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”)

Buy the book on Amazon

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?

6 steps to learning ballroom dancing without a partner–really

Photo by Garry Wilmore
Shadow Dancing - Photo by Garry Wilmore

Some elements of dance, like lead and follow, require a partner when you practice. But some things you can do on your own. For me, it was not until I started training by myself—how to hear the beat, phrasing, musicality, music identification, dance identification, step patterns, syncopations, choreography, improvisation—that I was able to move from the beginner to the intermediate level. And away we go:

  1. Hear the beat. Anytime you listen to music—working out, commuting, goofing off, whatever—practice counting sets of 8, which define the beat of the music. (Also check out this post of mine, “7 ways to practice ballroom dancing using an iPod, etc.”) You occasionally need someone to test you, such as a music-maven friend; or you can even try asking your teacher after class. Have them listen to you count sets of 8 and give you feedback. Once you can hear the sets of 8, also known as mini-phrases, listen for the major phrases, the bigger structure in the music (see Intro to Phrasing here).
  2. Mark rhythms. Stand, play music with a slow tempo and mark rhythms by doing weight changes in place. Mark the two basic dance rhythms you’ll use for survival, single rhythm, which is one weight change for every two beats of music (STEP HOLD), and double rhythm, which is two weight changes for every two beats of music (STEP STEP). A dance rhythm, which is always two beats of music (except waltz, which is three beats), is a unit of rhythm; dance rhythms are strung together to create a rhythm pattern. Start on a count 1 of the music and practice these eight-beat rhythm patterns (words in capital letters are the verbal call, which is what you say out loud as you do a pattern): single—single—single—single (STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD), which is stepping on every other beat of music; double—double—double—double (STEP STEP—STEP STEP—STEP STEP—STEP STEP), which is stepping on every beat of music. Then mix singles and doubles to create the mother of all rhythm patterns (used in salsa, rumba, foxtrot and survival dancing): double—single—double—single (STEP STEP—STEP HOLD—STEP STEP—STEP HOLD)
  3. Mark rhythm patterns from class. Still standing in place, practice marking the rhythm of the footwork you learned in class. For example, if you’re learning salsa, play some salsa music and practice the eight-beat basic rhythm pattern for salsa, double—single—double—single (that’s the third pattern from Step #2 above). Burn the rhythm patterns from class into your brain through endless repetition. Work with a variety of tempos (to practice salsa start with some cha cha music, which has a slower tempo).
  4. Improvise rhythms. Still standing in place, play music and create your own rhythm patterns by mixing single and double rhythms. Improvise. Try, for example, using more double rhythm as the music or vocals speed up; and using more single rhythm as the music or vocals slow down. I don’t mean that the tempo speeds up, I mean that some thematic element in the music speeds up, like the melody or vocals or even just an instrument you want to follow. Blank rhythm is very handy too when the music slows down—it’s a HOLD HOLD, which is no weight changes for every two beats of music. It’s used in dips and I often use it to do a simple dramatic pause to finish a phrase of music. The ability to improvise will help your slow dancing and survival dancing, like when you have to dance to unfamiliar music.
  5. Do step patterns. Now, taking teeny tiny steps—dance is never a contest for distance—mark the step patterns you learned in class (the terminology might be a little confusing: rhythm pattern is just weight changes, step pattern adds direction of movement—click here for definitions). For example, the 8-beat salsa step pattern would be (for the leader): FORWARD BACK—TOGETHER HOLD—BACK FORWARD—TOGETHER HOLD (that’s only six weight changes—remember, no weight change on the HOLD). Also, try improvising footwork: still taking teeny tiny steps, move forward, back, side-to-side, rotate left and rotate right. Do whatever seems to fit the music. Get whimsical. Just relax, don’t think and fool around. Become the music.
  6. Shadow dance. Throw up your arms as if you had a partner and were in the standard ballroom embrace, called the closed position. Play a variety of music, both in tempo and in genres. Practice your step patterns as well as improvise stuff and see what works to what kind of music. Visualize a partner in your arms and practice choreography—string moves together to create a routine. Phrase the choreography to the music. Try to capture the mood of the music. Now you’re shadow dancing! Learn this well.

Yeah, sure, you obviously need a partner to learn to dance. But you also need lots of floor time and practicing on your own—especially shadow dancing—counts. Repetition will set you free.

What things do you do to practice on your own? How’s it working out?

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?

Survive a ballroom dance with “single rhythm” (video: 2 min., 41 sec.)

Single rhythm, one weight change in two beats of music (e.g., a STEP HOLD or a SIDE TOUCH, no weight change on the HOLD or the TOUCH), can be a lifesaver when you’re ballroom dancing (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page):

Doing all single rhythm is the rhythm pattern to use for a sway (single–single is the rhythm pattern, SIDE TOUCH—SIDE TOUCH is the verbal call, keep repeating), which is what to fall back on if you get stuck, lost or confused–or if you flat-out don’t know what you’re doing. If you neglected to take lessons before your wedding, use this to survive your wedding dance—but choose a wedding song with a beat you can hear. You still have to connect to the music or you’ll just get an awkward rocking back and forth. If you can’t hear the beat, I urge you to learn how to count sets of 8.