Orff Rhythm Syllables: Do They Exist?

image orff rhythm syllables

Are you a fan of Orff-Schulwerk but confused as to what rhythm syllables they use? 

As one of the main methods of music education you would expect this to be well-known, but when most people stop to think about it, they don’t realize what the Orff rhythm syllables are. 

Orff rhythm syllables aren’t stuck into one system. Orff himself never required one rhythm counting system, but many Orff teachers use others available including a language system, Kodaly syllables, French Time-Names system, and TaKeTiNa. 

Learn more about these systems below. 

What Is A Rhythm Syllable? 

Rhythm syllables are words or sounds that help students build connections between rhythmic ideas, written notation, and how they relate to beat and performance. The syllables can be built on words or seemingly nonsense phrases. 

Rhythm syllables are usually part of rhythm counting systems. The syllables can either simply replacement the note values or change based on which rhythm gets the beat (known as beat function). 

4 Rhythm Counting Systems Used By Orff Teachers

Orff strongly encouraged the study and experience of rhythm from the simple to complex, but he also encouraged the connection between language and rhythm as students learned it (read from Elementaria). 

However, Orff didn’t pick one rhythm system to use, so Orff teachers tend to use a system that fits their personal situation best. 

According to Doug Goodkin on this post with the American Orff Schulwerk Association, the following 4 systems are most commonly in use. 

#1 Language

One of the most common ways to read or perform rhythm with Orff teachers is to use a language-based system with creative input by the students. 

In this system, students are using words to connect with rhythmic ideas. This system encourages creativity, helps reach linguistic learners well, and follows the path of language learning (all things Orff encouraged). 

In this process, rhythms are assigned values based on their syllables. 

Examples: 

  • Quarter notes: John, Grace, Rose, Dog, Blue
  • Paired eighth notes: Billy, Jenna, Lilly, Kitty, Yellow
  • Rest: No sound, shh, or say rest
  • Triplet: Willam, Jessica
  • Four sixteenth: Leonardo, Arabella

Students are allowed and encouraged to take command of the words chosen (with guidance from the teacher). This type of learning has become a hallmark of the Orff process.  

Some ideas for themes to help students start creating rhythm words include: 

  • Fruit, veggies, and other food
  • Animals
  • Names
  • Objects in the room
  • Holidays 
  • Colors
  • Sports
  • Movies/shows/games
  • Types of cars 

There are many more ideas besides these, but this may be helpful in getting started. 

Pro-tip: If you choose a theme that’s more visual (such as food), you could also cut out pictures of this food and use them to have students arrange and compose their own rhythms. 

image fruit rhythm syllables

#2 Kodaly Rhythm Syllables

Kodaly rhythm syllables or ta ti ti rhythm syllables are one of the more common systems used around the world. In this system, you typically replace specific notes with syllables. 

This means that a quarter note would be “ta” even in cut time. However, your students would likely have moved on to a different system at that point. 

A common system includes: 

  • Quarter note = ta
  • Paired eighth notes = ti ti 
  • Rest = (no sound) 
  • Half note = ta-ah or too
  • Whole note = ta-a-a-ah or too
  • 4 sixteenth = tika tika or tiri tiri
  • Dotted quarter-eighth = tam-ti
  • Dotted eighth quarter = tim-ka
  • Triplets = tri-po-let or tri-o-la

There is a common movement in the Kodaly syllable world to adapt this system into a beat function system which means the syllables always follow whatever value gets the beat. If the down happens to be a dotted quarter, you would still say “ta.”  

Many Kodaly-inspired teachers report different versions of this system in use depending on where their Kodaly training was received.

#3 French Time-Names

The French time-names were developed in the 19th century France. This system, similar to the Kodaly system, uses syllables which are meant to replace the note values regardless of meter. 

The original French syllables were based on the French names of the rhythm values (thus the “time-names” system). 

Father of American music education, Lowell Mason, adapted this system in the late 19th century. He changed the syllables to be easier for English-speakers to say and adapted their function to change with the beat. 

In this way, “Ta” always lands where the beat begins. This is similar to takadimi and the Froseth “du-de” system used by Music Learning Theory and Conversational Solfege. 

Mason used the following syllables: 

  • Quarter note = ta
  • Eighth note = ta-te
  • Half note = ta-ah
  • 4 sixteenth note = tafa tefe
  • Eighth-2 sixteenth = ta tefe
  • 2 sixteenth-eighth = tafa te
  • Whole note = ta-a-a-ah
  • Dotted quarter-eighth = ta-a-te
  • Dotted eighth sixteenth = ta-fe

#4 TaKeTiNa

TaKeTiNa is more than just a rhythm counting system, it’s a whole-body experience and method of rhythm. For more information, check out the TaKeTiNa website. 

Boiled down (way down), taketina heavily emphasizes body percussion, syllables, and call response to encourage rhythmic literacy and fluency. 

The basis of the system for syllables is the named phrase, “TaKeTiNa”, which names the subdivision of the beat. This system is another beat function one which means the syllables change to match the meter. 

The syllables were chosen because of the circular placement in the mouth. Ta starts at the teeth, ka moves to the back, ti brings it to the teeth again, and na sends it out the nose. 

In 4/4 meter: 

  • Quarter note = ta
  • Paired eighth notes = ta-ti
  • 4 sixteenth notes = taketina
  • Eighth-2 sixteenth = ta-tina
  • 2 sixteenth-eighth = take-ti
  • Dotted eighth-sixteenth = ta-na

In 2/2 meter: 

  • Half note = ta
  • 2 quarter = ta-ti
  • 4 eighth notes = taketina
  • Quarter-2 eighth = ta-tina
  • 2 eighth-quarter = take-ti
  • Dotted quarter-eighth = ta-na

This brief explanation doesn’t do the whole process justice, however. To get a better understanding, you’d have to go to a training and/or read The Forgotten Power Of Rhythm: TaKeTiNa book (pretty affordable on Amazon). 

Conclusion

Now you know a little about the Orff rhythm syllables. There aren’t any specific one Orff teachers follow, but they borrow from other philosophies and apply the tool to their students’ creative process. 

After all, rhythm syllables are just tools, and at the end of the day, the syllables are just representations of the same rhythmic concepts. 

What system do you think fits the Orff process best? Drop a comment and let us know. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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