Hearing the Downbeat or Pulse in a Rhythm Cycle

Hearing the downbeat or pulse in a rhythm cycle.

What do I mean by the pulse?

When most people clap along with a song, they usually clap the pulse or the downbeat.

So, let’s take the example of what is referred to as a rhythm in 4/4. We can count and clap 1, 2, 3 ,4 over the rhythm cycle before we reach the start of the cycle again. This is the pulse or the down beat.

A rhythm will also have several other beats that are not on the four main downbeats. There are beats that fall in between the down beats. These beats are called off beats or upbeats.

We can refer to these beats as 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + or I “and” 2 “and” 3 “and” 4 “and”. The “and” is the same as +. + being the offbeat or upbeat.

Try an exercise, clapping the offbeat while keep the downbeat with your feet.

In order to hear a rhythm and rhythm cycle correctly, I think it’s essential to understand where the pulse or the down beat is. This establishes a framework or a frame of reference for us to understand where all the beats in a rhythm land and thus enable us to “hear” the rhythm correctly. It’s easy to hear the rhythm incorrectly if we don’t understand how a rhythm should sound. We can hear the beat as the offbeat and vice versa. African polyrhythms can be complex and in fact it can be extremely hard to hear the correct pulse.

Many rhythms in Africa can start on an upbeat. If we hear this as the downbeat then we start hearing the rhythm upside down or inverted, even though we may be playing the right notes or hits.

A classic example of not hearing the downbeat is when listening to a bell pattern from Ghana that is very common and played as an accompaniment to many rhythms. The pattern consists of three hits on the bell per cycle. If we count the cycle as having four pulses or downbeats and if we don’t know where the downbeat is, when first heard, one can be fooled into thinking the hits fall on the 1st 2nd and 3rd beats of the cycle. On the down beats. However, in many of the rhythms the hits of the bell are not on the down beat but on the offbeat and start off the 2nd beat. In other words, they are on ‘and “of the 2 “and” of the 3 and the last hit is on the “and” of the 4.

Hearing the rhythm on the offbeat gives us a completely different rhythm and changes completely how we hear the rhythm. So, it is very important to hear where the down beat of a rhythm is and use this as a framework for understanding the rhythm. But in order to hear where these off beats start, we need to know where the rhythmic cycle starts. In other words where is the first down beat of the cycle or the 1.

So, in addition to finding the downbeat or the pulse we then need to find the start of a rhythmic cycle.

I will explore this in future posts