Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Musical Pulse: Explicit and Implicit (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a series. I recommend you check out the first article before reading this one. Additionally, this article may include a couple musical terms that unfortunately remain undefined. I avoid doing that, but sometimes it happens for space considerations. Feel free to ask questions if anything is unclear.

As we discussed in Part 1 of this article, dance music has a pulse behind the scenes. Sometimes the music is very explicit, but just as often, the musicians are feeling the pulse, even if they don't beat you over the head with it. Please go back and listen to the example links in Part 1 if you haven't heard them in a while.

This article focuses on "implicit" or "implied" pulse, where the pulse is still consistent behind the scenes, but the musicians don't mark each count of the music. This is a more advanced concept and many people won't hear the implicit pulse without some simple one-on-one training and lots of practice.

Once you know the pulse exists and hear it in some tunes, it becomes more obvious across a wider range of music. It's always there ticking behind the scenes; it's a matter of figuring it out and connecting the dots with the clues the musicians give you. Dancers use this implicit pulse to provide a stronger connection with the music.

Many tunes have sections that are explicit and others that are implicit, and musicians are free to mix as they see fit.

A similar concept is a clock with a ticking second hand. A clock can be silent (implicit), but there is still a pulse 60 times per minute as the second hand moves from one second to the next. Some have an explicit tick-tick-tick sound every second, marking the time in perfectly spaced intervals. Whether you hear the ticking each second or not, the seconds are still ticking by at regular intervals. There is EXACTLY the same amount of time between each second ticking, and on some clocks you can hear each second tick and some clocks are silent.

Music is similar, with the pulse being more or less obvious, depending on the tune.

A Clock With Second Hand Pulsing Each Second

(OK... for the purist; modern electronic clocks often use quartz crystals which vibrate/pulse tens of thousands of times per second. They use electronics to count the pulses and group them into seconds (or fractions) for the display. For our discussion, we are interested in the consistent pulse occurring each second.)

When recording music, some musicians have a "click track" playing in their headsets that is NOT heard in the final recording. This is like a ticking clock or consistent cow bell, generally adjusted to click at the quarter note pulse of the music. The click track provides a reference pulse while recording, keeping the musicians perfectly on time, even if no drums or percussion are playing.

Drummers and some others in the band use the click track as an absolute reference for the underlying pulse of the music. As a listener you don't hear the click track, but it's often a silent partner in the recording process.

When you hear the Usher tune below, there is a beautiful guitar and voice introduction, with 8 bars (measures) of implicit pulse. There are no drums or percussion marking the time, but the musicians are all counting it in their heads. It's highly likely the guitarist had a click track playing in his headphones, and if you march in place to the music you'll see it's perfectly in time.

Usher - "How Do I Say" Introduction Has Implicit Pulse

The pulse is consistent from the beginning to the end of the tune, even if it's not explicit in the first 8 bars. Musicians will often say, "Time is running," to alert the other musicians that the pulse is constant, like a clock, even if nobody is playing the pulse directly.

Some tunes start with an introduction in which time is NOT running, and the musicians speed up and slow down, until the introduction ends, then time is running constantly the rest of the tune.

The end of a tune is another place it's common to ignore the pulse; musicians will often slow down the last few notes for emotional effect, effectively ignoring the pulse as it ends. Musicians can ignore the pulse in the middle of tunes, but that is very, very rare in dance music.

IF you have enough experience with music, the pulse will be obvious in the first couple of bars. In the last couple bars of the intro the guitarist "lays back" and makes it feel like he's slowing down, even though the time remains perfectly constant as it resolves into the next section. In other words, time is running from the first note of the introduction for this example, and it never stops.

Don't be bothered if you have to listen to the introduction over and over to get it right. I've heard the tune over 140 times this month, and I'm still finding new things I didn't hear before. (Great music has depth, and you'll hear new things over time.)

I could hear the pulse in the introduction the first couple times I heard it, but I had to listen to it again to verify I was right about time running from the start. It's normal to hear something, then listen again many times to confirm your gut feel about the pulse.

Musicians (and dancers) are not slaves to the click or the time; they are free to play ahead or behind the click if they want that feel, but they use the pulse as a "home base" and return to it most of the time. If they get too far off the pulse, speed up or slow down, that doesn't work for dance music.

Unlike the tunes in Part 1 of this article, the Usher drum track is a bossa-nova feel, with the bass drum playing a consistent groove which marks count 1 regularly, but dances around the pulse for a totally different feel compared to the explicit pulse examples.

An excellent strategy when you can't find the pulse in one part of the tune is find another similar section where the pulse is clearer. It's normal to find a very clear section in the middle or end of a tune and use that as a guide for figuring out earlier sections of the tune.

