Saturday, April 18, 2015

Listening to Music: 100 Times or More (Revised)

I'm reposting this article to let you know I was wrong. Time to own up to my original mistake. 

Over 7 years ago I wrote this article (June 07) and after working with thousands of additional dancers, I've figured out I was too conservative. When originally written I thought listening to a song 100 times was reasonable, but that was just before I installed iTunes and purchased my first iPod. 

In my teen years, I wore out many vinyl albums, requiring me to buy a second record to continue listening (long before CDs became the norm.) I had no idea how many times I listened; I just knew it was a lot, and way more than my 'normal' friends.

Once iTunes was installed, I found it counts how many times you listen to songs. What I've found surprised me. I've listened to some songs over 200 times (and more) in the first couple months, and I'm still finding new, interesting sounds in the background. In a few cases, I'm still trying to figure out a few words, or a bass line, or what the percussionist is playing during the intense part of the tune after many months of very intense listening. Sometimes I'll hear something new a year later.

In other words, I'm still learning, discovering and enjoying songs after hundreds of listenings. I don't listen to every song 100 times, but the raw numbers are far higher than I expected. Without software that tracks how many times I listened, I'd have stuck with recommending 100 times, thinking it was a big number.

So do the math; if the average song is 4 minutes, and you listen 4 times per day (twice morning, twice before bed), it will take you less than a month to hear a song 100 times. (A month allows a few days off for good behavior.) You can listen to one song 10 times some days, and parts of a tune 30-40 times during long commutes.

The interesting payoff is the more you hear in existing songs, the more you'll hear in new songs. As your ears continue to mature, you hear things in the background sooner. Find a few of your favorites, and make them part of your day for a few months. Let me know your thoughts.

I've made a few minor edits in the original article (below) but every time you see a "hundred times" reference, please double or triple it. You'll hear even more in the music.

Again: I admit it, my mistake! I should have started with 200 or 300 times, just to get everybody on the same page. Please forgive me.


Have you ever listened to one song or a set of tunes 10 times, 20, 30, 50 or 100 times? All within a few weeks or so?

Have you ever listed to the same song repeating for 30-60 minutes, then did it again a few times that same week? Only to repeat the exercise again over the next few weeks or months?

You should! Start doing it on your next drive! You will not believe the insights you'll get into music just by listing to a set of tunes over and over and over and over and over. You want the music flowing out of your pores, because so much is inside you it just has to come out or you will explode.

Every dancer should be listening to music when they're driving, jogging, working out or otherwise in a position to hear music while doing something else. Have music playing in your bathroom after showering, when doing your hair, make-up, and/or picking out your dancing clothes. There is magic in hearing the same tune(s) 100 times or more, focusing on different aspects of the music.

The goal is to find a few tunes you love, and play them to death, 50 or 100 times (or more). Then leave them for a few weeks and do it again. A few months later, do it again. Listen to different instruments, trying to hear each one by itself (something that takes practice, just like dance movements).

In my car, I have set my CD player or iPod to "repeat" one song over and over while driving 45 minutes to a club. Then on the way home I let it repeat the same tune again, for another 45 minutes. A couple of times per week I drive 20-45 minutes to get to specific clubs I like. I use that time to play tunes I like, trying to find new sounds I never heard before. Look for opportunities to use your iPod, CD, MP3 players or whatever to hear more music.

If I find a new song I really like, I often play it 20 to 50 times in the first two weeks I have it. Sometimes I'll listen to the same tune in my car during those club drives, singing along with different instruments. (Nobody is in the car, and the windows are up, otherwise I might set the local dogs howling.)

I might focus on the bass player or the piano, or pick out one percussionist, or focus on the horn section, trying to ignore all the other instruments. I may figure out how many horns are playing in a section (it varies at different points in the song), how many vocalists are singing, the combination of percussion instruments at different points and how it all fits together. (Edit: If there is a singer in English, I almost always try to figure out the lyrics without looking them up. A great way to improve your ears.)

Sometimes it's fine NOT to focus on anything specific during some of the listenings, instead letting it wash over your brain without worrying about the details. I let it play in the background while thinking about other things. The idea is to go back and forth between picking out specifics and occasionally just taking it all in as one complete work.

I also listen to the same music at different volume levels, varying between a whisper and roaring, and different points between. Your ears hear different things depending on the volume, so don't only listen at one level. (I am careful about overall volume levels being too loud. See my previous article on club music being too loud.)

