Discovering music through listening
Discovering music through listening

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Discovering music through listening

1 Pulse: the heartbeat of music

This shows a heart drawn onto a chalkboard
Figure 1 Pulse: the heartbeat of music.

Most music has a regular pulse which underpins it, like a heartbeat or a ticking clock. The pulse is created by a regular pattern of even-length stresses (referred to individually as beats) which the listener may or may not be aware of. Sometimes the pulse can be heard clearly, as the musical sounds follow the same pattern as the individual beats, accentuating the pulse. At other times it can be more difficult to hear the pulse; sometimes this can be weak or intermittent, and very rarely, there may be no pulse at all. If you ever tap your foot as you listen to music, then it is likely that you have identified the pulse, which is also sometimes referred to in jazz as the groove or in popular music as the beat. The pulse rate has an impact on how the music makes us feel and can impact on our physical being; it can encourage us to step up to the dance floor, or relax our body and mind and breath more slowly.

Activity 1

Listen to the following extracts of music, tapping your foot to the beat (where this can be heard) so you can identify whether the pulse of the music is strong, weak or absent. As you do this, think about how the music makes you feel. Does the pulse contribute to your emotional response to the music? In which extracts is the pulse more discernible?

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Audio 1: Bee Gees, Stayin’ Alive, 0:32–1:02
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Audio 2: Brian Eno, New space music, 00:30–01:00
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Audio 3: Beethoven, Grosse Fugue, Op. 133 03:55–04:25
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Audio 4: Howard Goodall, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, 00:39–01:09
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Discussion

You may have found it relatively easy to tap your foot to the beat of Audio 1 and Audio 4, but more difficult in Audio 2 and Audio 3.

In Audio 1 the pulse was clearly accentuated through the drum beat and the lyrics ‘ah, ha, ha, ha’ (c.00:09); the regular, upbeat nature of this music makes it easy to respond to through physical movement – dancing or a regulated movement such as tapping your foot. You might have had quite the opposite response to Audio 2, where the pulse was difficult to distinguish. This music is designed to provoke responses of relaxation and calmness and in this instance, the lack of pulse promoted a feeling of stillness. However, this might not have been your response to Audio 3, where difficulty finding the pulse in the music evoked a feeling of unease and tension. The overall pace of this music, alongside manipulation of other musical elements, created this effect. Finally, in Audio 4, many of the individual beats that form the pulse were picked out by the voices in the choir and its regularity helped to create a feeling of calm.

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