Chapter 2 – Count Music: Finding the Sets of 8

Football isn’t a contact sport; it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.

— Vince Lombardi, legendary Green Bay Packers coach


(Note: This chapter layout is just a WordPress blog page, so you’re not looking at the cool layout found in the book.)


I was always suspicious of the counting I heard in dance classes. I like numbers, and I’m a good counter, so it was odd. Dang it all, counting confused me! Fear not, I’ve expended endless calories, tortured and maimed untold brain cells and burned through thousands of dollars in dance lessons to make sense of this simple subject.

I believe part of the problem revolves around what is being counted. Although they’re related, counting music and counting step patterns are not the same. This chapter explores counting music; Chapter 6, “Counting Step Patterns,” looks at counting step patterns. For most people, especially men or anyone who believes he or she is rhythmically challenged, I believe learning to count, both the music and step patterns, is the gateway to intermediate-level dancing and above.

For me as a beginner, counting music was hard to pin down because—well, because nobody ever told me how to do it. Not only is it rarely taught in a class, except for one situation (when a teacher counts you in to start a dance, discussed at the end of this chapter), it’s rarely heard in class. And some teachers use musician lingo whenever they reference the musical count; that always threw me for a loop. Loops I didn’t need.

Counting music is counting the underlying beats of the music. Doing so reveals the structure of the music. It pertains only to the structure of the music—not the step pattern being danced—and virtually all dance music is counted the same. The one exception is waltz, which is covered on pages 74 and 124. When I refer to “virtually all dance music,” it means all dance music except the waltz.

So, forget all the highfalutin-hieroglyphic-4/4-2/4-3/4-time-signature-mumbo-jumbo-music-theory you’ve been bulldozed with in the past. This is the only thing you need to know: virtually all dance music is counted in sets of 8 beats. It’s as simple as that. Sets of 8 exist because that’s how musicians compose the music; it’s how they give structure to the music. It’s the same way a sentence gives structure to the written word, as you’ll see in a moment. Sets of 8 are important to dancers for a number of reasons but most importantly because they identify and define the underlying beat of the music.

I remember the first time I ever heard the structure of music counted, with the help of John, a stranger at a bar. This was a big event for me. John caught my eye because the level of his dancing was high, higher than anything I’d ever observed in my local scene. I was dying to know his secret; so I approached him and asked why his dancing was so distinctive. He said he was connected to the music—through the count—and he demonstrated. We proceeded to listen to the house band, music I had listened to for years.

He counted the music in sets of 8 beats. He counted 8 beats of music—“one two three four five six seven eight”—and then started over. He emphasized each count 1 of the music, the first beat of each set of 8, by punching the air with his hand. (And, to a lesser degree, he also emphasized each count 5, the fifth beat of a set of 8, with a smaller punch.) With the help of his hand motions I could hear that all the count 1s were, indeed, naturally emphasized in the music. (Lingo Alert: Sometimes the word “count” is omitted and a count 1 is identified as “the 1 of the music” or just “the 1.”) Moreover, I could hear that the 1s were beginning points that signaled the beginning of something new in the melody. The concept of a beginning point was subtle; but if someone identified it for me, I could hear it.

He kept track of the sets of 8 as they passed, and he identified the bigger structure of the music. He predicted and caught all the big accents and breaks in the music with his hand motions—music he claimed he was not familiar with. This went on for song after song and, with his guidance, I could hear that every song had the same basic structure of sets of 8. I thought that maybe it was a trick; perhaps he was the band’s manager or something. Nope. He was just a stranger, first time in town, first time at this joint.

Not only did every song have the same structure, he claimed most popular music had this structure of sets of 8. Nahhh . . . impossible . . . surely it worked only for these songs because, well, they’re all from the same band or something. I couldn’t believe it would work for all songs—could it? Is it possible that I had danced for years oblivious to the common structure in virtually all dance music? Was I that detached from the music that no matter how many songs passed me by I couldn’t hear the structure that now screams at me? It’s remarkable that in seven years of dance lessons, nobody had done this demonstration for me before.

While it took time before I could count sets of 8 on my own to a broad spectrum of music and test this earth-shattering hypothesis, he was right: All dance music, except waltz, shares a similar structure. Heck, most popular music, even the gnarliest rock or rap you’ve ever heard, probably shares the same repeatable, predictable sets of 8 as dance music.

