Perceiving the PULSE (some call it the BEAT) of a piece of music is that feature which compels us to tap our feet, clap our hands or even dance.  In some way or another, the repetitive nature of the pulse makes us MOVE.

This basic reaction to the musical pulse is really quite instinctive.  However, in my experience,  when we take up an instrument like a guitar, we tend to be less aware of the pulse because of all the  technical & mechanical demands needed to play it…at least during the early stages of learning guitar.

In fact, it is my opinion that the simple act of holding a guitar can, for a beginner, essentially squash any awareness of the musical pulse of a song from the student.  The technical & mechanical requirements of playing a guitar are just so great that the student has no more “hard-drive” space left over to think about “pulse”.  

THIS IS AN UNFORTUNATE SITUATION!

So let’s make sure this doesn’t happen to you!

Let’s make sure that as you learn & play guitar that your perception and awareness of the pulse stays center stage in your musical brain at all times.  That way, over time, that awareness becomes more of an instinct and less of something you have to “think” about.

But “talking” about the PULSE is not as effective as “experiencing” the PULSE.  Here’s an experience for you… I find it hypnotic.

“In Your Face” Pulse.

I think you can clearly hear the “THUD” of the pulse AND see it in the walking steps of this adorable little robot-thing. 

The unique thing about the pulse is that it is evenly repetitive AND predictable.  When you tap along with it, you are not “reacting” in a delayed manner to the pulse.  Rather you sync-up with it  instantly because you can “predict” when the next pulse will occur.  Neurologically speaking, this is a very unique behavior for humans called RHYTHMIC ENTRAINMENT.

Admittedly, electronica music places a lot of emphasis on the pulse so it’s easy to perceive it.  Dance music, dubstep and EDM (Electronic Dance Music) do the same thing.  In these genres of music, the pulse “RULES”… compelling people to move and dance and it can be felt deep in the body-literally.

Moving into a more pop/rock/funk/ blues/country…generally popular music styles, the pulse is still easily perceived although generally less aggressively- more like a river winding through the tune.  Let’s listen for the pulse again…

Perceiving the “Winding” Pulse.

In this last example, you might find it more challenging than the previous two…but the pulse is still there.  It’s just that in orchestral/classical music the conductor often “plays with the pulse by stretching & shortening it” for maximum emotional impact. 

The pulse is being “read” by the performers through the hand motions the conductor is making. YES! the performers all understand and perceive the pulse themselves but part of the conductor’s job is to “emotionally manipulate the pulse to the greatest musical effect”.  It’s the performers job to respond to the conductor’s interpretation of the pulse and the music overall.

If you’ve never thought about it before, just know that there is a lot going on beyond what you see at this type of concert – fascinating really!

Classical style music doesn’t tend to make evident the presence of the pulse…but it has to be there in order for so many people to play music together (Think movie scores and big video games like HALO). Popular style music tends to make the pulse evident and up front.  The Climax in this piece is worth the slow “build-up”.  Have a listen.

The “Hidden” Pulse.

Now whether you want to play Neil Young or Counting Crows or Metallica or RUSH, become more aware of that underlying PULSE that is the scaffolding for a song.

The perception of the Pulse is as important as the actual melody, harmony or rhythm of a tune.

When you can FEEL that PULSE in your body (like tapping a foot, swaying your body or bobbing your head) as you listen to a song, everything else you play within that song relates back to the pulse in one way or another.  The good news is that you are naturally wired to perceive the pulse and, better yet, predict the repetitive nature of it.  It’s an important musical tool too often under appreciated.

Regardless of whether you are strumming or playing a solo, the awareness of the pulse within the song is crucial for further rhythmic growth.

To play a song and not have a clear perception of the PULSE is like driving a car without knowing where you are going (It LOOKS like you’re playing with the song…it LOOKS like you are driving somewhere).

As far as I’m concerned, Perceiving the PULSE ….rules.

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Action Step:

From here on out, anytime you are listening to your favorite music (or even being introduced to new music), start making it a habit to locate the pulse in the music.  Learn to listen more deeply to the structure of your music.  I consider this a form of INTERNAL PRACTICE -the kind of guitar practice know one actually sees or hears you doing but there are fireworks going off in your brain none the less.  It’s a worthy meditation.

Peace,

Stephen