Any music you like is fine. Great music has depth, and you'll hear different things as you listen over and over, especially when you return to a favorite tune two months from now. It's like seeing a great movie over and over. You pick up things you didn't notice the first few viewings. In the music you'll start hearing instruments in the background that were too subtle to hear in the first 25 listenings.

Going to Palm Springs one time to teach at the SalsaMambo Festival, I repeated one song for the complete trip (three hours with traffic). Admittedly, it wasn't "We Will Rock You", but the title tune from Havana Nights (Do You Only Wanna Dance - Julio Daviel Big Band Conducted by Cucco Pena). I love the way the tune flows, the trumpet solo, the way the different instruments combine to create interesting textures, the build-up to a climax, and the great finish. (Ah, the mind starts daydreaming...)

In time, your dancing will reflect a new-found intimacy with the music. In a few months you'll be hearing music with a completely new set of ears, and your dancing will grow as well without your directly trying.

This is one of those "secrets" that few believe because it's so simple. Dancers who enjoy music over and over start hearing things their friends don't hear, and they grow faster than their peers. Get it started today. Find your tune(s) and see how many times you can hear them over the next month, then repeat in a few months and start adding new tunes slowly.

You'll love the results and your dancing will improve even when you're not on the dance floor!
Success is sweet; but it usually has the scent of sweat about it.

Using Your Eyes to Hear the Music
Hearing But Not Listening: Part 1

Monday, September 15, 2014

Micro Practices: Quickies Are OK!

"Two or three minutes? That's not even one song!" he said when I told him I did a series of quickie practices over the day. “That doesn’t sound like enough to me.”

Micro Practices:
When Time is Short
He’s missing the point. I call them “micro-practices” (MP) and everybody should integrate them into their daily routines. They also work for partnering, but they're an excellent tool for upgrading your individual dancing skills like turns (spins), spotting, footwork, body motion, posture, and other body control exercises.

When you’re a pro, you get up each day and can practice for hours, refining your dancing on the way to the next level. You're paid to dance, and practicing is a way of life. However, if you’re working for a living and want to advance your social dancing, sometimes it's hard to carve out chunks of time for practice.

That’s where micro-practices (quickies) can be a winner for you. Like your love life, they shouldn't be all you do, but in balance they keep things moving in the right direction.

It may be counter-intuitive, but a set of quickie practices often beats longer sessions, assuming you do enough of them. Often they're gold, where the combined effort of a dozen "under five-minute" practices gets you further than one forty-five minute session. Some techniques require longer practices, but the micro-practice beats the heck out of, "I didn't dance today because I was too busy to carve out thirty minutes for practice”.

There is magic in repeating something over and over, every hour or so, for a couple minutes throughout the day. Time management gurus always say when you’re interrupted from a task, it takes you time to restart. Micro-practices use that principle to your advantage, because the start-up time is reduced if you repeat an action often enough. You "relearn" things each practice.

The series of little practices gets you to the point where you can hit the move immediately, rather than after 10 minutes of warm up. It’s amazing how much you can advance with micro-practices alone, although you can gain even more when combining them with intermittent longer rehearsals.

Many famous dancers practiced turns in the bathroom at work before turning pro. The floor is tile, there is a great mirror, and they do a couple turns to the right, a couple times to the left each time they use the restroom. If nobody was around they might sneak in a few extras, but most of those practices lasted 60 seconds or less. With just 10 extra turns per day, that's over 300 extra turns each month BEFORE doing any extended practicing. Over time, it adds up to thousands of extra turns, providing the experience needed to get to the next level.

Most work days I’m at the computer all day, and each time I need a break I practice a shine, a turn combination and/or a new part of a "pattern in progress." It may be just a tiny fragment, but doing it repeatedly over a couple days (or weeks) makes a huge difference when I get to a block of time for an extended practice.

Before starting work, I often sneak in a two-minute practice before sitting at my desk. Nobody cares if I start two minutes later, and it reinforces the new materials I’m working on. Some days the quickies are the only practice I get; sometimes it’s part of a bigger practice day, where I combine micro-practices with much longer sessions or classes.