Sets of 8, which identify the underlying beat and reflect the true structure of the music, are the foundation of counting music. For beginners, counting music is done off the dance floor when you’re not dancing, to help you connect to the music. Counting is simple: listen for any count 1 to start, then count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Then start over. If you want to count how many sets of 8 go by, count the second set like this: 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; count the third like this: 3, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; count the fourth set like this: 4, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on. In this book, a set of 8 beats looks like this (note that they’re in pairs, which will make sense after you read the next two chapters):

Musical Count - Set of 8

Whether you can hear sets of 8 or not, sets of 8 are “in” the music. Once you develop your ear, which you will over time, a set of 8 will stand out, with integrity, in much the same way a sentence stands out from within a paragraph. Like the written word, music has themes and these themes are directly related to the musical count. In fact, if the song has vocals, sometimes a sentence or phrase of words aligns with a set of 8.

For me, hearing sets of 8 is a two-part approach. First, using a more left-brain-linear-analytical approach, I try to identify the count 1s, the first beat of a set of 8. A count 1 stands out because it typically has an emphasis or accent. It also stands out because it’s a beginning point for a piece of the melody or other thematic element; it sounds like a natural place to start something. It’s the same type of feeling you get at the start of a new sentence.

Second, using a more right-brain-holistic-intuitive approach, I listen to the overall melody of the music and try to hear the whole sentence (the whole set of 8). If I can hear, thematically, that I’m coming to the end of a sentence in the music, then I can feel when the next sentence will start. If I predict correctly, it gets confirmed by hearing the accent on the next count 1 and the feeling that, thematically, a new sentence has started. Today, this method, feeling the music, is the primary way I connect to the sets of 8, and much of it is done subconsciously, without thinking. Lingo Alert: I’m going to pull a fast one with language: Don’t tell any musicians but, for convenience, I tend to use the word melody generically to mean the themes I hear in any of the three components that combine to make a piece of music—melody, harmony or rhythm (drums).

So what’s the catch? Hearing the count 1s and the sentence structure in the music is hard. If it were easy to hear I would have heard it on my own and you would be able to hear it on your own and we could all drop this book and go dance. Even after I realized that sets of 8 existed, it took many, many months of listening and practicing and getting confirmation from others before I could hear the structure and it became second nature. Until I could confidently count sets of 8, I was never 100 percent certain I was on the beat.

The Musician’s Measure

I wanted to label this discussion on the musician’s measure as an Advanced Info Alert as it may be too much information. I hate to burden the beginner with musical terms. But measure gets tossed around a lot among dancers, and understanding it will do a lot to help you hear the sets of 8.

A measure, a musical term, is a unit of time that counts virtually all dance music in groups of four beats. That’s how musicians deal with dance music, and there are dancers who follow this path of four. It’s a workable system for dancers . . . nahh, I take that back; just stick with sets of 8. They’re easier and more accurate. Even professional dance choreographers and aerobics instructors use sets of 8, also called a “dancer’s eight,” to choreograph their routines.

Actually, measures are naturally paired. So a set of 8 is just a combination of two four-beat measures, but sets of 8 work better for dancers because they’re more closely aligned to the natural structure. Think of the pairing of measures this way: Break a pencil in half. It’s still the same pencil, and you can write with it. But it’s easier to work with the whole pencil. Musicians compose music half a pencil at a time, but their goal is to create a whole pencil. It’s easier for dancers to just look at the whole pencil. So, thematically, a four-beat measure, while it has some integrity on its own, sounds incomplete, like half a sentence.

The order matters in the pairing of measures. There’s the first half, the measure that begins the set of 8, counts 1 to 4; and there’s the last half, the measure that ends the set of 8, counts 5 to 8. To hear the correct order, listen to the melody, especially the feeling that the first measure begins something and that the last measure ends it. Also, listen for the relative difference in emphasis on the count 1 and the count 5. The point to note is that the count 1 has a stronger accent than the count 5, which will help you distinguish between the 1 and the 5. (Recall from earlier, I said that John, the stranger who first helped me count music, also punched out the 5s with his hand, but to a lesser degree.) The order can be subtle—often very, very subtle—but it’s there, even if you can’t hear it. Like sets of 8, the natural pairing of measures is just in the count of the music.

Hearing accented beats, measures and sets of 8 is tricky. Depending on the music, there can be a lot going on or very little going on, which makes the process tough. But once you get it, it’ll become second nature.

Arcane Technical Info: Some dancers count tempo in measures per minute (MPM). Multiply MPM by four to get beats per minute (BPM). Most dance music falls in a range of, say, 80 to 160 BPM, which would be 20 to 40 MPM.

TIP: Sometimes vocals line up nicely with the sets of 8, sometimes not. Sometimes the accent on the count 1 is an accented vocal, sometimes not. The beat of the music is established by the percussion instruments, like drums. In general, don’t get distracted by lyrics.

