Pulse: The Heartbeat of Music

When we’re learning a new piece on the classical guitar it helps to figure out all the notes, where our left hand is going on the fretboard and which fingers on the right hand are playing the strings (other way round, of course, if you’re left-handed). Yep, very useful.
And of course figuring out the rhythm tends to be very important too! Giving those dots on the page a bit of life and movement. As does some lovely dynamics, shaping, phrasing, a bit of push and pull with the tempo in the right places to really bring the music to life. Yep, all sounds good so far?
In getting to grips with all of this there is an important element that we still need to consider and that’s the pulse of the music.
What do I mean by pulse? I mean that sense of the main beats (and sub-beats), the starting points of the bars or the main starting points of a phrase. The pulse is what you tap you foot along too. It’s like a heartbeat – it has that very regular, constant movement. It may speed up a little if things get exciting! It may slow down a little if things are getting more relaxed, but it is always there, pumping away, keeping the music alive
So how do we create that sense of pulse?
Oftentimes, we can naturally feel that sense of pulse in the music we’re playing even when we’re learning something new. As human beings we seemed to be tuned in to consistent pulses – our own heartbeats, walking, dancing. It’s a very natural thing.
But sometimes we do need a helping hand to find that pulse in the music or to really bring it out where it needs it and take that piece of music and your playing to the next level.
This may be the case if the piece is very new to you or unfamiliar, if there are cross-rhythms or polyrhythms going on in various voices, if there is some syncopation going on or shifting of beats or if you’ve got some other rhythmic interest (such as moving from quavers to quaver hemiola back to straight quavers for example). Sometimes you might even need a bit of a helping hand if you’re just plain old struggling to make sense of it and there’s absolutely no shame in that!
How can we help create that sense of pulse?
We look at tempo markings (of course, whilst we’re first getting to know a piece we may play at a slightly slower tempo than the tempo we may have in mind for performance or goal tempo) and we also look at the meter or the time signature of the piece.
The time signature tells us how often that pulse will arrive – every three beats for example for something in 3/4. And the tempo of the piece, whether explicitly directed on the page or “felt” by you as the musician tells us how frequently (i.e. how fast) the main pulses arrive.
Looking at the shape of the music on the page can also sometimes give us an indication of where the bigger phrases might lie, so we can see where a pulse or emphasis for a start of a phrase might lie at least.
Having your trusty metronome on hand then, when practicing, to keep that pulse ticking away in the right time signature at a manageable tempo can also be invaluable from time to time.
Yes, it will create that very metric, dead on, on the dot, square pulse and when practicing with the metronome there will be little room for flex or push and pull in the tempo or the pulse. But that’s not the aim of working with a metronome. Push and pull, and an injection of real lifeblood (i.e. musicality) into the pulse will naturally follow when you know exactly where that pulse lies. But you’ve got to find it first though! It’s no use trying to give someone CPR if you don’t know where their heart is!!
Once you’ve used the metronome as a guide for a while you should hopefully become more familiar with and more comfortable with where the pulse lies. It should start to become embedded within you, within your fingers and in your brain as “this is the pulse for this piece“. You should be getting that natural “feel” for the pulse. This is when you can put the metronome back into the cupboard (or close the app on your smartphone) and leave it there, having well and truly done its job for the time being.
And then this is when things can really get exciting and you can start to make real music. Now you know, feel and understand where the pulse lies you can begin to play around with it to really shape your musical phrases, create feelings of tension and release and create a sense of movement and direction.
The music is coming under your direction and control rather than just playing whatever. Find your pulse and find the heartbeat of your music.

5 thoughts on “Pulse: The Heartbeat of Music

  1. I think you’ve done a great job attempting to describe “pulse” in music (a very difficult task indeed). I think the “it’s what you tap your foot to” line is about right. Where the change from metronome pulse to “real-life” pulse is becomes the place of most struggle is for many guitarists.

    1. Thanks Chad.
      Yes, I’d agree that getting to that “real life” pulse can be quite a gap to bridge for some. But like any other skill if you practice it enough you to start to subsume that feeling and the more music you play and listen to the more natural it will start to become.

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