Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Earwormz: Pulse

Aravind and Reema takes the reader through a cross-genre listening session with a specific focus on pulse as both the rhythm we inhabit and the musical core of a song.

Editor’s note: this article contains explicit language
Does he have a pulse? Do you hear that rhythm? An unmistakable sign of life across life and music alike, pulse is our feely of the week. How do artists play with the pulse of sound patterns to change the pulse of life within us? What do these bridges look like? Let’s explore.
Pulsewidth - Aphex Twin This track by the pioneer of ambient electronic music was recorded in 1985, apparently when he was just 14 years old. Working off diffused synth chords against a pulsing house bassline, this dance-floor friendly track pushes our heartbeats outward in all directions. When we listened to this track, we imagined two polarizing yet eerily similar scenarios. One of us pictured us floating in an orange float tube in a lazy pool at a water park, while trying to swim against the waves, wading to the pulse of house beats while being pushed back by the muffled, ambient synth chords. The other pictured an open, green field. Your heart throbbing to the house bassline makes you feel like you are in a 400m sprint, but the ambient waves make you feel like you’re just frolicking. That’s right, frolicking about a field when your body tells you you’re running a race. Where are you running to? What are you swimming for? This track asks all the right questions with all the right pulses.
Melody Freame - Lizz This friendly track exhibits an evolving pulse that is, dare we say, Darwinian. Variation is slow but sure; progress is confusing but audible. A consistent rhythm made with plucky synths coupled with clipped percussive sounds is typical of this Romanian micro-house style. These elements add to one of the more natural, organic developments of pulse we have seen in electronic music. We both pictured a similar setting with the song: a sundowner DJ set, seltzer in hand, an ignored cigarette from the other hand carelessly ashing onto the dancefloor as we did a two-step shuffle into the sunset. The pulse of this song is distinctly human, encompassing our desire for friendly change.
Take Five - Dave Brubeck It was Dave Brubeck’s travels around Eurasia in 1958 that inspired him to create music in quintuple (5/4) time, a departure from the usual 4/4 time of jazz, leaving the world with "Take Five”. And it was Take Five that inspired us to think abstractly about pulse. Lost in this two-chord piano repetition, our pulse widens to match the exotic-jazz five count, but our bodies are swaying alongside the wave of the alto sax. It’s quite a unique musical experience to feel your heart and body disform from each other, with each catching its own wave of rhythm. And in jazz, especially in Take Five, you certainly have a lot of rhythms to choose from. Imagine being home with your parents for summer break, and my God you’ve been needing a cigarette all day. So here you are, in your twenties, sneaking through your house late at night, trying to make it to the safety of a balcony without being caught. The piano is your heart beat, consistently strong and pulsing with adrenaline, and the alto sax is your movement, moving steadily and deliberately, while your pulse is anything but. Internal chaos ensues when you hear noise that could be the rustling of your parents waking up. You are now at the drum solo. Deeply thudded movements, moments of silence, your body seems to be controlling your pulse; your pulse is in fact the only consistent part of the situation. Silence again, you are now certain of your safety and let out a sigh of relief in the form of sax. Your body again is taken by the alto, free-flowing, comfortable and nicotine-infused.
Music for 18 Musicians (Pulses) - Steve Reich Minimal maestro Steve Reich created this piece in 1976, premiering an ensemble of 18 musicians playing instruments ranging from violins to cellos to xylophones. Pulse, the first piece in the 1 hour and 7 minute masterpiece feels like a Saturday morning snooze session. You’re in a dream and these timbrous aliens are chasing you. The familiarly despised iPhone alarm goes off and you wake up, but with the luxury of a snooze. You smash the snooze button, and fall back into the chase. Now things have changed. You realize it's not quite the same as reality but it’s just as immersive. You’re confused: are they demons or are they angels? The alarm goes off, you abruptly wake up again. Roll over inside your duvet and you’re back in the dream. This anesthetic, half-wake trance is at the core of how Reich’s pulses make you feel. The pulses took us away and then lost us, shifting back and forth through levels of consciousness. Cycling through a chase of terror, thrill and tension, this piece pulses through our minds like a Saturday morning dream.
Pretty Little Fucker - Surfbort When experiencing a full emotion, you aren’t just going through a consistent pulse of just that one emotion. It was pioneering philosopher Susanne Langer who once described music as a “significant form,” a dynamic structure that informs experience in a way that cannot be conveyed by language. We would argue here that Langer uses the term “significant form” to present music as representative of the form of emotion. Music therefore does not imitate feelings, but acts as the arc or form of those feelings. This is how Surfbort’s “Pretty Little Fucker” rides for us. Dani Miller’s voice and Alex Kilgore and David R. Head Jr.’s guitars aren’t in rhythm, but are separately expressing the arc and full form of rage. Realistically, this is what moshing at a punk show is truly like. Stops and starts, chaos, your heart pulsing through your body as your rage transforms you, until a short break sets you back down to breathe. And short is just what this is. With a timestamp of only 1 minute and 35 seconds, Brooklyn’s newest punk darlings show us how musical pulse can translate into your own pulse, inducing the rise and fall of intense emotion. Not to mention that punk moshes can be considered the physical personification of a collective pulse. Picture an aerial view of a mosh; can you not layer onto that your heart pulsing blood through itself as well?
Aravind Kumar and Reema El-Kaiali are columnists. Email them at
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