Alternative pulses in pulse-based music

In many pieces of music we are presented to a rhythm that is creating some kind of friction against the main pulse. But stil there are not very many examples, in music where pulse is a dominant element, to push the friction far enough to actually change the perception of the main pulse. In this post I will present two different pulse-based pieces of music, which both uses common rhythmical patterns to introduce alternative pulses.

Rather than applying one of the tools on FAA, I will write this post more freely with comments and explanations in connection to each of the audio examples.


It is common, also in this music genre where it is important that the music is dance friendly, to use different combinations of the durations eight note (two sixteen notes) and dotted eight note (three sixteen notes), to create rhythmical patterns in a metrum that is strictly quarter note based.

What is happening in this Britney Spears song is that a duration of dotted eight note, in the sung melody, is repeated, and makes an alternative pulse occur; four beats over three ordinary pulse beats. The seven repetitions of dotted eight notes in each phrase, makes the alternative pulse stretch over one bar plus one beat. This means that alternative pulse does not add up at the start of the second bar which, I claim, is one of the key points to why you can start to hear it as an alternative pulse more than a rhythm.

In the start of the refrain the main pulse is not present, clearly emphasizing the alternative pulse as it enters. In the second part of the refrain, the wordless part, the main pulse enters like a steady beat against the alternative pulse melody.

If listening to the intro and the verse of the song you can hear that the bass is continuously playing the alternative pulse, adjusted to add upp on the start of each second bar, with the obvious function of planting it in the listener, without him/her being aware of it, so when you get to the refrain and Britney starts singing the alternative pulse up front, it will make sense musically.

Notice that Britney is clearly marking the main pulse in the verse, where the bass is playing the alternative pulse. The roles are then reversed in the refrain.

Still, even though the idea of the alternative pulse is well planted in the verse and accentuated in the refrain, there is never any ambiguity about which pulse is the main one; when the main pulse disappears in the beginning of the refrain, you never lose track of it. The second example goes one step further in that sense.


In this example, just as in the previous one, there is a play between two pulses with the tempo relation 4:3. But here the music is ambiguous about which one is the main pulse.

The means that is used to reach this ambiguity is quite elegant. While the Britney Spears song presents an alternative pulse by simply playing/singing it, this piece is starting out with a melody playing sixteen notes and a drum beat; the melody and the drum beat are together making it possible to hear the main pulse in two different ways.

0’09 – 0’44

The drum beat is created by using a slightly adjusted polyrhythm (the two pulses present in the same rhythm), where you can hear the main pulse as dotted eight notes (three sixteen notes) if assuming that the snare drum is playing on each beat, or as quarter notes (four sixteen notes), if instead assuming that the bass drum is.

The melody consist of plain sixteen notes and could therefore fit inside both a pulse consisting of quarter notes or dotted eight notes. The shaping of the melody could make it obvious which pulse is the main one (in acoustic music also phrasing could reveal the same). Here the melody is constructed, just as the drum beat, to fit both if hearing the main pulse as quarter notes or dotted eight notes. But the pitches are grouped in a way (groups of four or two-two sixteen notes) that gives a hint the main pulse consists of quarter notes.

Since quarter notes is the far most common pulse beat in this music genre and the grouping of the melody pitches is pointing in this direction, I think most listeners will hear the opening of this piece with quarter notes as the main pulse. The drum beat will then be limping slightly, since the bass drum is adjusted around what is actually the main pulse: dotted eight notes. This can give an interesting, and slightly disturbing, experience; you feel what you think is the main pulse but it does not really add up.

The shift

At 0’44 some small adjustments in the drum beat are made which makes clear that the main pulse is dotted eight notes. If the music was earlier heard with quarter note as the main pulse, the perceptual shift of the music might be big, even if the technical adjustments are small. With these small rhythmical adjustments, it actually turns out that what was heard as sixteen notes in the melody was all the time eight note triplets, while the drum beat was subdivided in sixteen and thirty-second notes. This is why it earlier felt like the drum beat was limping.

I find it very interesting how this small change in the music can make a big perceptual change in the listener.


  1. (If you, like myself cannot listen to the Britney Spears track because of copyright: I found this hand recorded live version)


  2. I really, really like reading this. The text makes me understand simple and basic structures in the pieces which I would not have noticed. And it is really fun to read!

