Where to learn: how to hear the beat of music

You will not find a class on hearing the beat of music (if you teach a class in that, throw me an email, we should talk). It’s rarely touched upon in ballroom dance classes. You must learn the beat on your own. Don’t fret, it’s simple, just listen to music (like with an iPod or whatever). Ahem, make that actively listen to music.

If you don’t have natural ability in music seek help to both get started and for occasional feedback. This could be a musical friend, a dance partner who is musical, a dance teacher or even strangers at a social dance who look competent. After your music maven gets you started, it’s up to you to practice—a lot. It’s the training on your own that develops the skill, not something your teacher does. There’s not a switch that gets flipped from “no rhythm” to “rhythm”; it’s a process, which will take days, weeks or months depending upon your ability. Use your teacher, as well as other musical people you pass along the way, to occasionally test you and give feedback. Getting feedback from others can be a quick process, even just a minute or two, so you’re not asking much.

To learn the beat you could tap a foot or clap hands or march in place. These are all okay and if you have an ear for music or prior musical training that may be enough. But for the rest of us, the secret to hearing the beat is to count music, specifically, counting the sets of 8 (waltz, the exception, is in sets of 6). Why? Because sets of 8 define the beat of the music (technical info: musicians compose dance music in four-beat measures and two measures are naturally paired to create a set of 8). You can practice counting sets of 8 anytime you listen to music—commuting, working out, in the shower, drifting off to sleep at night. (I used to practice counting sets of 8 to the background music of movies.) As you count you can also tap your foot as it’s good to involve the full body. I used to gently shift my solar plexus left and right, back and forth, simulating taking steps. Or sometimes I’d just nod my head back and forth to the beat. Marching in place to the sets of 8—doing a weight change on every beat—is the best as it most resembles dancing, plus you can practice your timing, that is, the coordination necessary to make the weight change exactly on the beat.

To get started simply have your music friend count sets of 8. Starting on a count 1, have them count: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” and start over. Listen for the accent on the count 1 (count 5, the first beat of the second measure, has an accent too but to a lesser degree) and how a count 1 sounds like the beginning of a “sentence” of music. Use very easy music, stuff with a medium slow tempo and with sets of 8 that are easy to hear. For example, blues would be easy, salsa would be hard. It would also be helpful to use music with easy to hear downbeats and upbeats. This training exercise by Skippy Blair, which involves your hands, is an excellent way to start (scroll down to the one minute video, “Skippy Blair counting sets of 8 combined with a hand exercise”).

When I first started, I used to go up to my teachers after classes and ask them to count sets of 8 to the practice music—just to hear how it’s done—which could take as little as 30 seconds of the teachers’ time. After I had some competency, I’d ask my teachers after class to listen to me count sets of 8 and give feedback. I would also approach strangers at a dance, who looked musical, to observe me tap a foot or clap or march in place or count sets of 8 (it’s no biggie for them—people love to show off—especially if you compliment their dancing first). If you’re taking private lessons, start the lesson with a few minutes of counting sets of 8. Nobody to help you? Check out this free four minute video of me counting sets of 8 (scroll down to “Counting sets of 8 in easy music”).

Even if you’re an intermediate level dancer, spend a few minutes with someone musical and just listen to music. Let them test you to a variety of music with a range of difficulty, tempo and genre. Definitely throw in something hard like salsa—uptempo Latin with lots of percussion. In addition to the feedback you get, note your confidence—are you always 100% certain of the beat or do you guess a lot?

The good news is that you’re probably not rhythmically challenged. You’ve just never been taught how to hear the beat. It’s a lack of education, not a lack of ability. Granted, even after training you may not be the best, but it’s certain that you can get better.

If you struggle to hear the beat of music, describe your problem in the comments below. What have you tried to learn the beat?

(See also this related post, “Warning: Ballroom dance classes do not teach how to hear the beat of music”)

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Warning: Ballroom dance classes do not teach how to hear the beat of music

You will not learn “rhythm” in a ballroom class. The convenient explanation is that they’re dance classes and not music classes, but I’m not buying it. My guess is that dance instructors don’t really know how to teach you to count music and hear the beat.

