Pulse or beat is a crucial element of music. The presence (or absence) of a pulse in a musical composition will have a direct impact upon its success. You will find it easy to understand the role of the pulse in music if you keep a clear idea in your mind of the different roles of the pulse in the human body:

Role 1 – Keeping the body alive!

The pulse in the human body is a sign that the heart is working – that the body is alive and functioning. Similarly, the presence of a pulse in music shows that a piece of music is functioning correctly, If you have ever been to a gig and listened to a band who are not playing in time with each other then you will know the disastrous consequences of losing the sense of pulse – the music dies very quickly!

Role 2 – Responding to changing emotions/actions

The human pulse is not static – it changes speed according to different physical and emotional circumstances. Similarly, the pulse in music can change. In fact, there is a very close link between the human pulse and the tempo of a piece of music…
Let’s imagine I am sat at home. My pulse will be slow. I decide to go for a walk down the road – my pulse will speed up slightly because I am doing some exercise. As I am walking down a road I hear a noise behind me and start to run – my pulse has sped up because I am running and frightened. The noise gets louder and so I start to sprint – my heart rate is now going very fast. I then look around and see that the noise was actually a cat – I relax, stop running and my pulse gradually returns to beating slowly.
Now, if I wanted to portray that action sequence in music I can easily do so by getting the tempo (speed) of the pulse to match the speed of my heart rate in each situation. I will need to choose a slow tempo to portray sitting at home, a slightly faster one to show walking down the road and a very fast tempo to show sprinting. As the tension fades at the end of the scene the tempo of the music will slow to portray this.

Putting Pulse Into Practice

Try applying your understanding of pulse in the following ways:

Performing – Make sure you have a clear sense of pulse in your playing. What tempo should the piece be played at? Don’t speed up/slow down unless you are trying to portray something.

Composing – If you are trying to create a certain mood or portray a scene try to think about how fast your heart would be beating when feeling the emotion/acting in the scene. This will help you choose a suitable tempo.

Listening – When listening to a piece of music try to think about why the composer has chosen the speed they have. Is it to create a specific emotion or scene? Do they change the tempo of the pulse at all? If so, why?