"How Do You Know?"
I'm teaching at my "Music For Dancers" master class a while ago, playing a simple example and discussing the "pulse" of the music, one of my terms for "the music's heartbeat." Sometimes people just call it the "beat" and you'll see people tapping their toes to the beat or clapping. A very smart lady asks, "OK... can you be more specific about the pulse and how do I hear it..." She continued, "How do I know I have the pulse right, what am I listening for..."
The question caught me off guard because I've been teaching this dancers' music class for over 6 years and nobody ever asked that question directly. I gave her an answer, but I didn't feel it hit the mark and completely clarified the issue for her.
On the drive to a club that evening, it bugged me that I didn't make it clear as day for her, so I rethought how I'll teach that in future. I had one of those "ah-ha" moments, realizing that the pulse in the music can be broken down into two extremes: Explicit and Implied (also known as "Implicit".)
Most songs are someplace in between, but the pulse is like our internal heartbeat; always there even if we can't hear it or feel it without some effort. You can think of it like a second hand on a stopwatch, ticking at regular intervals, or the click-click-click of a metronome. Even if your watch is silent, the seconds are ticking by at regular intervals, just like the pulse in music.
If you hear it clearly in the music because it's obvious and marked by an instrument, it's explicit. Watches or clocks that tick or click out loud every second make their pulse obvious and explicit. In the music, explicit pulse can be marked by the bass drum, cow bell, piano or other instruments in the band. Usually the pulse is marked by one or more of the percussion instruments, but not always.
An implied pulse is like your silent watch, where the seconds are ticking by, but maybe it flashes every second, or sometimes just changes time once per minute. Even if you don't see or hear the seconds pulsing by, they are always happening in the background. In the implicit case, you learn to hear and feel the pulse, even if it is not obvious at first.
Just because many people can't find the "one" in some songs, the vast majority can at least hear the pulse in a listening session, even if they lose it while dancing. This is especially true in what I call "commercial" music, which is the popular music played on the radio.
That said, there are also a wide set of people that simply don't hear the pulse, and the reality is finding "one" is extremely difficult if you don't hear the pulse clearly. The pulse is a critical step toward hearing musical timing and without it you'll be considered an "off-beater" until you get it right.
I realized I had a couple perfect tunes in my collection where the pulse is being explicitly pounded out on the bass drum from the start to the end of the tune. The first tune is by "Ne-Yo" and few people expect his tunes in my playlist. (I'm a little older than most of his fan base.) He fits happily within my wide range of musical tastes and I like the song.
The song starts with 8 bass drum beats BEFORE the intro starts (OK... for the purists out there, there are some pickup notes before the other instruments join in...) That bass drum pulse continues throughout the song, like an old 1980's disco tune. It never stops; it marks the pulse from beginning to end and you can count from one to four (musicians' count) over and over on each bass drum hit and that is the pulse for this tune. Alternately, you can also count a "dancer's 8 count" (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) and the bass drum hits on 1, 3, 5, 7 from the beginning to the end of the tune, with the 2,4,6,8 equally spaced in-between each bass drum note.
Few tunes these days have a bass drum on EVERY count from beginning to the end. In salsa or other dance music, it's rarely this clear or obvious but there are many other tunes with this same concept, especially music from the disco 80's.
Another example I like is the 1980's hit called "Forget me Nots" by Patrice Rushen. Will Smith did a cover of this tune for the first Men in Black movie. (There's a fun dance sequence toward the end.)
Be sure to listen to the original above, but the movie version is embedded below as a secondary reference. The pulse is clearer in the original version, and the bassline is a classic, take no prisoners groove that still challenges bass players today. (Originally performed by Freddie Washington.)
SIDE NOTE: To get a taste of the bassline, watch this clip, then listen to the original and you'll hear the amazing bass on the tune. This is a great ear training exercise and worth your time. The bass sounds are often used to verify your concept of "one" in salsa tunes. You want to be sure you're hearing the bass players in all music, and going back and forth a few times between the two links helps you hear the details. Again; A very valuable exercise. More on that another day.
Will Smith: From Men In Black - Explicit Pulse
Many tunes are a combination of explicit and implied pulse, with some sections making the pulse more obvious and others dancing all around the pulse. The musicians (and experienced dancers) are hearing the pulse in their heads, even if it's not being explicitly expressed in the music. (You'll hear some great examples of implicit pulse in part II of this article.)
The Ne-Yo and Patrice Rushen tunes linked above have a very explicit pulse, so if you just follow from the beginning, it's pretty difficult to lose once you hear it. That is the right starting point for many people who are not hearing the pulse in salsa tunes. Master these simple tunes (in terms of pulse) and it will make it easier as we explore "implied" pulse in part II of this article.
Please let me know if the pulse is clear on these tunes and send me any questions you have from listening to the tunes. Part II of this article will cover implicit pulse and further refine our concept of pulse in the music.
Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.
-- Margaret Mead
Musical Pulse: Explicit and Implicit (Part 2)
Dance Books by Don Baarns:
Music4Dancers Videos: Pulse Series
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Musicality Series
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This article was originally published over 5 years ago (June 2009.) It's such an important topic I'm republishing it after some tweaks. I wrote about this topic long before the YouTube "Music4Dancers" video series was started. Click here to see the "Music4Dancers Pulse Series" playlist on YouTube.