, or not. Maybe you could refine those senses, but if someone was "tone deaf" or had no rhythm, too bad.

Of course, teaching has helped me change my mind about that, but I still ponder the question, which is harder to teach? And which is harder to learn?

learning music, teacher teaching

For a long time I thought that pitch was - okay, I'll admit it - impossible to teach. But then a student changed my mind - when she came to me, she had started learning violin at school and played nearly everything out of tune. So I started to teach her about resonant notes on the violin, and how to hear it when, say, a "D" played on the A string is so in tune that it gets the D string ringing.

To my delight (and I'll admit, to my surprise) - she listened, and she took this to heart. I could tell that she was doing this in her practice, too, and the intonation gradually started getting better. And then it started getting much better! I taught her to use a drone for scales, and she did it faithfully. It's hard for me to even believe that this student started out with such serious intonation problems that someone might have put the "tone deaf" label on her.

So at this moment in time (and I fully expect my views to evolve) - I feel that pitch is a little easier to teach than rhythm, at least for me!

What are your thoughts? Are pitch and rhythm inborn abilities? Is it possible to teach/learn them? Which is easier to teach or learn? Please participate in the vote, and then share your thoughts in the comments.

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June 4, 2023 at 10:35 PM · Six years ago, when I started to learn how to play a violin, my pitch was beyond dubious. My first finger was reliable, my second finger was as well, but my third and fourth were rebellious.

Then, one afternoon, I thought I’d found an easy solution.

Juliana and I attend a concert by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Vancouver, Washington. Anne Akiko Meyers, the international concert violinist, was the guest. She was great.

During intermission she was in the lobby, sitting behind a table, and signing CD’s. Annie Akiko Meyers! She’d know what to do! I grabbed a CD and got in the line of people seeking her signature.

Juliana asked me. “What are you doing?”

“I’ve got a question for her.”

She looked over at Anne Akiko Meyers and shook her head.

“You just want to talk to a beautiful woman. I’ll see you back at our seats.”

She walked away.

I waited, and then it waw my turn to talk with the violinist.

“Hi,” I said. “How are you today?”

She looked at me. “Fine, and you?”

"I'm 68 years old. I started playing violin last May." I smiled.

She looks surprised. "Really? That's amazing!"

I handed her a CD for her to sign. “Um, I’m wondering, if you have any secrets for getting good intonation? You know . . . pitch?”

She signed the CD, looked up at me and said, “Ah, intonation. It’s always a challenge.”

She handed me the signed CD, saying, “Enjoy the rest of the concert.”

That’s it. I stepped away and she took a CD from the next person.

Alas, there are no easy answers. Just a lot of hard work. However, that was five years ago. I’m better now. I’d say, at this point, I’m as good as any halfway decent 12 year old kid.

June 4, 2023 at 11:53 PM · Isn't it really a question of how precise the pitch needs to be, or how complex the rhythm is? They can both be very easy or very hard, depending on how much they need to be developed. Pitch probably seems harder to most string players because we don't have the keys, frets, or valves that other instruments have to help with it.

At the most basic level, it probably depends on the individual.

June 5, 2023 at 02:01 AM · Good topic. Rhythm came easier to me because I started music lessons on the piano for two years before starting violin.

For me, the "secret" is to have the pitch I want to play in my mind's ear before I play it. Of course that raises the obvious question of the accuracy of my mind's ear! I think unless you are born with some kind of savant-like ability (aka "perfect pitch") then your ability to hear develops in parallel with your ability to play.

Along with the question of rhythm comes the question of whether one can maintain a steady tempo. To me, at least.

June 5, 2023 at 03:08 AM · Both pitch discernment and rhythm sense are partly innate and partly learned/trained. Occasionally I have had a student with what I would call a negative talent. After several years I decided that one student really could not comprehend the difference between a half-step and a whole-step. I said (not directly to him of course) that he had "fingers like lightning,-they never landed in the same place twice". Another, voice + guitar, did not have a feeling for meter. Bad joke; How do you know that there is a singer at your front door?--They can't find their key and don't know when to come in.

Pitch control is difficult because there are three factors that need to be correct: hearing, mechanics/posture of the hand, and theory, knowing why and how to bend the notes away from tempered tuning. A lot of people don't learn about intonation theory until college, some never learn it.

Hearing intonation deprived students are better off switching to piano.

June 5, 2023 at 04:26 AM · I found this a very difficult question. I'm very focused on intonation, so I'm inclined to say that that is the more difficult of the two. But that may only be because I pay too little attention to rhythm.

June 5, 2023 at 08:53 AM · As a teacher I've found that it all depends on the student. Some have an easier time learning pitch while others have an easier time learning rhythm. I have given up trying to predict which new student will have a harder time with which element. I started teaching a student several years ago who was involved with Irish Step Dancing and I thought "She'll surely have good rhythm since she's done well in dancing competitions." Nope. Not at all. Her rhythm has always been a challenge. Her melodic sense has been fine, but rhythm has always been sketchy, even though intellectually she understands note values and how they relate to the beat. Other times I have had students who couldn't walk with a steady pace but whose rhythm in their music was wonderful even though they couldn't hear the difference between G and G#. It's an individual thing and I think every teacher needs to approach it as such, figuring out for each student where the emphasis needs to lie.

June 5, 2023 at 10:03 AM · I have found that listening to the pitch of others is much easier than getting it correct ones self. Part of that is the buzz of noise under the ear, part the effort of playing. I have found in the last few years that playing better violins, listening carefully to bows I was trying, and making sure the violins were adjusted properly have all given me different information about fine changes in pitch that I was probably unaware of before. Not the biggest problem in orchestras, but it makes a huge difference in solo playing.

June 5, 2023 at 12:13 PM · Great question and the comments above are all thought-provoking! I voted for rhythm being more difficult, but I suspect my answer changes based on how I'm feeling the day I ponder the question. For me, I believe I know when I'm playing out of tune. But I'm usually not as aware of my rhythmic issues. And I'm with Paul Deck's tempo comment in that I include in the overall definition of rhythm both rushing and dragging.

June 5, 2023 at 02:06 PM · It depends on the student, and I've had both kinds. A girl I teach started out with her parents telling me she was born with a hearing deficit, which prevented her from hearing high pitches, but now with perseverance 3 years later, she can hear those ringing tones, and her intonation is pretty good, like many other students.

Her sister is different - insists on reading notes by pitch, and loses the rhythm until I convince her she can do it from memory without the book. Then her rhythm is perfect. "Go figure!"

June 5, 2023 at 03:39 PM · Rhythm has come easier to me than pitch, but I certainly saw/heard others around me with the opposite challenge. So I agree "it depends on the student".

June 6, 2023 at 02:39 AM · It is more flattering to say it's "innate", but let's be honest, everyone needs some sort of training and hard, conscientious work. It is easier for some than others. It is very rare these abilities cannot be mastered, though I have seen some very extreme cases in which the challenge of playing in tune was very difficult. Let us remember, however, that even having "perfect pitch" does not mean you will play in tune. Most people can achieve good rhythm and intonation with good practice work, in my very strong opinion-it's just that the violin takes lots of work until everything becomes much more natural/second nature.

I never had many pitch or rhythm problems, but still need to practice so my skills do not regress. We all need to keep up the labor of love on our instruments-very few are "talented" enough that they can entirely forgo practicing and be able to play perfectly in tune (even Heifetz stated as much.) Perhaps one can be proficient enough to never play horribly out of tune, but to play "perfectly" requires constant training and technical care.

Let us strive to be a better violinist every day. :)

June 6, 2023 at 12:56 PM · When I returned to playing (after eons) in 2008 my intonation was a joke - but I didn't actually know it until I recorded myself. Turns out there were two violins: one in my arms and one in my head - and the one in my head was always in tune. It took years to bring these two together - and now I think my intonation is pretty good (not great but on a good day...).

IMO rhythm is much more easily learned simply because its instantly testable so you can work on it. Its not rhythm that gets me its actually 'timing'. My head rets bored during a long note, or maybe my intrisic timing speads up, and I will start the next note too early. This has been very hard to fix. I play with a metronome and it is fine - but without it creeps back. The only reliable fix I have is to tap my foot (yes, I know a big no-no - but would you rather continually play catch-up?).

If anyone has a fix for my internal metronome I'd love to hear it. I console myself with the probably apocryphal story of 'Einstein being unable to count' - possibly due to the same issue.

June 6, 2023 at 02:08 PM · Both are the technical side of making music. To some extent both are innate while also requiring teaching training and practice.

Both require fine-motor-control and beg the questions of "how young is too young?"

I admit that, as an adult beginner, I had problems with the ring tones associated with the first finger on the G and D strings. (Having served on an aircraft carrier didn't make that easier.) Eventually I learned to hear those tones as well as both the "B" on the A string and F# on the E string.

I probably spend more time teaching One-Four drills getting both the stretch as well as the octaves beat-free. A bit less on rhythm although dotted figures and triplets are interesting to teach. A lot of time on both.

June 6, 2023 at 05:55 PM · I was lucky. When I started private lessons on cornet at age 8, my teacher told my parents, to their delight, that I had perfect pitch. I didn't even know what that meant at the time - I just tried to hit the notes properly. And even before I started lessons I knew my timing was better than that of most of the people around me - at age 7 I was irritated by the way people could not or would not count out a long note or the rests at the end of a line of song.

Fast forward to today. My wife is dabbling in cello but is not a serious musician. We're trying to work up some music for a relative's wedding. Her rhythm isn't too bad - it's easy to count it out and demonstrate how the piece should be played - but she just can't seem to hear when her intonation is off. That's why I voted for pitch being the more difficult to learn. I can't figure out how to impart my knowledge to someone else. It's frustrating.

June 6, 2023 at 06:05 PM · On the contrary, these two problems are so dissimilar that they can hardly be compared. Which is why I did not vote.

Intonation is a specifically violinistic problem. Pianists don't have to worry about it and wind players have their own, different intonation problems. The main way to work intonation is to slow down and listen as carefully as you can.

Rhythm on the other hand is a musical problem. Every musician, from drummer to singer, has to deal with it. Slowing down won't help; it makes every rhythm simple and when you speed up you are back where you started out. The best way to learn it is to set the instrument aside and do it clapping hands or stomping feet and in extreme cases banging heads against walls...

June 7, 2023 at 09:58 AM · I personally prefer to whip my hair back and forth. It is infinitely more effective.

June 11, 2023 at 08:08 PM · I can’t address the teaching side of the question, since I’m not a teacher; but, as a learner, I voted “equally difficult” - although I’d have to add what others have already said: It depends on the student. I’ve always found pitch a tad easier to grasp. I have a keen sense of rhythm, too, but I’m still not as quick to detect faulty rhythm as I am to note inaccurate pitch, e.g., when learning new material.

As a kid, I had basic piano instruction before switching to violin. I picked up a good deal of theory at quite a young age, and I’m sure this helped.

My first two violin teachers confirmed that I had strong pitch sense. I could tell right away when something was out of tune and could fix it fast on my own, without being told what was wrong. To this day, I will never be satisfied - I always find something to nitpick and improve. To cite Anne Akiko Meyers’ input - see earlier response above: “Ah, intonation. It’s always a challenge.”

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