Focusing on the words, you selectively listen to the singer while mentally blocking some of the music. That's the same skill used to listen to one instrument, while ignoring the others. Over time, you learn to selectively focus on any desired voice, instrument or set of instruments in the music. You hear the overall sound, and/or pick out interesting things that most others aren't hearing.
Visually we do this all the time. When driving yourself, you hardly notice things that are obvious when you're a passenger, because the driver's focus is different. We want similar selective focus with our hearing.
Clearly hearing the clave, piano, bass, percussion and/or other instruments are longer-term goals for salsa dancers. Many are surprised to find that other people don't hear the same words.
It is much more difficult hearing the diverse instruments in rich salsa music, so start with lyrics and build a solid foundation. The lyrics are usually the most accessible part of the music but they can still be a positive, fun challenge.
In other words, song lyrics are simply one of the best starting points for tuning and refining your ears.
If you already have great ears, working the lyrics is another tool for refining your listening skills. You can (and should) figure them out it in your car, while exercising, eating, shaving or almost any other activity which doesn't require your absolute full attention. If you are starting out, there is significant payback from investing some concentrated time listening without doing something else.
I work with so many people who want to hear more in the music, but they often want to run really fast, when they don't crawl very well. To see this in action, listen to the beginning of the 1976 hit by Stevie Wonder called "As", and write down the lyrics, especially his first phrase at around 14 seconds. (It's so last century, but a classic.)
Repeat that process for the second verse, starting around the 34 second mark. I highly recommend you take a minute or two and write down those lines. We'll use those words later in the article. You don't need to do the complete tune for this example, you can do that as a follow-up after writing the first couple lines of each section.
The words for this tune are very creative and Stevie is a musical genius in both words and music.
To get it right, (without cheating and using Google to find the lyrics) less experienced ears often need more listenings, and a wide set of people will not get it right until they have practiced. (BTW - If you get one or two words wrong you're "normal," so don't be bothered.)
Please use the comments below or the Facebook discussion group to tell us what you heard the first time. It will give everybody a great insight into the fact that everybody hears different things when listening to music. Again, if you miss a word or two, so what!
Anybody can learn to hear these words, the music and how it all works together with some effort. This is designed to be a fun, interesting exercise. I love first version for it's creative genius, the second version for the way it's sung and the interesting visuals.
More experienced ears generally get it right within a few reviews. Sometimes we all get fooled, thinking we have it right, and you'll have a tough time hearing it differently once you believe you "have it."
I recommend you listen to it at least 3 to 5 times, verifying the opening line is correct, AND verifying the line that starts at the 34 second mark is right. Again, writing these lines down is very helpful.
If you want to really have some fun, ask a few of your friends to listen to the tune and tell you the opening lines. You'll be amazed at the variations you hear, and that is normal. Then ask them to tell you the line around the 34 second mark (as you did above). Some will hear the same line as you, some will hear something different.
After writing down your answers, check out the second version of the tune (below). It's a remake by George Michael and Mary J Blige (MJB). Please don't watch it until you've done the exercises above.
You'll quickly notice this version is easier to hear. It's a modern recording, it's a little slower and you can see him singing, making it dramatically easier to get the words right. I selected this tune partly because I had both versions, with and without visuals.
As stated in a previous article on hearing with your eyes (see "Related Articles" below), the visuals of someone singing make it much easier to verify specific words. This same concept applies to the other instruments when watching musicians perform, and you can see the concept in action in these two examples.
Check out this version against the words you wrote down. Does his singing match with the words you wrote down above?
I'll follow up in the comments section with the correct lyrics in a couple days so you can check yourself if you wish. (I think you'll find it fascinating.) Play it for as many friends and family members as possible and see what they hear.
To be clear: Hearing the words is much easier than hearing the individual instruments in almost any song. Figuring out the exact words builds your selective focus skills and you'll use that to your advantage as you grow.
The tunes I provide above are simply examples, and you should take your favorite tunes and see if you can get all the words right. Because this can require listening to the same song 50 times, pick music you really like. Over time, this skill provides a foundation for hearing the details in salsa music, and then you can apply that to your dancing.
Side Note: I'm experimenting with a new Facebook group for discussing blog articles (like this one) because threaded conversations are easier to follow. If you're on Facebook, add yourself to the group and please post what you heard when you started. I think others will be surprised how many different things people hear. The more people who contribute, the more we will all learn.
If we get honest answers, you'll quickly see you're not the only one who misses a word or two.
Click here to join the Facebook group.
Using Your Eyes to Hear the Music
Listening to Music 100 Times or More
Finding "One" Over the Wires (part of a series)
Hearing but not Listening (part 3 of a series)
Courage is doing what you're afraid to do.
There can be no courage unless you're scared.