Ballroom dance class - Photo by University of Richmond Living-Learning Programs
Dance class (Photo by Univ. of Richmond Living-Learning Programs)

The only time you hear beats counted—counting the “sets of 8” is the best way to learn the beat—is when a teacher counts to start the class dancing. Even then you’ll probably only get four beats (with no explanation as to what’s being counted). The teacher will start the music and count a set of 8 over the music like this, “and a five six seven eight.” (Isn’t that how every dance teacher and professional dance choreographer you’ve ever heard started a group dancing?) You will take your first step on the next beat, which is the count 1 of the next set of 8 (waltz, the exception, is in sets of 6). Any other counting a teacher does is probably counting step patterns, not the music. (Although they’re related, there’s a difference between counting music and counting step patterns. I’ll eventually do some posts on this or you can check out Chapter 6, “Counting Step Patterns,” in my book.)

I wish teachers would spend a few minutes in beginners’ classes going over the beat. While counting music for an hour would be boring, educating students for five minutes on how to do it would be helpful. The beat is not like learning step patterns where you can pick up three or four patterns in an hour, which you could use this weekend at a dance. Learning to hear the beat is a more subtle process that’ll mostly be learned on you own, but teachers need to get their students started.

If you don’t have an ear for music or prior music training, which was my sorry situation, learning the beat could be a slow, sometimes frustrating, process (albeit fun—you just listen to music). There are levels. You want to be 100% sure of the beat with all kinds of music, from rumba to rock ‘n roll. And once you hear the beat you want to take it from hearing it in your head (intellectually) to feeling it in your body (visceral, intuitive).

In my book I commiserate a bit about my experience. I had a slow start, in part, because I was in denial about being rhythmically challenged. After a bunch of months, maybe six, I was okay at finding the beat, but I was not 100 percent sure. It was closer to two years before I reached maximum comfort and could stop thinking about it. During this time I also worked on phrasing, which is dancing to the bigger structure in the music; and music identification, which is how to tell the difference between, say, salsa and samba music.

I’m not sure if there’s a class any where in the world dedicated to hearing the beat. So here’s the message: you have to learn it on your own. I’ll go into it more in my next post. You can get a jump on it now by following this link to my free chapter, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8.”

If you’re a dance teacher who spends time teaching students how to hear the beat, what’s your experience?

Are you in denial about being rhythmically challenged?

rhythmically challenged: A phrase frequently used to describe someone who consistently dances off time. A better definition would be a person who lacks the education required to be able to rhythmically count beats of music. (reference: Skippy Blair’s Dance Terminology Notebook)

Photo by Konstantinos Koukopoulos
Photo by Konstantinos Koukopoulos

I was rhythmically challenged. Even after seven years of ballroom dance classes, I still had trouble with the beat — yet I didn’t know it. You see, they don’t teach this stuff in school or in dance classes. Then I found an enlightened teacher, got educated and trained on my own. Now I’m very connected to the beat.

It took me a long time to realize that I had a problem with how to hear the beat in music. There’s not a test you take with a score. You’re friends don’t pull you aside and do an intervention. Dance partners will be less anxious to dance with you but that’s hard to detect because they’ll still dance with you. You can even learn choreography and give the appearance that you’re connected to the music. I believe that’s the state of many celebrities on Dancing with the Stars.

The difficulty in hearing the beat can vary a lot from song to song. You often get songs with beats that are easy, particularly with the teaching music used in ballroom dance classes, which helps you get on the beat and be rhythmic. You can get partners who have a good sense of rhythm and they will help you stay on the beat, yet you won’t know that they’re helping. And very often you step on the beat by guessing or by accident (think: even a broken clock is right twice a day). So it’s easy to be in denial about a lack of rhythm. Besides, you know dozens of intermediate level step patterns so you must be an intermediate level dancer, right?

When I was a beginner, whether I was dancing at a dedicated dance with other beginners or at a venue where nobody knew how to dance (like a wedding reception), many of my partners liked my dancing because I was better than a lot of other guys. Funny thing, those guys were rhythmically challenged too so my musical arrhythmia didn’t stand out. Besides, many of my followers, also beginners, were challenged, so they were unable to judge my ability. To them, being charming, gentle and competently executing cool step patterns—albeit, off time—is better than: 1) being a dweeb or a creep; 2) dancing rough; 3) doing uncool patterns or doing cool choreography that’s poorly executed; 4) rocking back-and-forth like a dork. So even if you’re rhythmically challenged, you can have partners who will tell you, sincerely, you’re a good dancer, which further buries the truth.

In my experience this is not just a guy thing. Many women are rhythmically challenged. I suspect that a minority of people have the ability to really hear the beat—that is, to always be sure of the beat, not just occasionally (guessing doesn’t count). I suspect that not being sure of the beat is the average condition.

An intellectual (read: superficial) grasp of the beat can be easy to fake because it often works — by guessing, by accident and by dancing to music with beats that are easy to hear. But having rhythm in your flesh and bones (read: natural and intuitive) is where you want to be. It’s a thrill to be viscerally moved by music as it’ll not only make you a dancer but it’ll make listening to all music more enjoyable. I believe that most people can train themselves to always hear the beat, but first you need to be educated. I just wish they taught it in school and in dance classes.

What’s your story: Do you suspect you’re rhythmically challenged? Where you once rhythmically challenged and did you overcome it? How did you overcome it?

Counting 32-beat major phrases (video: 6 min, 40 sec.)

Phrasing in ballroom dancing is an intermediate-level concept but I beg you, O Humble Beginner, to begin actively listening for the major phrases in all music (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page):

This will help you to hear the sets of 8, hence, how to hear the beat in music. It’ll also make listening to all music more fun—even your rap and metal stuff—because it helps you predict where the music is going.

A major phrase is a “paragraph” of music (sets of 8 are the “sentences”). While sets of 8 will be consistent throughout a song (Geek Alert: that’s by virtue of the 4/4 time signature), major phrases vary so a song can have phrases of different lengths. Like other structural elements of music, sometimes hearing the major phrases is subtle and sometimes it’s in your face. The basic 32-beat phrase is common and they’re easy to hear in this music.

Is there music (name the title) where you can’t hear the major phrases?

New videos – how to count music and hear the beat

I’ve posted some new instructional video clips in recent weeks. (They’re the videos that go with the book so they’re also posted on the Freebie Video page.) The two below help with how to count music and hear the beat.

First, there’s counting sets of 8:

I’d guess that over 80% (probably over 90%–I don’t want to be too definitive in case some folks have an off-beat taste in music) of the popular music that you hear today is structured in sets of 8. If you do ballroom dancing, all music except waltz will be in sets of 8 (waltz is in sets of 6). In some music the sets of 8 are easy to hear, and in some music they’re bloody hard to hear. The music in this video is easy.

Second, downbeat and upbeat:

Again, the vast majority of all music you hear today will have the “downbeat upbeat” structure. Even if you can’t hear it, it’s there (waltz is “downbeat upbeat upbeat”). The music in this video has very pronounced upbeats. You have to hear the structure in the easy tunes before you can hear it in the harder stuff.

Is there music (name the title) where you can’t hear the sets of 8 or the downbeat/upbeat?

Beware of tempo

I have an issue with tempo.

I went through a long period where I could dance okay in class but I was terrible at a social dance. Some of that had to do with a lack of familiar partners (read: my leading sucked and partners at a dance were not familiar with the step patterns I learned in class) and some of it had to do with my poor memory (read: the half-life of a new pattern from class for me is as little as 10 minutes). But a lot of it had to do with tempo.

The tempo of a song is the number of beats per minute, e.g., 120 BPM. Every dance has a range of tempos that work for that dance. Teachers tend to teach at the slower range because it’s easier to learn a dance at a slower tempo. When you’re at a dance you’ll hear a range of tempos but my unscientific-Murphy’s-Law opinion is that very little will be at the slower tempos, the one you learned in class. I seemed to always get deejays and bands that played mostly uptempo (fast) music.

Other stuff being equal—same partner, same dance moves—I began to notice a pattern: what worked for me at, say, 120 BPM would be awkward at 130 BPM and might completely disintegrate at 140 BPM. This erosion of my dancing prowess was not necessarily a lack of physical ability and coordination. It was more the inability of my brain to keep up with the action at faster tempos. Mental confusion. Because my dancing was not yet automatic, at faster tempos my brain was not quick enough to remember everything I had to do: my foot goes here, my hand goes there, the lead is like this, stay on the beat, flirt with a clever line. Plus, I had to think about what move to try to impress her with next. Plus, I was always distracted with trying to look cool, not easy for a beginner.

It took me a while to realize that uptempo music was a problem because, when you can’t hear the beat, which was my problem for many years, you can’t hear the tempo. Being stuck at the beginner level for more than seven years gave me plenty of time to formulate and test this theory. Noble-Laureate I’m not, over-analytical dancer I am.

I’m still a bit picky with songs and, unless I have a partner of equal or better ability, I tend to avoid uptempo. Although it doesn’t always work nor is it always appropriate to even try, I attempt to manage the process with conversation. For example, if the song hasn’t yet started, I might use a line like this: “Let’s dance but we have to make sure it’s a good song.” If I’m already on the floor and dancing and it’s not going well, I might go with this line: “This is not a good dance song, way too uptempo—gosh, it’s probably over 160 BPM—let’s dance the next one.”

I asked Skippy Blair about tempo and she said, “People do have tempos. There are those who dance everything. There are those who cannot dance slow. Many people ‘own’ a tempo.” And she suggested this line: “I’d sure love to dance with you the next time they play my tempo.”

ADVANCED INFO ALERT: You dudes who count tempo in measures per minute (MPM), puh-lease, have mercy. In 4/4 time, you would say 120 BPM is equal to 30 MPM, but in ¾ time you would say 120 BPM is equal to 40 MPM. Are you telling me that even if my ear hears the same number of beats in the span of a minute I need to know time signatures (4/4-time, ¾-time) to identify tempo? Can you make tempo any more difficult for the beginner?

Sets of 8: test yourself on how to count music and hear the beat

Here’s a good test to see if you can count music and hear the beat by counting sets of 8. Flip the radio dial, stop on random songs and accurately count the sets of 8 and know you’re right. It took me about a year of dedicated practice before I could do that 90% of the time, but it was closer to two years before I could do it 100% of the time and have the confidence to know I was right. Part of the test is to know if a particular song is dance music, which I’ll go into in my next post.

Count music: sets of 8, heavy measure, light measure (video: 1 min. 15 sec.)

In this video Skippy Blair counts the sets of 8 in a piece of music. The hand motion she uses is a good exercise when you count music to work on timing and training your body to hear the sets of 8.

Listen for the heavy measure, beats 1 to 4, and the light measure, beats 5 to 8. The light measure is the thematic “conclusion” to a set of 8. Listening for the thematic conclusion is a good way to identify a set of 8. All dance music, except the waltz, is structured in sets of 8. The waltz is counted in sets of 6.

From Skippy Blair’s 2006 Summer Intensive, video courtesy of Skippy Blair

Hearing the beat of the music by counting "sets of 8" (audio: 30 sec.)

This is a 30 sec. audio clip of Skippy Blair counting sets of 8. You will never, ever, ever be a good ballroom dancer unless you can “hear”—either count or intuitively feel—the sets of 8 in the music.

Why? Because the ability to count music and hear the sets of 8 keeps you on the beat and it tells you when to start and finish patterns. A set of 8 defines the beat of the music. So, if you can hear the sets of 8, it confirms that you know where the beat is for that piece of music.

I don’t want to scare you so I won’t tell you how long it took me to hear the sets of 8 on my own (87 years! kidding). But it’s an automatic process now and I’m shocked at how connected I am to the sets of 8. Remember, I used to think I was rhythmically challenged.

As you listen to this clip, listen how a set of 8 is like a “sentence” of music. Then notice how four sets of 8 (32 beats), or four “sentences,” come together to create a complete musical thought, which is like a “paragraph” of music. A set of 8 is called a “mini-phrase,” and four sets of 8 is called a “major-phrase.”

Most songs have introductions, which can be any length; this piece has a 16 beat intro. Skippy then counts four 32-beat phrases for a total of 144 beats. The 32-beat major-phrase is the simplest, most common structure in dance music. The beats in this clip are structured like this:

8 8 = 16 beats (the intro)
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
Total = 144 beats

All ballroom dance music is counted in sets of 8 except waltz, which is counted in sets of 6. There’s more on sets of 8 in my web book, Chapter 4, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8.”

TIP: It’s going to take a while to the hear sets of 8 so practice counting anytime you hear music: the car, a TV show, a movie, an elevator, the gym, a store, you name it. Get confirmation from other dancers to make sure you’re doing it correctly. Now that I’m better connected to music, one of the great benefits of learning to dance is that I get a bigger thrill just listening to any kind of music.

Audio clip courtesy of Skippy Blair (swingworld.com).