Why Your Music Must Have a Pulse

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Hi, I’m Robert Estrin and this is LivingPianos.com. The subject today is about having a pulse in your music. Your music must have a pulse or it dies! Now that’s an intense statement, but it’s true. Sometimes you listen to seasoned concert artists who become so self-indulgent in their playing that they lose the beat of the music. It really loses its whole energy and purpose when you don’t have the pulse to guide everything and hold on to the structure.

This happens oftentimes in slow pieces.

People think they’re playing very expressively by having so much freedom. A great example of this is in Clair de Lune of Debussy. You might hear somebody start really slowly, but then they lose the pulse! You’re left with this wishy washy wandering sound that isn’t anchored in the music anymore. There’s nothing about it that is implied in the score. Debussy wrote this piece, and it has a beauty that is revealed when the real rhythm is played. The secret then is figuring out what note value the pulse is. If you look through the score, you’ll see eighth notes, since it’s in 9/8 time. So if you have eighth notes ticking, it becomes very difficult because you have tuplets. So you have to fit in two notes to 3 ticks of the metronome which is very difficult.

The pulse needs to be slower.

In the case of Clair de Lune, the pulse is actually the dotted quarter note! When you get down to a reasonable pulse rate, you can feel the music. It’s the same tempo, but with a pulse only ticking on the dotted quarter notes instead of on every eighth note. You have this nice, relaxed pulse. Within that framework there’s so much freedom! You feel the pulse. Then you have the liberty to nuance the notes within that pulse of the larger beat. That is the secret.

Sometimes you can have a pulse so slow that it gives you tremendous freedom.

For example, in Chopin’s Nocturne in B-flat Minor. Play it at a tempo of 90 to the quarter note, and you’ll see how constrained it feels having to fit the notes into that many pulses. This pulse is pretty darn fast! It’s not very relaxing. It sounds very regimented and robotic by quantizing everything to that exact beat. Because it’s not really the beat. The beat should be felt as the unit of six eighth notes. If you take the metronome down to 30 (on a metronome application on your phone), you have a tick for the dotted half note. It’s very slow, but there’s a pulse there. There is a freedom that you have in your playing when you have a slower pulse. Rachmaninoff said, “The larger the phrase, the greater the musician.” And I believe that the slower the pulse, the more control you have. It’s easier to maintain tempo. This is true of everything, particularly fast movements. If you try to play a fast movement while you’re thinking of every eighth or sixteenth note, maintaining tempo is difficult.

Now, for initially getting the music under your fingers, having the pulse on the faster note can be beneficial. It helps you to be absolutely sure of the rhythm and that you’re playing honestly. Playing this way is actually very instructive. But once you have the piece moving more, thinking the longer beat as the pulse can give you freedom within the beat and makes it easier to maintain your tempo. Try it for yourself with your music and let me know how it works! I hope this has been helpful for you! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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2 thoughts on “Why Your Music Must Have a Pulse”


  1. I want to thank you for this very important detail.
    Music is within the framework ….and freedom then happens …Students often rushes…or play different tempos better than others.If they learn the piece with a slow tempo they will try to play the piece more accurately and dont show off the parts they know well.Concert performances have structure ….so keep the beauty …how by practising with a metronome ,,,your helpful mentor in rhythm,

    Why do boys play louder and almost careless during a performance?

    1. It’s funny how working with the metronome allows for more freedom since your music becomes anchored which allows you expressive liberty within the rhythmic framework of the music. As for boys versus girls, it may be politically incorrect to make reference to differences, however, just watch boys and girls on a playground and you will witness different general characteristics between them.

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