What do rhythm and pulse have to do with playing music?

A Little Rhythm (And Pulse) In Your Life

Two terms that come up a lot in music lessons are pulse and rhythm. And there is good reason for that! They are some of the most important foundations of playing music. And, they are also the mistake even the least musical person will hear in a song.

Imagine With Me

Imagine someone is humming a song … rather off key. Could you tell which song they are singing?

Imagine someone was humming a song perfectly … but it sounded like the musical equivalent of speaking monotone. Every note sounded exactly the same length as all the others. Would you still be able to tell which song they are singing?

Rhythm and pulse work together in perfect harmony (pun unintended) to add that special something to each song.

What is Pulse?

Think of a Newton’s Cradle. Lift a ball to the side and let it drop, causing a chain reaction as it hits the ball beside it. The “click, click, click” sound you hear is a pulse.

Or, think of your heart. As long as you have no preexisting heart condition, your heart beats in a steady thump, thump, thump. It may pulse slowly when you are relaxed, or quickly as you workout. But, it stays a steady speed.

Pulse is the heartbeat of a song.

It’s what we sway to as we dance, clap with at a concert, and stomp our feet to at a hockey game.

What is Rhythm?

Rhythm is a little different. It’s the combinations of sounds plus silences that bring a unique sound to a song. Each of those sounds (notes) and silences (rests) can be short, long or something in between.

It’s the “shake, rattle and roll” from early rock. The “o-le, ole, ole, o-le” we yell at soccer games. And, it’s what we tap on our steering wheel as we channel our inner drummer.

Rhythm is the pattern that gets us off the coach and moving.

What about Beat?

In North America, the word beat means several things in the music world.

It can mean:

  • the pulse of a piece
  • the rhythm of a piece
  • 1 micro-segment of a section of a song: For example, “How many beats are there in this measure?”

And if it already wasn’t confusing enough having all of these different meanings, a teacher may use this word to describe all three things … in the same piano lesson.

As a student, if you are confused about which meaning your teacher means, I encourage you to ask during lesson. “Do you mean the pulse, the rhythm or what is happening only this measure?”

Sometimes younger students are shy. If this is the case, as a parent, talk privately with your teacher for advice on how to make these words clearer for your child. There is no guarantee that the teacher will be open to using different terminology, but at least it opens up communication between everyone.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and heard the word “pulse” from colleagues that teach in other parts of the world that it clicked just how confusing it may have inadvertently been for my students! Because of this confusion, in our Must Love Music studio, I tend to use pulse, rhythm and beat as defined here.

Rhythmic Teamwork

Rhythm and pulse must work together to be effective.

Without a steady pulse, there is no rhythm. Without rhythm, music sounds boring. And, without strong and weak beats, there is less auditory structure to a song.

In other words … peanut butter and jelly move over! There’s a new must-have group in town!

While it could be tempting to just leave this all to what happens in lesson, it’s the practice during the week that really makes the biggest difference in your progress!

Becoming a Rhythm And Pulse Superhero

How can you (or your child) become a rhythm and pulse superhero?

The first step is to make music an everyday part of your life.

We know having lots of books available as a child learns how to read helps them make connections in an easier way.

It’s the same for music.

The more music a child hears, the more they internalize complex concepts
… without the headache of learning all the terminology before they are ready.

What questions do you have about pulse, rhythm or beats?

Let me know in the comments below!

If this approach to piano lessons looks good to you, click to set up an interview to join our online piano studio!

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