ANOTHER TIP: When practicing the beat, in addition to counting, it’s always good to get some body movement. While tapping your foot is okay, the most effective way to train your body to feel the beat is marching in place, doing a weight change on every beat of music.

Freebie Video: Check out my website (ihatetodancec.com) for some video clips, which will help you count sets of 8.

What’s so important about counting the musical structure? For me as a beginner, there were three elements. First, hearing the structure was a big step toward connecting to the music, which is what separates the poseur from the real dancer. Second, if I could hear the structure—if I could count sets of 8—I could confirm that I was on the beat. This was sweet: I no longer had to annoy friends and accost strangers with pleas to help me with the beat. Now, if I can’t count sets of 8, I know that I’m either off the beat or it’s a waltz or it’s not dance music.

Finally, it answered one of the more troubling aspects of dance for me as a beginner: When, exactly, do I start a dance—when do I take the first step? Let me explain. The count 1 of any set of 8 is the best place to start a dance, because it feels like the beginning of something. While you can start a dance on any odd beat (counts 1, 3, 5 and 7), it will feel best if you start on a count 1. A count 5, the beginning of the second measure, is the next best choice. Generally, a follower expects you to start on a 1 or a 5. If you don’t, you may surprise her and it’ll be an awkward start.

Teachers always start a class dancing on a count 1 of the music. For now, pay attention as your teacher counts you in to start a dance. This is probably the only time you’ll hear music counted and you’ll usually hear just four to eight beats of it. Invariably, the teacher will start the music and then count something like “ . . . and a five six seven eight,” and you will take your first step on the next beat, the count 1 of the next set of 8. Any other counting a teacher does is probably counting step patterns, not the music.

I still remember the feelings of being lost, standing motionless on the floor, like a statue, waiting uncomfortably, sometimes straining to hold back the sweat, trying to discern when to start. I danced for years feeling awkward about jumping into a dance because I didn’t know that virtually all dance music is structured in sets of 8 creating natural, predictable places to start. I found it interesting that teachers knew just where to start, but I figured that’s why they were the teachers—they had a gift—and I was the inept student. Sure, I guess I heard sentences in the music, but I didn’t know these sentences were so regular, consistent and predictable. I thought music was more random, always different. I now know this ignorance kept me from connecting to the music and stuck at the beginner level, in a rut.

Please, no tears.

EXERCISE 1: Count Sets of 8

To get started, spend time with a teacher or friend listening to a variety of music. You can listen to your own music collection; but also surf the radio dial and music websites that let you sample music, as listening to unfamiliar songs is an important part of the process. Count the sets of 8. If a song stumps you, move on quickly, because you have to hear it in the easy pieces before you can hear it in the harder stuff. Do the count 1s stand out? Do the 1s and 5s seem to have the same emphasis? The beat with more emphasis, however subtle that may be, is the 1. If you have a hard time hearing the beat, plan on sticking with this exercise for many months, working both on your own and with occasional confirmation from others.

Advanced Info Alert: Intro to Phrasing

Phrasing, the way dancers use the word, refers to the structure of the music. While phrasing is not for newbies, I believe beginners who have had a few months of classes should begin to develop an ear for it. I’ll be gentle.

One set of 8 is also called a mini-phrase, a term coined by dance educator Skippy Blair. To the ear, a set of 8 or mini-phrase usually has a theme: a short piece of melody or harmony with a beginning and an ending. The themes of mini-phrases have some integrity, but they don’t tell the whole story. A mini-phrase, like a sentence of words, only tells part of the story.

Music also has “paragraphs.” A paragraph in music is often called a phrase of music or, more descriptively, a major phrase. Just as a paragraph is a series of sentences, a major phrase is a series of mini-phrases. To the ear, the theme of a major phrase typically encompasses the smaller themes of the mini-phrases to create a larger theme, which tells the whole story—a complete musical thought. For example, a group of mini-phrases can come together to form a chorus or verse, which is thematically complete.

Unlike the mini-phrase, which is always eight beats (except waltz music), the number of beats in a major phrase will vary depending on the music. The most common major phrase is the 32-beat phrase, which is sometimes described as “four sets of 8” (4 × 8 = 32), easy to hear in everything from jazz to Latin to rock ’n roll. Also common is the 48-beat phrase, which can be described as “six sets of 8” and is considered standard phrasing for blues music. (Arcane technical info: Musicians call it 12-bar blues, a bar being slang for a four-beat measure: 12 × 4 = 48.)

Phrasing is important, because at the intermediate level and above you will dance to the major phrases. You will choreograph step patterns in a way that acknowledges the major phrases, which will connect you to the music at a higher level. And women will love you for it.

Freebie Video: There are some short videos on my website that count out 32-beat phrases.

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Copyright © 2010  James Joseph. All rights reserved.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa del Rio October 20, 2012 at 2:53 am

Thanks for the nice page and insight. I am an amateur bellydancer and I had asked this same question (about counting 8) to my daughter who is a professional ballet dancer. Her reply, was just what you explain in this page, she added however the way you count waltz. According to her explanation, waltz is counted, not in 6 but in 3, and to arrive at 8 you do like this: 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3 etc till 8-2-3. Hope it helps.

Reply

James Joseph October 24, 2012 at 9:16 am

Rosa, it’s best for dancers to count waltz music in sets of 6. In waltz, two 3-beat measures are naturally paired to create a set of 6 (the same way that two 4-beat measures are naturally paired to create a set of 8). The pattern count of the basic waltz step pattern is 6 beats (it’s a box step and 3 beats is only half a box, i.e., half a pattern), so the pattern count phrases (aligns) with the musical count. I also call a set of 6 and a set of 8 a mini-phrase.

If you listen closely to a set of 6 it will sound like a “sentence” of music with a beginning and an end. Thematically, 3 beats will sound like half a sentence. If you start a waltz on count 4 (the first beat of the second 3-beat measure) you will be on the beat but off-phrase. This may work for some but dancing on-phrase (starting on count 1 of a set of 6) will give you a stronger connection to the music and show greater musicality. When I dance I want to know the phrasing (the “sentence” and “paragraph” structure of the music) so I would count four sets of 6, which is a common 24-beat “paragraph” or major phrase in waltz, as they go by like this:
123—456
223—456
323—456
423—456

Musicians and dancers count music in a related but sligtly different way. Musicians count waltz in 3s to reflect how they create the music, which is in 3-beat measures. Some dance teachers count waltz in 3s. My guess is that their background is in music.

Some music is more complicated so it may not always be simple or obvious. For example, some waltz will have extra 3-beat mesures thrown in. For another example, in the 6/8 time signature you could dance to sets of 6 (an uptempo waltz) or sets of 8 (at a much slower tempo). Adele’s “One and Only” is an example of 6/8 time signature. If music gets too complicated or is the exception to the rule, it’s probably not the best music for social dancing.

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MMurch February 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

James- I am not a big dancer, but I am now trying RPM cycling classes to become
an instructor. Over the weekend, we had a big training session. I got blasted on pace or the beat of the music. I just can’t figure out what they are looking for. Your website, videos and insight have given me confidence that if I follow
along, I can get this whole beat thing under control.
Thank you so much for taking the time.

Reply

James Joseph February 7, 2012 at 10:26 am

M, thanks for the field report and it’s especially nice to hear it coming from an activity other than ballroom dancing. I think the other benefit you’ll find (over time) is that the more you connect to music, the more you’ll enjoy just listening to all music.

The “pace” of the beat that you refer to is called “tempo.” It’s best stated in beats per minute (BPM). (Ahem, some state it in measures per minute, which I don’t like). Unless you’re dancing to a waltz (sets of 6), I’m guessing that all the music you cycle to will be in sets of 8. Being rhythmically challenged is really a lack of education and training, not a lack of ability, so just keep counting sets of 8 whenever you hear music (working out, commuting, drifting off to sleep at night, etc). Also, try to get feedback to make sure you’re doing it right. (If you want to take your musicality to the next level, listen for the major phrases, which for workout music will probably be four sets of 8, or 32 beats of music.) You may never be the best but, keep training, and you’ll get better over time.

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Dave January 14, 2012 at 9:18 am

Hi James,

You mention in info on phrasing that Skippy Blair was the originator of the term “mini phrase”. I’ve been trying to track the history of both this and “major phrase” in dance lingo, and would love to know your source for this. I suspected Skippy was involved, but wasn’t sure.

-Dave

Reply

James Joseph January 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Dave, Skippy told me directly that she first used the term “mini-phrase,” but she was not first one to use the term, “major phrase.” This is how I presented it in my book. Let me know if you need to know more or you can contact Skippy at skippy@skippyblair.com

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Bill Kunze June 16, 2011 at 5:07 am

Nice job explaining counting. How do you reconcile fitting 6-beat step patterns around(swing, foxtrot) 8-beat music patterns?

