The nature of musical pulse
Just as pulse is fundamental to life, pulse is fundamental to music.
The periodic surge of energy that is either explicit or implicit to the vast majority of music is the primary factor through which we instinctively relate to what we hear; and therefore how we understand it. When the performer has a deep feeling and understanding for musical pulse and faithfully transmits this, we as the audience respond instinctively; moreover when it is so in the strongest degree, we find that we cannot help but respond.
If we take three of the most obvious elements of music (see Victor Wooten’s great book, The Music Lesson for much more on this), for example, melody, harmony and rhythm, rhythm is normally considered primal. Behind this, I would argue that the basis of rhythm is pulse.
Without the pulse that regulates and causes our blood to flow, we do not live, so it is no surprise that we connect so strongly with an organisation of sound and energy that reflects our own life-force.
In my experience however, it is one of the least fully understood aspects of music – and rarely, if at all, studied of itself. For conductors, pulse is perhaps the most obvious visible aspect of our work – so the importance for a conductor to have a very clear and distinct grasp of pulse – as it exists in nature – must surely be self-evident, as it is through both providing and harmonizing an all-embracing pulse that he/she is able to unite the musicians. Doing this involves far more than ‘marking’ or ‘beating time’.
Therefore, if pulse is to music as it is to life, we could say that a large part of a conductor’s role involves being the ‘heart’ of the music. Not in the ‘poetic’ sense of emotion – although emotion and pulse are indeed related physiologically – but in the sense of the primary muscle that allows the body to live. As it is in music – the heart must react to the needs of the body. The body reacts in turn to the product of the heart. It is a cyclical relationship.
This is not to say that the orchestra needs the conductor in order to play. Most professional orchestras will play very well without a conductor – if they are able to hear themselves and have the rehearsal time to know and understand the music – both conceptually and how what they hear from moment to moment relates to the pulse. Where this isn’t possible – whether through lack of time or from acoustical difficulty – a conductor who genuinely understands his craft and has the ability to unify a group of musicians through ears and imagination thus begins to become useful.