Lesson: Pulse and Escaping from Meter

As bassists we have unique musical responsibilities in an ensemble whether it’s a symphony, jazz jam or rock group. We’re the foundation – the pulse. There is a pitfall that we must be careful to avoid and it’s ingrained in us through a lot of standard music education: we are bound by meter and notation. If you had to could you play a piece that alternates 5/4 and 3/2 every bar? We become comfortable in 2/4,3/4, 6/8 and 4/4 but that limits us as players. The exercises I’m going to present here will help break you free of meter and get you in touch with the true pulse that lies under the music. They are based on the works of Paul Hindemith. The sequence to these is important, I would highly recommend that you do them in order even if they seem somewhat simple at the beginning.

As a warning these exercises look deceptively simple. The concept here is to make you think differently about rhythm and to break away from meter. If you make these exercises (and creating similar exercises) a regular part of your practice routine the benefits will be huge.

The first thing you need to do is to start the pulse without any counting. There is no meter. Just tap with your hand and get the pulse to be consistent so you always have an equal interval of time.

FIGURE 1: Tapping with no meter

FIGURE 1: Tapping with no meter

After you have a steady pulse and you’re not counting a measure or a meter, sing or play a drone over the pulse. The horizontal line indicates the drone.

FIGURE 2: A drone over the pulse

FIGURE 2: A drone over the pulse

Straight forward so far right? Now sing or play the drone only over the beats indicated in the diagram. Make sure to give each beat it’s full value!

FIGURE 3: Different drone/pulse combinations

FIGURE 3: Different drone/pulse combinations

You can make up more exercises like this on your own, the point is that you are starting to think in terms of pulse and not in terms of meter. You have to get your inner pulse to be consistent while your instrument does something else. They are related but independent actions (this is the musical equivalent to rubbing your tummy and patting your head).

To add another twist, play these exercises again but use your other hand or use your feet. So do the exercises 1) tapping your feat 2) tapping with the left hand 3) tapping with the right hand all while playing or singing in time with the pulse. As you feel good with them start to pick up the pace and see how it goes.

Now we need to apply that to our musical notation. This is all an exercise in breaking free from meter and how we look at music. The lower string of quarter notes (dashed-notation) represent the tapped pulse, the upper string of notes and rests show what you will play or sing. Please forgive my staff-writing, it was significantly easier to write these exercises by hand compared to doing it on a computer. Remember, there is no meter! These are meant to be examples, make up more of your own as you feel comfortable.

FIGURE 4: Musically notated exercises

FIGURE 4: Musically notated exercises

Now we’ll add another layer of complexity and start putting the rests into the pulse. Try the following exercises, tapping with your foot, then left hand and then right hand while you play or sing. The same rules apply about the hand-writing and making your own examples.

FIGURE 5: Musically notated exercises with rests in the pulse

FIGURE 5: Musically notated exercises with rests in the pulse

Did the exercises in figure 5 give you trouble? They are not easy, so don’t let their simple look discourage you! Keep trying it slowly until you’re comfortable and then build speed. It’s more important to be accurate with the tones and the pulse than to be fast.

For the final exercises we have to add the element of pitch. So far we’ve always dealt with the same tone, but now we’ll break into 3 different pitches. One will be “low” another “middle” and another “high.” The absolute pitches themselves are not important, they must be consistently the same pitch however and retain their relationship to the other pitches. Sing the following exercises:

l = low
m = middle
h = high

1.m m h m m l m m h m m l
2.h m l m h m l m h m l m h
3.h l m m l h m l l m m h h m
4.l h h l m l h l m m h l h l m

Make up some of your own exercises using those three pitches as well. The more variety you introduce the more comfortable you will become.

These final exercises put it all together. The straight line denotes the “middle” pitch, with notes above the line being high and those below being low. The pulse is still the lower line. Keep the pulse going and work in these different pitched notes.

FIGURE 6: Musically Notated with rests in pulse with varied pitch

FIGURE 6: Musically Notated with rests in pulse with varied pitch

These exercises are the foundation. If you master this concept the next step is to apply it to pitches in meter and to a high variety of notation (sixteenth and thirty-second notes for example). You can keep progressively raising the difficulty of these exercises on your own and over time it will pay off. These are meant to make you think outside of meter and outside of notation – once you realize that all of this is related to the pulse it will become much easier. The benefits include improved sight reading, a better sense of time, and a better understanding of the foundation behind meter.

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  1. Great lesson Evan! Although, I will not be practicing these, no need… and here’s why:

    A great, fast (and farily simple) way to develop this technique is by not using your instrument at all – just by listening to progressive music with lots of time changes and counting the beats in your head. Before you attempt playing over any meter changes, you really need to wrap your mind around it and soak it in mentally. So I filled my phone memory with Dream Theater, Symphony X, Seventh Wonder and the likes (any progressive music will do), and started figuring out the rhythmic patterns and changes and later tapping the beats with my hand while riding the train, tram or whatever. I transformed the time spent away from my instrument into worthwhile practicing hours.

    Counting beats with subdivisions also helped a lot – when a 10/8 structure appeared, I just followed the song and counted (for example) – 1-2-3 / 1-2-3 / 1-2 / 1-2 or some other combination in my head. It’s important not just to recognize the meter, but to figure out where the beat is in that meter. It could be 1-2-3 / 1-2-3-4-5 / 1-2 or anything else, number 1 being the downbeat. When you do this for a while, you lose the need to count the subdivisions, and acquire a feel for the beat and from there it is much simpler to recognize, count and play these things.

    Another important thing is to force yourself to imagine playing irregular meters. Do it with the meters you heard in the songs, imagine only rhythm in the beginning, and try to imagine bass lines over that rhythm after.
    Don’t use your body at all when practicing this! It’s all in the head.

    Your playing technique has really nothing to do with meter changes, but only your mind does. Therefore, practice this with your mind first, and after a while, start applying it to your instrument – it will suddenly feel natural and you’ll be free of the 4/4 and 3/4 curse. New dimensions…

    To assure you it’s not difficult, I had never played anything other than 4/4 before trying this. It took me a month of careful listening to develop my hearing of different meters, and when I applied this to bass it felt natural, I had new ways of writing music and expressing myself. Switching between meters didn’t feel unnatural anymore, in fact, my imagination wanted it and weird ideas started popping out of me.

    Mind over matter, for sure! :D

  2. Forgot to mention, I also highly recommend practicing Evan’s lesson! It’s great stuff :) I just pointed another way to practice and improve your meter knowledge.

  3. Massimo de Stephanis

    Great! I use in my theory lessons the same Hindemith book, and time ago I started to add these exercises to my my double bass and bass guitar lessons: at first surprised, the students usually like it! Di you add a metronome early, or just prefer to tap freely?