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?

7 ways to practice ballroom dancing using an iPod, etc.

Photo by David Goehring
Photo by David Goehring

I propose: you can learn to ballroom dance lying poolside, with a cold drink in hand, listening to an iPod. Seriously, you can learn a lot by actively listening to music—alone, by yourself. You can also do this standing on line at the post office, working out at the gym, commuting to work, listening to background music on a TV show, drifting off to sleep at night—any place and any time you hear music. Here are some things to play around with:

  1. Practice counting sets of 8. Sets of 8 define the beat of the music and learning to count sets of 8 is the primary way to train your ear to hear the beat (ahem, some people naturally hear the beat, counting sets of 8 is for the rest of us). Listen for a count 1 in the music (not to be confused with a count 5, the first beat of the second measure), count to 8, start over.
  2. Practice music identification. That is, practice identifying musical genres. Learn to distinguish between, say, blues and swing. If you’re taking salsa lessons, listen to salsa music and learn how to identify it. While you can learn some easy salsa step patterns in an evening, it could take you a while—I don’t know how long, but it’ll take more than a day—to distinguish between salsa, samba and merengue music. A website to check out is pandora.com—just search for a genre (last.fm is a good site too, search for a genre and then click on “tags”). Swing, big band, blues, rhythm and blues, foxtrot, Latin, mambo, salsa, samba, cha-cha, rumba, merengue, reggae, tango, waltz, soul, folk, pop, house, techno, hustle, rock and roll, country and western.
  3. Practice dance identification. Try to determine which dance fits a particular piece of music. Visualize, in your head, doing the basic step pattern for each dance you know that you think might fit the music. If something doesn’t work, try something else. If more than one dance seems to fit, decide which one feels best. I like to tap my feet–I tap the rhythm pattern (think of a rhythm pattern as the pattern of weight changes) of the basic step pattern for each dance I know. I use both feet as if I were dancing (a tap is equal to a weight change). I can do this standing, sitting or lying down (if I’m lying down, I tap the air). Dance identification is an important skill for the social dancer, often overlooked and not taught in dance classes.
  4. Practice footwork that you already know. Visualize yourself doing footwork. Go through, in your head, the step patterns and syncopations that you learned in class. Try using both feet to tap rhythms, as if you were dancing (a tap is equal to a weight change).
  5. Practice choreography. String step patterns together to create a routine. Pick moves that flow one into the next and that match the mood of the music. You can both improvise stuff on the fly as well go over planned routines like, say, wedding dance choreography. If you practice this all in your head now, it’ll make it easier to do on the floor.
  6. Practice improvising footwork. This will help your “spontaneous social dancing,” which is good for both survival dancing and sweeping a lady off her feet–especially, slow dancing. Visualize yourself mixing single rhythm (STEP HOLD – one weight change for every two beats of music), double rhythm (STEP STEP – two weight changes for every two beats of music) and blank rhythm (HOLD HOLD – no weight changes for every two beats of music). Listen to what’s going on in the music and let that suggest a rhythm for your feet. Let go and get lost in the music. Again, try using both feet to tap rhythms, as if you were dancing (a tap is equal to a weight change).
  7. Practice phrasing. Once you can identify sets of 8, listen how the sets of 8 are grouped together into major phrases. The most common major phrase (but certainly not the only) is four sets of 8, which is 32 beats (4×8=32 beats). If you want to do a dip, it often fits best during the last set of 8 of a major phrase, which is typically where some thematic element of the song momentarily winds down or resolves. Visualize yourself leading a dip and note, especially, the timing for coming out of the dip (time it so you’re upright and ready to start a new pattern on the count 1 of the first set of 8 of the next major phrase).

Most beginners ignore the music because they’re focused on remembering step patterns. But dance is a threesome: you, your partner and the music. One of the big differences between beginner and intermediate level dancing is that the intermediate dancer listens and dances to the music.

What everybody needs to know about which beat of music to start a dance

Photo by Branden Lally
Photo by Brendan Lally

I used to struggle with when to start a dance. I would stand stiff and motionless, like a statue, with my partner in hand, stressing over when to take the first step. I didn’t know when to break into the music. I didn’t know if it mattered. I could hear spots in the music that would have been good places to start, but I couldn’t predict when they were coming. Something was missing, but it’s hard to know what you don’t know.

I now know that those spots occur on a regular basis: every eight beats of music. It’s best to start dancing on the first beat of a set of 8, called the count 1 or “the 1 of the music.” You can also start on a count 5, the beginning of the second four-beat measure. Women expect you to start on a 1 or 5 or it’ll be an awkward start.

This brings up one of the more difficult subjects in ballroom dancing: phrasing. Technically, you can be on the beat but, if you start dancing on the wrong beat, you will be “off phrase.” In a dance with an eight count basic step pattern, like salsa or cha-cha or Lindy Hop, it’s more important to start on a count 1. A dance with a six count basic, like West Coast swing or East Coast swing or foxtrot, it’s less important (that is, it’s easier to get away with starting on a count 5).

What’s your experience when trying to start a dance?

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?

Not all music is dance music

Not all music is dance music, although most popular music is danceable. Dance music varies in difficulty so some music is better for dancing than other music, which is, in part, a personal preference. But some music is just not danceable. The jazz music of Count Basie, known as swing, is usually good dance music but the jazz of Miles Davis, known as bee bop, is not dance music at all.

I don’t typically dance every song in an evening of dance so, strategically, I sit out the music that’s not dance music or is music that’ll be difficult for me. This makes me appear to be a better dancer. If you struggle with dance, choose your music wisely.

For me, if I can count sets of 8 and if it makes me feel like dancing and if I can visualize myself doing some steps (that’s when I evaluate if the tempo is too fast), then it’s dance music. If I can’t count sets of 8 I try counting sets of 6 to see if it’s a waltz, although my guess is that less than 2% of popular music is a waltz. If that doesn’t work it probably isn’t dance music or, at least, it’s not good dance music for me.

If I can’t count sets of 8 and it still feels danceable—it’s usually something with a slow tempo–I might try an improvisational slow dance. If that doesn’t work and the song isn’t over, I sometimes let it evolve into a Steve-Martin-esque parody of a slow dance. There’s a classic parody of a “slow fox trot”—not sure what you call it—by Steve Martin and Gilda Ratner from Saturday Night Live. I was going to give the youtube link but the video “is no longer available.” If I ever find it, I’ll post the link.

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).

3 Steps to Fred Astairedom

Instead of stumbling through seven years of beginner’s classes, if only I had stumbled upon a teacher who could relate to me, a guy with no talent in music or dance. If only this teacher had said to me, “Listen, man, there are things you can do before you step into your first dance class that’ll save you from embarrassment. And there’s stuff you can do after class, away from the dance floor—at home, alone—to build a foundation that’ll make learning dance easy.”

Then, as if he were Moses mamboing down the mountain, if only he had presented me with the tablets of dance containing the three things beginners and pre-beginners need to work on:

1. Connect to the music and, especially, the beat of the music.
If you want to do just one thing right on the dance floor, find the beat of the music (Chapter 1, “The Beat of the Music”). Nothing will tick your partner off more–short of injuring her–than being off-time. You don’t have to step on every beat of music but, when you do step, you must step precisely on a beat of music. The key to finding the beat is counting the sets of 8 in the music (Chapter 2, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8“). The key to staying on the beat is feeling the downbeat and the upbeat (Chapter 3, “Downbeat and Upbeat“).

2. Learn the basic dance rhythms: single rhythm, double rhythm and triple rhythm.
A dance rhythm, a phrase coined by Skippy Blair, is the number of weight changes in two beats of music (Chapter 4, “Rhythm Patterns”). Beginners should start with the three basic dance rhythms:

  • Single rhythm is one step in two beats of music, which, if you were marking the rhythm in place, is a STEP HOLD (a hold or a touch are words commonly used for a beat of music with no weight change). I deplore the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a SLOW.
  • Double rhythm is two steps in two beats of music, a STEP STEP. I cringe at the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a QUICK QUICK.
  • Triple rhythm is three steps in two beats of music, which is tricky because your feet must move quickly to step between two beats of music to create a STEP-STEP-STEP.

Skippy has made the simple but brilliant discovery that virtually all of the basic step patterns (the dance figures used to move around the floor) for every dance, usually six or eight beats in length, are just some combination of single, double and triple rhythm. For a wealth of information, check out Skippy Blair’s Dance Dictionary.

3. Burn the most common rhythm patterns onto your brain, especially the 8-beat pattern, double—single—double—single.


This is the mother of all patterns. Not only is it the basic rhythm pattern (a combination of two or more dance rhythms) for salsa and rumba, it’s common in foxtrot. It’s the easiest, most versatile pattern and will get you through most situations. Skippy says it’s the best pattern to use for a wedding dance or a survival dance. Surf your iPod and, standing in place, practice (at home, alone) marking (Chapter 5, “Marking Rhythms”) this rhythm pattern to a variety of music until you can do it without thinking.

Repetition will set you free.