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James Joseph June 17, 2011 at 8:37 am

Good question but it’s not an easy answer. You reconcile it by “phrasing,” which I started to explain in the box at the end of this chapter (“Intro to Phrasing”). Let’s do an example. Let’s say you’re dancing to music with 32-beat major phrases, which is four sets of 8 (4 X 8 = 32). You’re doing swing and doing a six beat basic (double—triple—triple). After you do four step patterns you would be at the 24th beat of the major phrase (4 X 6 = 24). You have eight beats left (32 – 24 = 8). If you do another six beat pattern you’ll finish it on the 30th beat of the major phrase (24 + 6 = 30) and have two beats left. If you start another six beat step pattern, it will cross over and into the next major phrase. You will miss the opportunity to start a new step pattern on the 1st beat of a new major phrase. At that point you will be on the beat but you will be “off phrase.”

Let’s go back to the 24th beat. I’ll give you some options to finish the 32-beat phrase: 1) you could do an eight beat step pattern (24 + 8 = 32); 2) you could take eight beats and do a styling move, rhythm breaks or “play”; 3) you could extend a six beat pattern for two beats to make it eight beats long (eg, if you were doing an underarm turn, do an extra turn); 4) you could do another six beat step pattern and then play or kill time for two beats. If the song has a strong thematic resolution in the last set of 8, a common move and one of my favorites—it’s easy to do and it’s showy–is to extend a dip for eight beats.

While phrasing is easy to figure out when you do planned choreography, it’s very difficult to do during spontaneous social dancing if you don’t know the song. While all dance music is structured in sets of 8 (except waltz), not all music is structured in 32-beat major phrases. The major phrases can vary in length and, in more difficult dance music, there can be extra beats thrown in (bridges and tags). I’ve practiced phrasing a lot when I shadow dance at home, by myself. I visualize a partner, go through choreography and try to catch the end of a major phrase. You don’t even have to shadow dance; when you listen to music for fun just visualize choreography in your head and try to phrase it to the music.

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James Joseph April 6, 2011 at 9:01 am

While I’m not that familiar with tango music, it’s still counted in sets of 8 like all other dance music (except waltz, which is in sets of 6). The sets of 8 can be subtle but they are there. I’m pretty sure the concepts of musicality, syncopation and phrasing will also apply like in all other dance music, but if there are any tango aficionados who want to set me straight, please weigh in.

As I say in Chapter 2 above, start with easy music, like swing and blues, as you have to hear the sets of 8 in the easy music before you can hear it in the harder stuff. Also, work with someone. Go up to your teachers after tango classes and ask, “I’m having a hard time hearing the beat, can you please count the sets of 8 to the practice music?” Note that it took me about six months before I had a noticeable degree of success in counting sets of 8 and it was closer to two years before I was 100% sure. So you may have to practice counting sets of 8 for many weeks or months, which includes getting feedback to make sure you’re doing it correctly.

Musicality has to do with your connection to the music—hearing something in the music beyond the sets of 8—and your ability to respond, in your dancing, to these things. At a basic level you connect to the music by hearing the sets of 8 (also known as a mini-phrase). After you can hear the sets of 8 you should work on hearing the major phrases (see “phrasing” below and see the box above at the end of Chapter 2, “Advanced Info Alert: Intro to Phrasing”). You should also train your ear to hear things like breaks and accents as well as to get the feel of the music and begin to train your body to respond to these different elements of the music. This is not easy.

Syncopation in dance is stepping between beats of music (don’t confuse it with syncopation in music, which is a different concept). You’ll probably first get exposed to syncopations when you learn a step pattern or a styling move with a syncopation. As you get better, hopefully your feet will spontaneously improvise syncopations in response to something going on in the music, which would be a demonstration of musicality. This is not easy.

Phrasing in dance is dancing to the structure of the music, particularly to the major phrases. A major phrase is a specific number of sets of 8 to create something like a chorus or verse. The 32-beat phrase is the most common but, unlike a mini-phrase that’s always a set of 8 beats (except waltz), major phrases will vary. Without getting too complicated: start a new step pattern on count 1 of the first set of 8 and finish a step pattern on count 8 of the last set of 8. Then start a new step pattern on the count 1 of the next major phrase. Where it gets tricky is trying to figure out how many sets of 8 there are in the major phase–it can change throughout the song–and in dealing with extra beats, likes tags and bridges. This is not easy.

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Giovanni March 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Does anyone has a recommendation or suggestion on how to apply musical counting, musicality, synopation, phrasing to Argentine Tango music? Especially for a non-musican. Any suggestions/insight would be appreciated. Thanks

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