I’ve stood in line at Sam’s Club or the bank, doing footwork practice, knowing that may be my only practice for the day.. In previous articles I've mentioned I practice head/shoulder exercises in my car. (Shines and partnering are highly discouraged while driving.) When you hit the dance floor, your partners don’t care if you practiced at a dance studio, in your bathroom or in line at the grocery store; they simply notice your improvements.

Some days when I haven’t had much practice, I’ll sneak in a few minutes before bed. It may not be much, but again, it’s my way to move myself forward. It takes about as much time as brushing my teeth, so I have little excuse to skip it. I'd love to practice more some days, but that just isn't my reality at points.

You don’t have to tell anybody you’re sneaking practices around your bathroom breaks. That really falls into the “TMI” category (“too much information”). Keep this little secret between us and they’ll just think you are improving using the traditional extended practices. If you can do regular practices, that's great, but I want to grow even when I’m timed starved (the story of my life).

Try it yourself; sneak in a few micro-practices, multiple times per day, especially on those days when you can’t get to a complete session. You’ll see it makes a substantial difference if you keep it up. Once you're in the habit, you'll find little slivers of time and use them to your advantage, even if it's just working a body roll twice or an extra couple of turns per day.

Let me know how you are getting the most from limited practice time; I’m always looking to accelerate my growth and I’m sure some of you have your own best practices. Please share!
Indecision may or may not be my problem.
-- Jimmy Buffett
Suggested Videos:
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Musicality Series

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Contrast: A Huge Element of Emotion

How do you make your dancing more fun, interesting and attractive to your partners and audience? How do you create more "WOW" in your dance?

Easy: Increase the emotion in your movements.

More highs and lows, fast and slows. Reflect the emotion in the music with movements that span a wider range of contrast.

Contrast is one of the greatest elements of emotion. You can take advantage of that, making your dancing more powerful and exciting.

Theme parks invest millions on rides that start slowly, then practically throw you over a cliff before bringing you gently back to earth. Or they sling-shot you to high speed from a dead stop, knowing the contrast causes people to bust out laughing or wipe tears from their eyes, but they want to do it again and again because of the high it creates.

Opposites attract, and the wider your range, the more emotion you can bring to your art. Think of the quiet before the storm, watching large powerful waves crash onto the beach, the darkness before the sun rises, the last moment, big-game-winning comeback from behind. In those events and more, the larger the contrast, the higher the emotional impact. Great music, dance, movies and exceptional love making all share the same concepts of ebb and flow, where the beauty and feelings are exceptionally strong if the contrast is very high.

Contrast your most intense moments with almost no movement, and your emotional content soars above those dancing with high (or low) intensity all the time. Think of the monotone conference speaker putting you to sleep compared to a dynamic, captivating speaker, who moves around the stage, varying his voice intensity to match the message.

Combining contrast with surprise and you further enhance the emotion. This is easier in a prepared dance, but it's also something you should consider for your social dancing when you have the right partner.

I've been thinking about this subject for a while, and it applies to so many areas of your life. There is so much we can all learn from other dancers, no matter their style (this is often called "Rumba"). This is one of my favorite "contrast" examples.

When you watch the clip, they clearly aren't social dancing. It is an amazingly polished, very professional routine, with two world-class dancers. That said, there is a ton to learn for social dancers, in terms of finding moves that fit the music, seeing some clear examples of using contrast, and viewing pros who have worked hard to make everything look so darned easy.

Dancing very slow is extremely difficult and this routine is a perfect example of using contrast to build emotion. Moving back and forth from extremely slow, controlled motions to a series of high-speed spins and patterns, they combine highly technical moves with flowing, long lines and create a beautiful, intense and graceful dance. With all their technique, they could easily do much longer, complex, fast-paced sequences during this dance, but you'll notice they "book-end" their fast moves with complete stops and very elegant, slow-motion moves. Those low intensity moments give their fast-paced moves much more power, as the contrast is so obvious.

There are so many "moments" where they hit a pose that reflects the lyrics of the music. Check out the face to face after a set of lady's spins on "...seal it with a kiss" that ends at around 2:16. Spin, spin, spin and end up with a complete stop on the word "kiss". Listen to the words, and see how many times you can see them hit a pose or move that makes sense with the music or lyric. You can easily find a half dozen in just a few viewings. They also add surprises, moving into dramatic spins and sequences in places I might have considered something slow and sexy.

The sequence from around 2:20 to 2:26 is magic. It's set up beautifully by breaks or slow motion before and after, to heighten the impact of the fast, technical sections. I love the variety and the sheer intensity at points and how gracefully they transition between the feels. They probably spent months refining this routine, and make it look so simple at points. Wow!

From a social dancing point of view, we are also looking for our moments, where our moves reflect the mood, the music and/or the lyrics. You'll see that in a very slow piece of music, they integrate highly technical, fast paced moves, combined with almost painfully slow, highly controlled motions, and weave in and out of those feels. When social dancing to fast tunes we can also do the opposite, dance in half-time or very small to enhance our fast-paced, larger moves.

There is much to learn from this couple and I promise you, the more you watch, the more you'll find.
I only like two kinds of men --domestic and imported.
-Mae West

Dance Books by Don Baarns:

Suggested Videos:
Music4Dancers Videos: Pulse Series
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Musicality Series

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All contributions appreciated!

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Killer Documentary: Flamenco Dancing

It's interesting watching these young ballet dancers grow into Flamenco dancers. The clapping exercises, the timing, and the process they go through are amazing. Few of us could be that good without their background, but it's still worth checking out even if you're a casual dancer.

It's very inspirational. They start so "simple" and build!

The passion from the instructors is obvious. They clearly know the history and story behind the music and movements. They combine amazing technique with an understanding of the feel, providing depth behind the movements.

You have to love the "circle" concept (around 26 minutes), where individuals take a turn dancing solo while everybody else provides the rhythm foundation and support. Hip-hop dancers do this all the time, but obviously it's been around a few centuries before they were born. (As they say, little is truly new. Most great artists build on the shoulders of the giants before them...)

Obviously this passion is way beyond what most of us will do social dancing. When you see the results from lots of hard work it may inspire you to work a little harder so you can join the fun too.

Great dance has it's moments of intense work. When it all comes together in the end it's a beautiful, inspiring, sensual experience.It's hard not to smile and feel good watching them perform.

Special thinks to Valentine Doran for turning me on to this clip.

Let me know what you think!

More details:
Flamenco Dancing Documentary page
Think green. Don't waste music! Once you hear it, start moving.
-Sam Carbin

Monday, March 3, 2014

Three "Above Average" Secrets For New Guys

News flash: You don't need to be the best dancer in the room to have a great time!

If you want to maximize your social dancing fun, you simply need to become "above average" in your area as fast as possible. Not the outstanding super star, but better than half the guys in the room.

A beginning guy walks into the club. Many quickly get discouraged when seeing some of the leads with years of experience. It seems like they are having all the fun, and many believe you have to be a near pro to have a great time.

During beginners hell-- that point where you can't remember much beyond the basic steps-- it seems like you need to earn that elite status to get the great dances. Through the new guy eyes it looks like such a daunting task.

Not so!

Secret Number 1: 
Above Average is a Major Tipping Point

I say this to all the newer leads who will listen: "The fun in dancing is amplified dramatically when you get yourself into that 'slightly above average' skill level." There is nothing wrong for working toward being the best in the room, but getting into the top 49% changes the dynamics of partner dancing forever.

Once you're better than half the guys in any room, you grow even faster because the more experienced partners are much happier dancing with you. Part of the followers night is spent dancing with guys below your level, so you start earning a spot on their "preferred list."

Some partners position themselves closer to you so you almost have to ask them or risk being rude (it’s a great problem when it happens). Dancing with stronger partners improves your game too, and it creates its own momentum.

At the same time, when dancing with newer follows (who grow much faster than most new guys), they recognize you're better than many others and as they grow, they also want more dances with you. You win with both sets of potential partners.

Just the fact that you've grown to the above average level lets them know that you'll probably continue improving, and ladies are attracted to guys who are improving over time. Even if you reduce the pace of your direct learning, you’ll still grow with the momentum of your stronger partners.

Secret Number 2:  
"Average" is not real high at most clubs

Being the best in the room is generally a multi-year project, and by definition, few guys will reach that level. On the other hand, the average level at most clubs is not too high, and getting to average is not out of reach for anybody who stays in the game for a matter of months in many scenes, a year or two in most others. Depending on your dancing history and the overall level in your area, that could be from three months to three years, but in many areas it's in the lower/middle of that time scale.

The reality is most leads take some group classes for three to six months before simply social dancing and watching other guys. Some watch clips on the web to learn more and a few purchase some DVDs. When you learn primarily by watching, it’s easy to miss details. Of the guys who do take group classes, the majority take once or twice a week for a few months before cutting back. The dropout rates of group classes are amazingly high after the first four to six months.

If you make a concentrated effort, it’s easy to learn faster than average. In addition, most guys level off after a few months, so just staying in the learning game beyond the first six to twelve months can make you really stand out.

Secret Number 3:  
A few private lessons can make a huge difference

If you take some private lessons with a strong instructor, you can greatly accelerate your march toward quality dancing. You don't need to take 40 lessons, but most guys would be well served to take six to twelve lessons from an experienced instructor. They can show you tricks of the trade that polish your skills quickly, pushing you toward above average much faster than the guys who either learn on their own or primarily attend group classes. Instructional DVDs and YouTube clips can also make a huge difference although there is lots of trash/bad advice out there too. (Get recommendations from experienced instructors.) You want to feed your mind with images of strong dancers your whole dance life.

Over the longer term, I'm not advising you to stay and camp out at the slightly above average level. You always decide where you want to end up.

If you're starting out, set your initial sights on getting above the average for your scene as soon as possible. The momentum of getting to that level will carry most guys way beyond the 50% mark, with much less effort than the effort to get started. You’ll have enough success and experience to see what it takes to grow beyond, and you have a tail wind of stronger partners assisting.

Gentlemen in the above average group will tell you the view from there is very different than being the new kid on the block. It's worth all the effort and while being your personal best is an ideal goal, once you get a little beyond the average in your area, the joy is multiplied and the effort seems like it was trivial compared to the fun.

Let me know what you’re doing to get into that above average range.
Great things are not something accidental, but certainly must be willed.
--Vincent Van Gogh

This article was originally published years ago (Oct 2008). I've updated it before republishing.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fun Salsa Documentary: Intro to the Dance

In early 2008, I was asked to film a short interview for a Salsa documentary being produced by an LA film producer named Kate Thomas. A fun view into the LA dance scene and how it's more than most people think.

It’s titled “A Gozar (To Enjoy): An Introduction to Salsa Dancing”

It’s impossible for me to be objective about the results since I have a few moments. During the filming we talked on camera for about 5 minutes and then I'm edited down to a few sound bits along the way. It’s a great thing to send to your friends who are thinking of learning salsa, but keep putting it off.

Let them know now is the time to get started, and anybody is welcomed, even if they think they aren't great dancers now. Nobody cares and they can have a great time even as they get started.

Point out to them that you can be older (or younger) than most, non Latino, and a complete novice dancer and still end up enjoying the scene, even while learning. I'm living proof.

Maybe this film will help them get off the couch and join you at the club for some fun.

Check out the documentary and let me know what you think.

Side note: When this was filmed, I primarily danced salsa and that was it. Since then I've grown quite a bit and explored many other styles/genres. Dance is so vast, find one you like to start with, explore others when it works for you.

Suggested Videos:
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Musicality Series

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All contributions appreciated!

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An overnight success usually takes around ten years.
--Sam Carbin

Originally published in July 2008. Can't believe it's been over 6 years.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Musical Pulse: Explicit and Implied (Part 1)

"How Do You Know?"

Dance music has a pulse, especially social dance music. A re-occurring heartbeat that often is obvious and explicit like a ticking clock, but can also be implied and not so obvious to those with less experience with the music. Are you hearing the pulse in both forms across a range of music?

I'm teaching at my "Music For Dancers" master class a while ago, playing a simple example and discussing the "pulse" of the music, one of my terms for "the music's heartbeat." Sometimes people just call it the "beat" and you'll see people tapping their toes to the beat or clapping. A very smart lady asks, "OK... can you be more specific about the pulse and how do I hear it..." She continued, "How do I know I have the pulse right, what am I listening for..."

The question caught me off guard because I've been teaching this dancers' music class for over 6 years and nobody ever asked that question directly. I gave her an answer, but I didn't feel it hit the mark and completely clarified the issue for her.

On the drive to a club that evening, it bugged me that I didn't make it clear as day for her, so I rethought how I'll teach that in future. I had one of those "ah-ha" moments, realizing that the pulse in the music can be broken down into two extremes: Explicit and Implied (also known as "Implicit".)

Most songs are someplace in between, but the pulse is like our internal heartbeat; always there even if we can't hear it or feel it without some effort. You can think of it like a second hand on a stopwatch, ticking at regular intervals, or the click-click-click of a metronome. Even if your watch is silent, the seconds are ticking by at regular intervals, just like the pulse in music.

If you hear it clearly in the music because it's obvious and marked by an instrument, it's explicit. Watches or clocks that tick or click out loud every second make their pulse obvious and explicit. In the music, explicit pulse can be marked by the bass drum, cow bell, piano or other instruments in the band. Usually the pulse is marked by one or more of the percussion instruments, but not always.

An implied pulse is like your silent watch, where the seconds are ticking by, but maybe it flashes every second, or sometimes just changes time once per minute. Even if you don't see or hear the seconds pulsing by, they are always happening in the background. In the implicit case, you learn to hear and feel the pulse, even if it is not obvious at first.

Just because many people can't find the "one" in some songs, the vast majority can at least hear the pulse in a listening session, even if they lose it while dancing. This is especially true in what I call "commercial" music, which is the popular music played on the radio.

That said, there are also a wide set of people that simply don't hear the pulse, and the reality is finding "one" is extremely difficult if you don't hear the pulse clearly. The pulse is a critical step toward hearing musical timing and without it you'll be considered an "off-beater" until you get it right.

I realized I had a couple perfect tunes in my collection where the pulse is being explicitly pounded out on the bass drum from the start to the end of the tune. The first tune is by "Ne-Yo" and few people expect his tunes in my playlist. (I'm a little older than most of his fan base.) He fits happily within my wide range of musical tastes and I like the song.
The song starts with 8 bass drum beats BEFORE the intro starts (OK... for the purists out there, there are some pickup notes before the other instruments join in...) That bass drum pulse continues throughout the song, like an old 1980's disco tune. It never stops; it marks the pulse from beginning to end and you can count from one to four (musicians' count) over and over on each bass drum hit and that is the pulse for this tune. Alternately, you can also count a "dancer's 8 count" (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) and the bass drum hits on 1, 3, 5, 7 from the beginning to the end of the tune, with the 2,4,6,8 equally spaced in-between each bass drum note.

Few tunes these days have a bass drum on EVERY count from beginning to the end. In salsa or other dance music, it's rarely this clear or obvious but there are many other tunes with this same concept, especially music from the disco 80's.

Another example I like is the 1980's hit called "Forget me Nots" by Patrice Rushen. Will Smith did a cover of this tune for the first Men in Black movie. (There's a fun dance sequence toward the end.)

Be sure to listen to the original above, but the movie version is embedded below as a secondary reference. The pulse is clearer in the original version, and the bassline is a classic, take no prisoners groove that still challenges bass players today. (Originally performed by Freddie Washington.)

SIDE NOTE: To get a taste of the bassline, watch this clip, then listen to the original and you'll hear the amazing bass on the tune. This is a great ear training exercise and worth your time. The bass sounds are often used to verify your concept of "one" in salsa tunes. You want to be sure you're hearing the bass players in all music, and going back and forth a few times between the two links helps you hear the details. Again; A very valuable exercise. More on that another day.

Will Smith: From Men In Black - Explicit Pulse

Many tunes are a combination of explicit and implied pulse, with some sections making the pulse more obvious and others dancing all around the pulse. The musicians (and experienced dancers) are hearing the pulse in their heads, even if it's not being explicitly expressed in the music. (You'll hear some great examples of implicit pulse in part II of this article.)

The Ne-Yo and Patrice Rushen tunes linked above have a very explicit pulse, so if you just follow from the beginning, it's pretty difficult to lose once you hear it. That is the right starting point for many people who are not hearing the pulse in salsa tunes. Master these simple tunes (in terms of pulse) and it will make it easier as we explore "implied" pulse in part II of this article.

Please let me know if the pulse is clear on these tunes and send me any questions you have from listening to the tunes. Part II of this article will cover implicit pulse and further refine our concept of pulse in the music.

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.
-- Margaret Mead 

Related Article:
Musical Pulse: Explicit and Implicit (Part 2) 

Dance Books by Don Baarns:

Suggested Videos:
Music4Dancers Videos: Pulse Series
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Musicality Series

Donation Page:
This site and the Music4Dancers video series are supported by your donations. No other ads!
All contributions appreciated!

Connect with me: ("Like" the page)
Twitter: @UnlikelySalsero
Google+ (Don Baarns)

This article was originally published over 5 years ago (June 2009.) It's such an important topic I'm republishing it after some tweaks. I wrote about this topic long before the YouTube "Music4Dancers" video series was started. Click here to see the "Music4Dancers Pulse Series" playlist on YouTube.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Musical Pulse: Explicit and Implicit (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a series. I recommend you check out the first article before reading this one. Additionally, this article may include a couple musical terms that unfortunately remain undefined. I avoid doing that, but sometimes it happens for space considerations. Feel free to ask questions if anything is unclear.

As we discussed in Part 1 of this article, dance music has a pulse behind the scenes. Sometimes the music is very explicit, but just as often, the musicians are feeling the pulse, even if they don't beat you over the head with it. Please go back and listen to the example links in Part 1 if you haven't heard them in a while.

This article focuses on "implicit" or "implied" pulse, where the pulse is still consistent behind the scenes, but the musicians don't mark each count of the music. This is a more advanced concept and many people won't hear the implicit pulse without some simple one-on-one training and lots of practice.

Once you know the pulse exists and hear it in some tunes, it becomes more obvious across a wider range of music. It's always there ticking behind the scenes; it's a matter of figuring it out and connecting the dots with the clues the musicians give you. Dancers use this implicit pulse to provide a stronger connection with the music.

Many tunes have sections that are explicit and others that are implicit, and musicians are free to mix as they see fit.

A similar concept is a clock with a ticking second hand. A clock can be silent (implicit), but there is still a pulse 60 times per minute as the second hand moves from one second to the next. Some have an explicit tick-tick-tick sound every second, marking the time in perfectly spaced intervals. Whether you hear the ticking each second or not, the seconds are still ticking by at regular intervals. There is EXACTLY the same amount of time between each second ticking, and on some clocks you can hear each second tick and some clocks are silent.

Music is similar, with the pulse being more or less obvious, depending on the tune.

A Clock With Second Hand Pulsing Each Second

(OK... for the purist; modern electronic clocks often use quartz crystals which vibrate/pulse tens of thousands of times per second. They use electronics to count the pulses and group them into seconds (or fractions) for the display. For our discussion, we are interested in the consistent pulse occurring each second.)

When recording music, some musicians have a "click track" playing in their headsets that is NOT heard in the final recording. This is like a ticking clock or consistent cow bell, generally adjusted to click at the quarter note pulse of the music. The click track provides a reference pulse while recording, keeping the musicians perfectly on time, even if no drums or percussion are playing.

Drummers and some others in the band use the click track as an absolute reference for the underlying pulse of the music. As a listener you don't hear the click track, but it's often a silent partner in the recording process.

When you hear the Usher tune below, there is a beautiful guitar and voice introduction, with 8 bars (measures) of implicit pulse. There are no drums or percussion marking the time, but the musicians are all counting it in their heads. It's highly likely the guitarist had a click track playing in his headphones, and if you march in place to the music you'll see it's perfectly in time.

Usher - "How Do I Say" Introduction Has Implicit Pulse

The pulse is consistent from the beginning to the end of the tune, even if it's not explicit in the first 8 bars. Musicians will often say, "Time is running," to alert the other musicians that the pulse is constant, like a clock, even if nobody is playing the pulse directly.

Some tunes start with an introduction in which time is NOT running, and the musicians speed up and slow down, until the introduction ends, then time is running constantly the rest of the tune.

The end of a tune is another place it's common to ignore the pulse; musicians will often slow down the last few notes for emotional effect, effectively ignoring the pulse as it ends. Musicians can ignore the pulse in the middle of tunes, but that is very, very rare in dance music.

IF you have enough experience with music, the pulse will be obvious in the first couple of bars. In the last couple bars of the intro the guitarist "lays back" and makes it feel like he's slowing down, even though the time remains perfectly constant as it resolves into the next section. In other words, time is running from the first note of the introduction for this example, and it never stops.

Don't be bothered if you have to listen to the introduction over and over to get it right. I've heard the tune over 140 times this month, and I'm still finding new things I didn't hear before. (Great music has depth, and you'll hear new things over time.)

I could hear the pulse in the introduction the first couple times I heard it, but I had to listen to it again to verify I was right about time running from the start. It's normal to hear something, then listen again many times to confirm your gut feel about the pulse.