Master the pulse in the easy section, then go back to the introduction or the part that is unclear to you, and you'll have a much stronger chance of hearing the details. For example, I like the section from around :45 to 1:18 to figure out the underlying pulse.

If the pulse is not clear in that section of this tune, it probably won't be clear anywhere. You may find another section which is clearer to you. If you are new to finding the implicit pulse, this tune may be too complicated as a starting point.

In "How Do I Say," the shaker player is actually marking the pulse more clearly than any other instrument. He's louder or quieter in different parts of the tune. Check out the shaker player between the 1:07 to 1:17 marks, where his playing is more obvious.

He is playing on each of the dancers' 8 count, but emphasizing the red colored counts below, which includes the pulse plus some variations. (For musicians: he's playing the eighth notes, accenting the quarter notes 3 times, then accenting the 8th notes 3 times as he comes around to 1 again.)

Dancers' 8 Count (red number are accents):
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,1 ...

Musicians' Count:
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 ...

It's subtle and you may need to download this tune and hear it with ear buds and/or quality speakers to hear the details. (The YouTube sound quality is OK, but doesn't compare to the CD version.)

In musicians' count, the pulse of this tune is on 1, 2, 3, 4, even though each count isn't explicitly marked by the musicians.

If you are unfamiliar with the sound of the shaker, here's a clip from one of the leading drum/percussion companies, showing shakers. Notice that the percussionist can emphasize (accent) different patterns as he's playing.

Shakers from Remo

In the Usher tune, the shaker player is playing the same pattern throughout the tune (with minor variations), but because the drummer is also playing a complimentary pattern on his hi-hat, it's much harder to hear the shaker player alone. Their patterns fit together like a puzzle and it takes really advanced ears to break them out at points. The producer brings the shaker volume up in the section referenced above, and has him more in the background (quieter) during the rest of the song.

If you hear the shaker player and you hear the variations he plays, you know your ears are stronger than most. Many people reading this will not hear the details because their ears are not mature enough yet, and/or they need to hear the tune on a better sound system.

For some additional fun, figure out if the introduction is played by 1, 2 or 3 guitars. I thought I had it right the first time I heard it, then changed my mind after about 50 listenings. If you're a musician this will be more obvious, but most people will need to listen to the introduction 20 or more times to be sure they have the right answer. The proper answer is either 1, 2 or 3, so I'll at least give you a 33% chance of guessing correctly. (Guessing isn't the idea; please answer the question when you are willing to bet $25 on it... )

For my clave-aware friends, "How Do I Say" has implied clave until the drummer becomes more explicit with the clave pattern later in the song. (Implied clave is also beyond the scope of this article, but listen to the tune and you'll hear the cross-stick snare drum playing most of a 3-2 clave.)

Because implicit or implied pulse is a more advanced concept, I'll provide another example or two in "Part 3" of this series. Few people will get this concept with one song, unless they have prior music experience. If you're not getting it, the question is, can you hear the pulse during the main body of the tune?

Now that you know implicit pulse is behind all dance music, see if you can figure it out in tunes you like. Start with simple music before attempting it in more complex music like salsa.

More examples YouTube series (links below). Let me know what you're hearing in your favorite tunes.
Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake.
--Jackie Mason

Related Articles:
Musical Pulse: Explicit and Implicit (Part 1)
Listening to Music 100 Times or More

Dance Books by Don Baarns:

Suggested Videos:
Music4Dancers Videos: Pulse Series
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Musicality Series

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This article was originally published July 2009. One of the example videos was removed from YouTube. I found another version of the song and replaced it so I'm republishing. Special thanks to Denise K for sending me a note letting me know about the broken video!


  1. hmm, i have some trouble commenting (ff3.5??), excuse me if it shows up 2 times

    I love your posts about musicality in dancing. on a related note: it is (while listening to music) surprising and often sounds good if you THINK you got the pulse in an intro and then the musician finds a clever way to change it (often through changing the "one").
    I can't think of the title of the one i mean right now
    while dancing this is still quite a challenge for me...

    (tvgathome at googles mail)

  2. Hi Don.

    It's reading well. Looking forward to part 3, and it's inspired some thoughts of my own I may put in a short video.

    Keep well


  3. Interesting concept - although it seems to imply that rhythm is only present in drum/percussion driven music. The Usher intro for example is quite tightly structured.

  4. Anonymous,

    The primary discussion is about dance music, which generally has a consistent pulse. Most dance music is driven by percussion, but not all. Rhythm can be present in music without any drums/percussion, but from a drummers perspective, I'm not sure it can be called music.

    (LOL... just kidding.)


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero