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

by James Joseph

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).

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ed Riester May 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm

After 2 years of group and private lessons I taught myself to hear the beat. Dance instructors teach dance not music. I should add that I hear the beat well if I am not dancing. Start dancing and I lose the beat for many dances. Can this inability to “walk and chew gum” ever be solved? I’m getting depressed. I will buy your book and tell others about your site and book.


michael November 1, 2009 at 10:17 am

Here’s an interesting little mot.

When I dance the slow waltz, counts of six, I’m more often than not told that I’m not dancing in time or that I’m dancing 2-3-1 and not 1-2-3.
But when I dance the quickstep, counts of eight, I’m never told I’m dancing out of time.

My plan is to listen to some strict tempo Victor Sylvester and see if I can train myself to hear the walt beat clearly and with the emphasis on hearing the 1 of 1-2-3.

Any constructive advice would be appreciated. I’m a good dancer apart from that.


ihatetodance November 2, 2009 at 10:38 am


When you say you’re not “dancing in time” I’m guessing you mean “dancing on time,” but I’m not sure. Not dancing on time would be a different problem than dancing “2 3 1? (which really should be “2 3 4? because, as you noted, dancers count waltz in sets of 6). If you’re starting the pattern on the “2? of the music (instead of the “1,” which is what you want to do), you could still dance on time (i.e., weight changes occur on the beat) but you’re doing what I describe as dancing “off-phrase” (a “mini-phrase” in waltz is ”1 2 3–4 5 6?). Dancing to the phrasing is a level; the more you dance to the phrases, the more connected you’ll be to the music. And women will love you for it.

If dancing off-phrase is the problem, spend time training your ear to hear the sets of 6. Listen to lots of waltz music and try counting the sets of 6. Try to feel the “down up up, down up up,” which is characteristic of the waltz. Listen for an emphasis on the 1 and the 4 of the music, which will have the “down” feeling. Listen how a set of 6 creates, thematically, a “sentence” of music. Count sets of 6 for your teacher and get confirmation. Bug your teachers–grab them after class and ask them to listen for just 30 seconds as you count.

Use easy music with easy to hear mini-phrases, as you have to hear it in the easy stuff before you can hear it in the hard stuff. For example, sometimes the vocals of a song will accent the 2, which can make someone who is not well-connected to the music start a pattern on the 2. But the beat of the music is established by the rhythm section, the drums, so follow the drums when listening for the sets of 6 and don’t get distracted by vocals.

(As a reminder to readers: Only waltz is counted in sets of 6, all other dance music is in sets of 8 with an emphasis on the 1 and the 5.)

If you’re not dancing on time, which suggests you have trouble hearing the beat, you still need to train your ear by counting sets of 6. To work on your timing I would mark the rhythm (do weight changes in place) as you listen. Eventually, shadow dance–move around the floor, by yourself, doing patterns. Do this over and over. I spent many, many months marking rhythms and shadow dancing. Ballroom dancing is a three-way partnership between you, your partner and the music. Dance classes usually don’t spend time on hearing the beat so you have to do it on your own.

One final thought. You may think you’re on time but you may be a little sloppy, which is what others are picking up. For good timing, your foot, your frame (solar plexus) and the weight change all need to occur, simultaneously, on the beat. This speaks to a whole other subject, how to move. In a nutshell, follow the old rule, “foot follows frame.” If your foot moves ahead of your solar plexus, which is typical of beginners because they’re so focused on their feet (they look like a game of hopscotch), then your solar plexus will be late. Even if your solar plexus is a teeny-tiny bit late, it’s “off-time” and it will be uncomfortable to your partner.

If you can be more specific with your question, please ask again. Better, mention a piece of music you have a problem with. Best, find a song on YouTube we can discuss so everyone reading this can listen to the same song/arrangement.

If this helps and you’re so inclined, please report back. Maybe your experience will help others.



donna gunning June 10, 2009 at 8:47 pm

i am still a beginner after nearly six years of private lessons and several
teachers. this site has been very helpful to me. it seems teachers don’t
have a plan for incorporating the elements of dance – patterns, technique,
dancing to the beat into the making of a dancer. i have no natural rhythm
-unless the music electrifies me with a LOUD definitive beat I get ahead of
the beat or have difficulty with one step for two beats as in the rumba.
it’s a shame. i could look great on the dance floor if only i could RECOGNIZE
where to begin with the first step and how to stay on the beat. i am determined to keep searching for the right teacher to help me make it click –


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