    One part I do not fully understand/listen to differently:

    “Notice that Britney is clearly marking the main pulse in the verse, where the bass is playing the alternative pulse. The roles are then reversed in the refrain”

    Agree with the voice/bass counterpoint in the verse. But I don’t hear the bass marking the main pulse in the refrain. I think it is the bass drum and snare hammering out the main beat, while the bass has the same role as in the verse, which is the alternative pulse. The imagination of voice and bass switching roles in the two parts is really tempting though. But I hear it more like: voice and bass in counterpoint to each other (verse) become one monorhythmic entity in the refrain.
    Or did you mean a different bass in your text?

    Your description of the Dorian Project example really got me going. And it revealed to me how I listen to a different example which I was in love with forever (thank you!)
    So I did the experiment of putting a third example next to the two of yours. You will allow me to jump on the train that you started here..

    A third example would enable to apply the POOL TOOL of the Forum. All that is required in addition is a (slightly loose) description of the phenomenon. So as an application of the Tool, it would look like this:

    PHENOMENON description: an introduced alternative pulse in an established steady pulse.

    The third EXCERPT, in addition to the ones in your main post:

    excerpt 1:47-3:00

    The example starts with a steady 6/8 meter, so each beat consists of three eigth notes. The metrical feeling is created mainly by the guitar, which plays one note of a triad on every eighth note.
    The turn happens at 2:30, with the muffled drums being introduced. They convert the originally steady three beats into triplets over two beats. That is similar to the switch in your second excerpt (Dorian Concept), though not as subtle and smooth.

    At 2:46, a techno bass drum fades in in order to emphasise the newly introduced pulse even more. The alternative pulse disappears though at 4:01, as surprisingly as it appeared in the first place. The drums stop and the guitar triads are re-entroduced. And with them, the original 6/8 meter is re-established.

    I think it is enriching applying the Pool Tool here. If someone else comes up with another or even more examples, there can be an accumulation of excerpts which all represent the phenomen of an alternative pulse inside a steady pulse. I think that sounds pretty cool, but not sure how you feel about it.


  3. Johan Svensson

    Thanks for your comment, Mauro! I am glad you like the post!

    You are right about the Britney Spears excerpt (I was simplifying a bit to much when cutting down the text in the end). The bass remains the same in the refrain and the drums, for the first time, starts emphasizing the main puls.

    “In the flowers” is another nice example of the same phenomena, or at least a similar one. I do not hear it like an alternative pulse is introduced with the drums (at 2:30), rather that the pulse remains the same and the subdivision of the pulse changes to duplets (alternatively from earlier triplets to straight eight notes). Do you agree or do you think that another pulse is emerging with the drums?

    More examples of pieces with similar phenomena are welcome!

    Here is a piece that is clearly composed using “Till the world ends” as a pre-model; basically the same vocal line in the second part of the refrain and the bass line has the same function of preparing this from the start.


    • Concerning your text: ” “In the flowers” is another nice example of the same phenomena, or at least a similar one. I do not hear it like an alternative pulse is introduced with the drums (at 2:30), rather that the pulse remains the same and the subdivision of the pulse changes to duplets (alternatively from earlier triplets to straight eight notes). Do you agree or do you think that another pulse is emerging with the drums?”

      Agree with you about the moment at 2:30. It starts in the feeling of duplets. But it is an ambigious moment for me. After two, three bars, I stop to hear two beats with a duplet in each one, but four, equally emphasised beats. And with the introduction of the bass drum at 2:46, that pulse gets cemented.

      In my view, coming from measures of two beats containing three eighth notes (up until 2:30) to measures of the same length containing four steady beats (from 2:46) fulfills the criteria of an alternative pulse. But I guess part of the magic of the duplets is that everyone hears them differently.

      And really nice to see the similarity of “Euphoria” to “Till the World Ends”!

      While the writers of the Britney song let her take on the role of the dotted eighth notes right in the beginning of the chorus basically on her own (0:39-0:54),

      Loreen first has to mark the steady beat (1:06-1:15) before she can join the dotted fun at 1:16

      Good stuff! Thanks for sharing!


  4. Someone showed me this after reading the article. Perfect example:

    With not just one, but three changes in tempo. The first change through dotted eighth notes which become the main beat. (at around 1:00)
    The new quarter note beat then gets faster by removing a triplet, which leads to a new, even faster pulse. (around 2:47)
    And back to the middle beat (4:15)


  5. Pingback: Delayed First Beats | F A A

  6. Pingback: Two-Faced Snare Drum | F A A


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