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Musical Pulse

posted Oct 7, 2013, 7:10 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Oct 7, 2013, 7:10 AM ]
Music has a pulse, just like our bodies do. Unlike painting or sculpture, music is a temporal art form, meaning it can only exist in the passing of time. In music, the repeating series of periodic short-duration stimuli we perceive as points in time is the “pulse.” It’s typically what listeners entrain to as they tap their foot or dance along with a piece of music. Some people refer to it as “the beat.”

Frequently it’s audible; you can hear it within the music. But often, it’s only implied; in which case you have to feel it instead of hearing it. The pulse continues in music even when there’s no sound. Not sensing it is what causes some people to rush through rests in their haste to get to the next note.

A metronome is a device that produces regular metrical clicks, representing a fixed pulse. But metronomes are designed not to vary, so while they’re excellent training or rehearsal tools, music needs to “breathe.” Tempo, or the “speed” of music, is often fluid, and the ability to “feel” the pulse is crucial.

To further develop your sense of pulse, practice “hearing” music in your head. Play a few bars of a recording you like, then stop the recording and mentally play it back. You’ll refine your sense of pulse as you place the music mentally against the backdrop of passing time, even though there’s no audible sound. Consciously try to feel the pulse in the music at Sunday Mass. Because don’t we want our ‘Heart’ to have a strong pulse?