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Timing, rhythm & music interpretation in Salsa

Timing Training Set$120

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Music Timing

Each one of us instinctively understands that there is 'fast music' and 'slow music'. The use of terms like 'fast' or 'slow' naturally implies that there is a concept of 'speed' associated with the music. Strictly speaking, we could say that there is a regular 'clock' ticking under the music score of most popular forms of music. This 'clock' marks the regular beats, which represent the basic units of musical rhythm. These beats are the ones we would normally count when we clap in time to the music. The number of beats per minute determines the speed of the music, properly called 'tempo'.

Musical beats and bars of music. In music the unit of time is called a 'bar'. In the context of this our discussion, each bar of music is made of 4 beats. In salsa, most phrases (both in music and in dancing) cover blocks of 2 bars, which means 8 beats. In our timing DVD we have a session in which you can see the beats ticking in front of you, for both salsa and other styles of music, in order to help you understand this concept. Also, a salsa beat counter is used throughout each of our salsa videos (both timing DVD and our figure-based salsa videos). This is important to both train your ear to follow the music time and to synchronize your movements to the salsa rhythm.

In our timing CD instead we employ the most intuitive visual aid taken from an everyday example: the clock. As we said, in salsa, the basic pattern of time involves 8 beats. The steps are synchronised with these beats. Imagine the clock as illustrated in this figure. The hand of the clock moves a full circle in exactly 8 beats. We can imagine the 8 beats to be equally spaced around the clock. When the hand moves past a tick it marks a beat. Each beat takes the same amount of time. This is the basic element of musical timing.


Strong and weak beats. In musical terminology the odd beats (n1 n3 n5 n7) are called strong beats. The even beats are called weak beats. This distinction is important as you will soon see.

Music Accents. The accents are notes (or beats) which are louder than the others. The distribution of the accents is one of the factors which determines the rhythm of a piece of music. Here we introduce the most important difference between 'western' pop music and Cuban music (from which salsa originates.)

In most pop music strong beats and accents coincide. Imagine clapping your hands to mark the accents in the music (this is shown in our timing DVD). The hands would fall on the 'odd' beats. This is why it easy to 'find the beat' in western pop music.

In many styles of music with African roots the rhythm structure is more complicated. In swing for example, the accents coincide with the 'even' beats and this is even clearer in reggae, one of the many forms of Caribbean music (we show the hands clapping to both swing and reggae in our timing DVD). In musical terms this is called syncopation. In Cuba the rhythm structure is even more complicated. It is based on the clave, and on other percussion instruments which interleave with one another marking both the odd and the even beats. This generates the 'Cuban' feel, and is one of the factors which makes it challenging for a 'westerner's ear' to 'find the beat' in salsa. But before we explain in details all these instruments and how they are combined let's have a look at the basic salsa steps.

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