Finding the Beat, part 2

In “Finding the Beat, Part 1” we talked about how to figure out where the beats are, how many are in a measure, by feel and on paper.  Here we’re going to take a look at something more at the heart of the music.  The beat is, as its name suggests, the heartbeat of the music.  It is what creates the voice, the timing, the meaning.  The notes are like letters in a line of text.  Because of the beat we can actually hear those letters as words, phrases, ideas.

Where exactly is the beat to be found?  Is it just a metronome chirp?  If not, where and what is it?

Like the heartbeat in a person, the beat in music is really a pulse, not a hit.  Our hearts don’t go “boom, boom, boom” like a metronome.  Hearts go “ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom,” like the pickups in music that lead into each beat.

Beats are not merely a mathematical calculation.  (Do not tell this to metronomes or to any MIDI audio files because it would destroy their world!)  What makes music human is that our timing is responsive, just like our heart.

Studies about the human heart have shown

that there is only one situation in which the heartbeat is perfect or metronomic, and that is just before a heart attack.  At that terrible moment, the heart is no longer paying attention or responding to physical signals around it coming in from the blood, breath, muscles and nerves.  A normal heart is constantly adjusting to those signals, from beat to beat.

Music played by good musicians is expressive.  The beats are felt in context, the notes leading the listener into each beat like the water leading to the crest of a wave.  Compare this to the sound of a computer MIDI file, which reads written music precisely and mathematically, and always sounds artificial.  Sometimes it is can even be hard to understand music played by a computer, much in the same way that it can be difficult to pick up the words of a non-native speaker who doesn’t quite get the pronunciation and timing right.  On some computer music software there is a curious option to “humanize” the playback of music.  The way it attempts this is by making the start of each note slightly random!  Apparently, some computer programmers have the mistaken notion that precision is the entire measure of the difference between machines vs humans.

How do we find the beat if it’s not exactly what the metronome tells us it is?  We can tell when we tap our foot that the beat happens when our foot hits the floor.  Or does it?  Why is it that a roomful of musicians often do not tap their feet exactly at the same time?

Maybe the answer can be found by thinking about dancers.  When a dancer hops on the beat, where exactly is that beat?  Is it when the foot first touches the floor?  When the foot reaches its lowest point?  When the foot pushes off the floor again?

We can all feel a good beat but the precise moment when it happens is actually a gray area.  Musicians and dancers who are most expressive milk the beat, expand it, use as much of it as they can.  I like to imagine a conveyor belt moving along with a compartment for each beat.  The metronome clicks on each beat, like a person bouncing a ball into the precise center of each compartment.  A good musician fills each beat with sound, like someone filling each compartment with a water balloon.  Notes lean toward each beat.  If they don’t arrive at a precise mathematical moment, it’s not random, but human — it expresses intention.

A non-dance tune such as a slow air, or a performance piece, allows the freedom to stretch and compress beats, as long as it fits the context.  If the beat is to pick up or slow down, it needs to be as natural as the timing of your pedals on a bike heading up a steep hill, versus your bike reaching the top and heading down again.

Even a dance tune with a steady dance beat needs expression.  The notes leading into the beat set up our expectation of the beat to come.  The pickup notes prepare us for the beat just like the “Ba-boom” of the heartbeat creates a pulse.  And where exactly is the beat on the “boom”?  On the “b”, the “oo”, or the “m”?  I’m not saying we should analyze that, but rather that we shouldn’t.  We should feel the beat, keep it going, and embrace its expression.

The metronome is a nice tool to help set a pace, and to let us know if we haven’t kept up with it.  But if we play to it, we’ll sound a bit like a MIDI file!

There is no formula to answer the question of how to find the precise beat.  It needs to be responsive to the music, to others we play with, and to the pulse we want to embrace for each tune.  The best musicians pay close attention at all times to the pulse they create, and never take it for granted.  This is why good music is so moving.

©2020 Ed Pearlman

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