Rhythm and Musicality: the cornerstones of almost every dance style in existence. We put so much emphasis on being ‘On Time’, of ‘Hitting the Break’, ‘Feeling the Music’ and of ‘Expressing the Song’.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I started taking music lessons when I was 5 years old, and didn’t stop until well into high school. Within only 2-3 years, I started taking dance classes. Salsa and Cha Cha were the hardest for me, but all other dances were ‘natural’ for me in terms of finding (and generally staying) on beat. I understood the difference between 3/4 and 4/4, and had been naturally acclimatized to just ‘feeling’ where the beginning of a musical phrase was.

But, what about the ones who aren’t so lucky?

For very, very few, there is a condition called ‘Beat Deafness’. But, as that is thought to only affect up to 4% of the population, that leaves 96% of us who should, in fact, be able to either train ourselves or naturally find ‘the beat’. So, what are some strategies?

The Difference Between Musicality and Rhythm

Musicality is your ability to interpret and express more complex modes of expression in music. This requires a far higher skillset in terms of musical appreciation, and also requires that movements be far more internalized, to allow for more ‘brain space’ to listen to what is happening in the music.

Rhythm is the basic count of music, and is the first step in moving towards musicality. It is foundational, and is necessary to move forward in dance at any level. It is important to establish your ability to find and maintain rhythm before trying to move into more complex ideas of musicality.

In this post, we will be discussing foundational rhythm-finding strategies that have worked for me (or others I know). We will not be looking at musicality.

Step 1: Locating the Rhythm

Take a song. Let’s go with a pretty standard 4/4 song with a strong rhythm:

Strategies for Finding the First Beat (Count 1):

Find the ‘Downbeat’:

In most styles of music, there is a definite beat on the ‘1’ of the music (that is, the first note in a sequence, and in most dances, the first ‘step’ of the dance. Usually, this beat either features a heavier bass component, or is notably stronger than the surrounding notes.

Near the beginning of this song, it is the 1st, lower, bass-sounding note. The rhythm goes boom-boom-tik-*  (* means that the last count does not have a specific sound with it, and is a silence.) As a result, the “1” count will be the first lower boom in the music.

Find where the Music Repeats:

Usually, there will either be a collection of 4, 8, 12, or 16 counts that repeat within a music. It is usually at the end of one of these groupings that a pattern within music will also change. In the song above, the beginning goes boom-boom-tik-*, and then repeats this same pattern multiple times with slight variations. Evern 4 variations (which is 16 counts: 4 sets of 4 beats), the pattern resets. The 1 will be at the front of these repeating patterns.

Find the Voice

Vocals usually start on or near the 1 – but not always.  Another common place for vocals to start is after the downbeat of the 1, or 1-2. In the song above, the vocalist starts between the 2 and 3. As such, the voice is with the tik of the music, not the boom boom. Because the voice is more varied, it is not the most reliable mechanism to help you find your beginning, but if all else is lost it is sometimes worth a try. At the very least, the voice will help you find where the music repeats or shifts to a new section – which may set you on the right track to find the 1st beat.

 Find the ‘double tik’

In many styles (especially Salsa – and this is what saved me in that dance!) there is a faint ‘double tik‘ right before the 1. What it does is raises the music tone, which makes the ‘downbeat’ sound much heavier in comparison. If you find this type of distinct contrast (a very ‘up’ sound and ‘down’ sound right next to each other), there is a strong chance you have found where the 1 is. Of course, this is not 100% either.  The example above does feature a double-tik at many points.

Musical theory training can be exceptionally helpful for developing this ear, as can learning to play an instrument. For those who don’t have a music class to attend, listen to lots and lots of music, and specifically work on the exercises above. Use fast, slow, strong beat, no beat, acoustic, and other styles of music. The more you practice this, the easier it becomes. Set aside non-dance practice times, since trying to do steps and practice finding rhythm sometimes makes it much harder to learn this skill than when you can really focus on listening to the music.


Salsa Beat Machine: While specifically for Salsa, it may help those non-Salsa folks understand some sounds that lead to the one. At least for me, Salsa was by far the hardest beat to hear. Once I could consistently find the Salsa 1, I didn’t have many ‘find the 1’ problems in other genres.


Keeping the Rhythm Once You’ve Found it

So you’ve found your rhythm – what next? Tempo!

Basically, at this point it becomes a matter of knowing how to maintain tempo. This means making sure every ‘count’ is of equal weight. My favourite way to find the tempo is to count the numbers evenly and make sure that my ‘1’ matches up with the downbeat.

So, in the song above, I will count 1, 2, 3, 4 aloud. If I realize that my ‘1’ isn’t falling at the same time as the music’s ‘1’, I know I am going too fast or slow for the music (depending if it falls ahead of the 1 – too fast –  or behind the 1 – too slow).  Clapping is also useful for these exercises.

If you really have trouble maintaining a steady beat, you may want to look at rhythm training.

Pitfall: Some people may be able to hold the beat perfectly well, but may not be able to continuously dance on beat. This usually means that either a) the movements you are trying to do are not yet internalized or b) you have not yet internalized rhythm. If you are looking to practice rhythm, stick to steps that you know and are comfortable with (aka don’t have to think about) and really concentrate on counting the music in your head as you step. I promise, it will eventually come 2nd nature.


Metronome: If you play a song and start the metronome, you can play around until the metronome matches up with your ‘beat’ in the song you are listening to. This helps to take away the pressure of counting, find the consistency first, and then worry about figuring out which one is the ‘1’ of the music.

Rhythm Trainer: Self-explanatory. Can help you develop your rhythm-ear, although it will not help you identify the ‘1’ beat.



Dealing with Difficult Songs

So, we’re good with songs with strong beats… but what happens when you get a song without a strong beat?

Well, all of the same tools still apply, but we just have to listen harder.

For the 1

For example, there is still a downbeat. Sometimes, it can be piano, violin, or even another voice. But, there is still usually a distinct ‘1’ in the music. In this song, the downbeat is a piano note that usually starts just before the voice.

The pattern also repeats, both in voice and piano. Even if the pattern is a simple repeat (for example, the main piano repeat can either be tik * * * tik * * *  OR tik * tik * tik * tik * depending on where in the song we are) there is still a repeating pattern – and that first note will still tell you where the 1 is. For the voice repeat: the end of the voice is usually happening on the 4, and the voice starting again right after the 1.

Remember that tik tik on the 4 that we also talked about earlier? This song has a version of that, too! Every few bars, there is a syncopation (ie, not-regular rhythm) that happens on the piano just before the 1. This is the equivalent to a double-tik in more rhythmic songs.

For the Rhythm

Not going to lie, this will be harder. Songs without a consistent beat rely on your ability to fill-in-the-gaps. This means that you have to mentally be able to process the space between 1’s and divide it into 4 equal parts to create the 1-2-3-4.

Here, using a metronome or other beat-finding tool will be useful, as is rhythm training. Salsa Beat Machine listed above can also help when you remove many of the extra instruments, and focus on maintaining the beat throughout the silence.

Lastly, I’ve found music-remixing software (like Nuendo 4) to be very helpful for finding beats. It has a built-in metronome, and you can increase/decrease tempo to match the track you have loaded into the editor. However, not everyone may have access to these tools!

Learning to hear music can be frustrating and a long process, but it can be done! Some people may have to give far more attention to finding the beat and learning, but almost all people will eventually be able to hear and maintain the beat with training and/or practice! Just remember, you are already dancing well enough, and should be proud of how far you have come – no matter how mystifying rhythm and musicality may be!

Happy Dancing!


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Photo: SV Photography