Salsa Timing – 5 Tips To Finding The First Beat Of The Music

Salsa Timing – 5 Tips To Finding The First Beat Of The Music

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One of the most challenging humps to get over for many beginning salsa dancers is to learn to recognize the first beat of the music and actually count the music properly to keep on the correct salsa timing. Yet, rhythms are often innate in us. Just like we can become aware of our heart beat, we can become to be able to recognize the salsa rhythm.

However, just like it is actually much harder to count your pulse, learning to count and understand the direction of the salsa music is much harder. But with proper guidance counting salsa timing will become easy as well. Here is how to do it.

Tip # 1 Listen To The Cow Bell To Find The Salsa Rhythm

The salsa rhythm goes quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow. The first step to learning timing is to make sure that you can recognize the rhythm. After you recognize the rhythm, half of your job is already done. One of the easiest ways to recognize the salsa rhythm is to try to find the cow bell in the music. The cow bell plays on the core beats of 1,3,5,7, loops over and repeats 1,3,5… and so on. Not all songs have the cow bell included, but many traditional salsa songs does and this can help you find the rhythm.

Source: A dip in Salsa. Janalyn Sheetz, 2022.

Tip # 2 Listen To The Montuno Rhythm To Find The First Beat Of The Music

In salsa there is a rhythm called Montuno that is often played with piano. If a particular salsa song is playing the montuno rhythm, recognizing it is one of the easiest ways to finding the first beat of the music. The reason for this is that unlike the cow bell, for example, the piano montuno rhythm is played over eight beats rather than just four. In other words, when you listen to the cow bell, you can find the rhythm, but you might easily mistaken the first beat of the music to be the fifth and vice versa. Piano montuno rhythm however can go something like this, 1, and, 2,3, and, 4, 6,7,8, and, 1 and so on. Obviously, this is harder to understand conceptually and it would be much better if I could actually play this salsa timing for you so that you could hear the difference. But nevertheless, this is one of the easiest ways to find the first beat to the music.

Tip # 3 Listen To The Vocals

In salsa music, like in many other types of music as well, it is often customary for the vocals to start on the first beat of the music as well. This is another concept that can help you learn to recognize the first beat of the music. So the next time you are listening to salsa songs, rather than pay attention to the instruments, if the song has a vocalist(s), pay attention when they begin and try to see how that correlates with the rhythm of the music. Chances are they start on the first beat and if so, you have found the one.

Tip # 4 If All Else Fails, Buy A Salsa Timing CD

Salsa timing CD is a great way to help you find the first beat of the music. What makes salsa timing so challenging is that there are many interlaying rhythms and not one easy beat to follow. What can be extremely helpful is to listen to a song with a voice over of someone who keeps you on count. This way, you can constantly monitor how you understand the timing and compare your counting to someone who is keeping you on track. By listening on a salsa timing CD at home you can take your time to develop your understanding and reflect how the counting reflects the rhythms.

Tip # 5 Keep At It

It is very easy to get frustrated if you don’t quite get a grasp of the rhythms and salsa timing right away. But don’t get discouraged. When I started, it took me months just to be able to hear the rhythm. I am probably one of the most ungifted children musically, yet, it has been my determination and perseverance that has made me one of the experts in salsa musicality. So keep at it and your ear will soon be able to detect even the subtlest of salsa rhythms and you will be able to recognize the first beat of them music with ease.

And there you have it. The 5 simple tips to hearing the first beat of the salsa music. Your keys to dancing with the correct salsa timing!

Eli Lira

pianist and professor