Musicians (and dancers) are not slaves to the click or the time; they are free to play ahead or behind the click if they want that feel, but they use the pulse as a "home base" and return to it most of the time. If they get too far off the pulse, speed up or slow down, that doesn't work for dance music.

Unlike the tunes in Part 1 of this article, the Usher drum track is a bossa-nova feel, with the bass drum playing a consistent groove which marks count 1 regularly, but dances around the pulse for a totally different feel compared to the explicit pulse examples.

An excellent strategy when you can't find the pulse in one part of the tune is find another similar section where the pulse is clearer. It's normal to find a very clear section in the middle or end of a tune and use that as a guide for figuring out earlier sections of the tune.

Master the pulse in the easy section, then go back to the introduction or the part that is unclear to you, and you'll have a much stronger chance of hearing the details. For example, I like the section from around :45 to 1:18 to figure out the underlying pulse.

If the pulse is not clear in that section of this tune, it probably won't be clear anywhere. You may find another section which is clearer to you. If you are new to finding the implicit pulse, this tune may be too complicated as a starting point.

In "How Do I Say," the shaker player is actually marking the pulse more clearly than any other instrument. He's louder or quieter in different parts of the tune. Check out the shaker player between the 1:07 to 1:17 marks, where his playing is more obvious.

He is playing on each of the dancers' 8 count, but emphasizing the red colored counts below, which includes the pulse plus some variations. (For musicians: he's playing the eighth notes, accenting the quarter notes 3 times, then accenting the 8th notes 3 times as he comes around to 1 again.)

Dancers' 8 Count (red number are accents):
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,1 ...

Musicians' Count:
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 ...

It's subtle and you may need to download this tune and hear it with ear buds and/or quality speakers to hear the details. (The YouTube sound quality is OK, but doesn't compare to the CD version.)

In musicians' count, the pulse of this tune is on 1, 2, 3, 4, even though each count isn't explicitly marked by the musicians.

If you are unfamiliar with the sound of the shaker, here's a clip from one of the leading drum/percussion companies, showing shakers. Notice that the percussionist can emphasize (accent) different patterns as he's playing.

Shakers from Remo

In the Usher tune, the shaker player is playing the same pattern throughout the tune (with minor variations), but because the drummer is also playing a complimentary pattern on his hi-hat, it's much harder to hear the shaker player alone. Their patterns fit together like a puzzle and it takes really advanced ears to break them out at points. The producer brings the shaker volume up in the section referenced above, and has him more in the background (quieter) during the rest of the song.

If you hear the shaker player and you hear the variations he plays, you know your ears are stronger than most. Many people reading this will not hear the details because their ears are not mature enough yet, and/or they need to hear the tune on a better sound system.

For some additional fun, figure out if the introduction is played by 1, 2 or 3 guitars. I thought I had it right the first time I heard it, then changed my mind after about 50 listenings. If you're a musician this will be more obvious, but most people will need to listen to the introduction 20 or more times to be sure they have the right answer. The proper answer is either 1, 2 or 3, so I'll at least give you a 33% chance of guessing correctly. (Guessing isn't the idea; please answer the question when you are willing to bet $25 on it... )

For my clave-aware friends, "How Do I Say" has implied clave until the drummer becomes more explicit with the clave pattern later in the song. (Implied clave is also beyond the scope of this article, but listen to the tune and you'll hear the cross-stick snare drum playing most of a 3-2 clave.)

Because implicit or implied pulse is a more advanced concept, I'll provide another example or two in "Part 3" of this series. Few people will get this concept with one song, unless they have prior music experience. If you're not getting it, the question is, can you hear the pulse during the main body of the tune?

Now that you know implicit pulse is behind all dance music, see if you can figure it out in tunes you like. Start with simple music before attempting it in more complex music like salsa.

More examples YouTube series (links below). Let me know what you're hearing in your favorite tunes.
Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake.
--Jackie Mason

Related Articles:
Musical Pulse: Explicit and Implicit (Part 1)
Listening to Music 100 Times or More

Dance Books by Don Baarns:

Suggested Videos:
Music4Dancers Videos: Pulse Series
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Musicality Series

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This article was originally published July 2009. One of the example videos was removed from YouTube. I found another version of the song and replaced it so I'm republishing. Special thanks to Denise K for sending me a note letting me know about the broken video!