Taking The Pulse Of Music – Instruments Part 3

Part three of my series on musical instruments, the idiophones:

In 2011, scientists proved something most of us already knew: some people simply cannot dance*. One particular subject, a post-graduate student identified only as Mathieu, was utterly unable to synchronize his movements to a regular beat. He even failed to recognize when someone else was moving in time and, thus, he became the first person to be diagnosed as ‘beat deaf’. I find it fascinating that, although reporting he has never been able to find a beat, Mathieu professes a ‘lifelong love of music and dancing’. I wonder what he hears! Is all music reduced to an ambient wash, or does it explode unnaturally in fits and starts? Perhaps, like the compensatory hearing of a blind man, he has a heightened appreciation of timbre or harmony. Pulse plays such a vital role in the structure and organization of music, yet we tend to take it for granted. Playing with idiophones is a great way for children to feel the pulse of music and develop their own internal clock.

Almost all music has a pulse, whether heavily emphasized as in rock or barely perceptible as in Debussy.  In fact, there are layers of pulses within pulses. The most obvious we call ‘the beat’, but if, say, every fourth beat is emphasized, a measure-length pulse also exists (‘meter’). Maybe there is even longer periodicity: 4-measure phrases or 12-measure chord sequences, for example. If a fast passage squeezes several notes into one beat, a faster pulse is defined. It is possible to divide each beat unevenly, skipping with a recurrent ‘long-short’ pattern. All these pulses exist together in a fractal relationship; beats and their sub-divisions, meter and form are, when repetitive, pulses on different timescales.

Note: the pulse is just a guide; playing all notes accurately on the pulse can actually sound stiff and mechanical. Experienced musicians can play slightly (milliseconds) ahead to add drive and excitement, or behind for a cool, laid-back sound. Musicians can even employ different approaches to complement each other, for example, a drummer playing behind the beat can fit well with a driving bass player. Further, a repeating pattern can be made to ‘groove’ in different ways by the subtle placement of individual notes around the pulse framework. Of course, the pulse itself need not be static: a polka speeds up to a big finish or a love song ebbs and flows to reflect the lyrics. In music, timing is everything.

So, what are idiophones? Literally anything that vibrates and makes noise when struck, shaken or scraped is an idiophone. To add to his repertoire of handclaps and foot stomps, early man used sticks, stones and bones. The seeds inside a dried gourd rattled when shaken. Shells and nuts threaded onto reeds were shaken or worn by dancers to accompany their movements. Even today, the search continues for musical sounds found in everyday objects …

It is not surprising the very first ‘instruments’ we give our kids tend to be idiophones; rattles, shakers, bells, tambourines, glockenspiels and so on are perfect for younger children. Natural curiosity leads them to hit and shake as they explore the world and these instruments respond by vibrating into life. I often find my 14-month-old daughter beating time with building blocks or shaking a box of crayons and bouncing up and down to the sound.


Individually, idiophones can be somewhat limited, but a collection of simple percussion instruments is a useful thing to have on hand. Maracas, claves and a guiro work well, but you could equally use two sticks, a soup can with ridges on the side and a yogurt pot containing rice.  To help your child explore the layers of time, all you need to do is lead by example. Every now and then, when you have music playing in your house choose an instrument from your idiophone collection, listen for a pulse and, when you find one, play along! Your child might listen or join in or ignore you – it doesn’t really matter. In a day or two, try again with different music. Keep doing it and keep it varied.  In may seem odd to be adding Latin sounds to, say, a Bach sonata, but remember you are attempting to synchronize with the pulse, not add to the music. Eventually – if not immediately –  your child will want to imitate you and you can both shake, scrape and tap along with Justin Bieber, Richard Wagner, Tito Puente, Megadeth or…

This might be an activity for a friend or grandparent. The next time you are dancing at a wedding, look around for the crazy mover at whom everyone is secretly laughing. An estimated 1 in 25 of Western Europeans and North Americans are, like Mathieu, beat deaf. If you don’t see them on the dancefloor, walk carefully back to your table:  it could be you…


* You can read the full article, Born to dance but beat deaf: A new form of congenital amusia here and see related videos here

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