Saturday, March 15, 2008

Finding "One" Over the Wires: March 15 Update

This is part of a series on assisting someone to hear the time in the music; check out the links at the bottom of this article to see the previous articles in the series.

Doug Fox and I continue to talk about once a week and he continues to make significant progress. Doug is a huge Argentine Tango (AT) fan and student, so one of our goals is to make sure he hears the time in all types of music, not just Salsa tunes.

This is consistent with my approach, since I see hearing the time as a skill unrelated to any specific musical style. We continue to work with simplified commercial music, where the time is much more defined and regular. Many commercial tunes beat the time into your head like a jackhammer, but that also helps us clarify some of the structural elements. Some of our newer tunes are less obvious, and have elements requiring growth.

Because of our earlier discussions, he understands the structure of the music. On the few occasions where he gets off the time, he has anchor points and he’s self-correcting. That's music to my ears because my primary goal is his hearing the time, and hearing when he’s off so he can adjust when appropriate, without my input.

We added a couple new tunes this week, including an old Whitney Houston tune and a new Norah Jones song (“I've got to see you again”), which Doug says they frequently use in the tango classes. It’s considered a “neo-tango” or a “slow 3/3/2 milonga”. In other words, it’s a modern tune which happens to work well in a tango context. (We added a couple songs last week that I haven't documented, and I'll sneek those in when I can.)

The Whitney Houston tune is the first time we worked on a tune that is NOT created as a dance tune. It’s used in the 1992 movie “The Bodyguard” and is a mood piece rather than a dance number. Overall, the time is consistent--like salsa music for most of the tune--but at the end of certain phrases, it slows down for half a measure, and then returns to the time established earlier. This is quite dramatic and the song breathes nicely. While it’s harder on dancers, it makes great sense in the context of the movie and the lyrics of the song. (The introduction is also not in strict time, and that is a little more common.)

Whitney Houston – Run to You

In musical terms, this “slow down” concept is written over the music as ritardando or more commonly abbreviated as either "rit." or "ritard" meaning "to slow down consistently". You can think of this like the way a train slows down just before it stops. It's chugging along consistently, then they apply the breaks and the train starts getting slower every second.

This concept of a steady tempo with occasional slowing is inconsistent with most social dance music, including salsa. Changes in tempo require the dancers to adjust their dancing in the middle of the tune, frustrating most dancers because it’s not the norm.

As a rule, salsa starts at one tempo and stays the same until the end of the song. There are exceptions to this, but I’d estimate over 98% of all salsa music is one tempo from beginning to end.

By listening to “Run to You”, you start hearing the contrast between consistent time and the slowing down (ritardando), improving your sense of time dramatically. For most people, it’s easier to hear the time changes later in the tune, after the drums have kicked in (they are silent in the beginning). Experienced listeners hear the time breathing in the intro, and hear the ritardandos as they happen.

When this tune was recorded, there was a conductor directing the musicians and coordinating the tempos among the musicians. You can’t see the conductor, but you can hear his influence as you listen.

Check out the tempo around the 2:21 mark and the 3:27 or so. Around both of these points, you’ll hear the band slowing down, along with her singing, before the next phrase restarts at the earlier established tempo. (It also happens around the 58 second mark, but the drums are just entering, so it’s tougher to hear the tempo changes.) You’ll need to start before those timings to hear the standard time, and you’ll also notice it shows down for half a measure, then returns to the “normal”, consistent time until the next slow down, at the end of the next phrase.

Note that I’m leaving out quite a few details here; this “ritardano” concept happens more than just three times, so see if you can hear it as it’s happening. I’m planning on cutting a video for this tune to discuss it in context. Typing all the details makes it painfully obvious to me that I’m summarizing and skipping plenty of details.

I’ll outline the Norah Jones tune and some interesting aspects of it in a future article.

Overall, Doug Fox is moving from someone who questioned whether he could ever hear the time when we started, to someone who regularly gets it right, in increasingly complex music. When he’s wrong, he hears it and is self-correcting most of the time. He's still practicing, as this skill isn’t something most people learn in one or two lessons, but his foundation is strong and growing on a daily basis. In the near term, Salsa and Tango will both be easy for him, in terms of hearing the time and knowing he knows how it all fits together.

Doug told me he is writing something for his blog shortly, and I’ll post a link when his point of view is available.

In case you are new to this blog, Doug Fox (of "Dancing Into the Future" fame) and I are working on a project where I'm helping him to find "one" in the music, without ever meeting face-to-face. For details on how this got started, check out the previous articles:

Finding "One" over the Wires
Nov 2nd Update
Feb 10 update
Feb 14 update
Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
-- Robert F. Kennedy


  1. Any more information on outlining the Norah Jones tune and some the interesting aspects of it?

    A geat read finding out a little about how you process and learn about the music.

  2. Tom,

    I'll review it again and post something ASAP.


  3. first time to hear this song..such a joy to learn musicality with her beautiful vocal.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero