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.
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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?