Beat-Train Your Brain

by Ana Gherasim

“Feel” the music, they say. “Just let it move you”, they say.

Musicians, or those with musical training, have a great advantage when starting to learn salsa (or any other dance, really): their brains have been trained to understand, hear and follow the beat structure of a song.

Before I started dancing, my musical training consisted mainly of failed attempts, so at first, that damn “one” beat was the bane of my existence. It took over a year (and much patience from Jeff and his 22 years of music education) for me to start “hearing” the beat, and even longer before I started “feeling” it.

But it did come, in time. Listening to loads of salsa music does help, but there are also some great beat-training tools to help speed up your learning process. So, for those who neither are musically trained, nor have a built-in metronome in their brain, here are some great tools to give you a beat-training boost:

Understanding the Salsa Rhythm
I was doing a bit of light research for this article, thinking I knew all the best resources to recommend, and came across a YouTube video that changed my world. It’s the perfect explanation of how salsa music is constructed, why it sounds so different from the (pop) music we’re used to hearing, and how to go about looking for the salsa beat. If “Getting on Beat” were a course, this would be mandatory reading viewing.

 

Salsa Beat Machine
This great little tool comes as a web app and a mobile app (so you can jam to this on the bus on your way to class!). You can find it at www.salsabeatmachine.org and it lets you manipulate the most commonly-used instruments in a salsa band, slow down and speed up the tempo, change the melody and key of the music. It even includes an “instructor” who can count out the beat for you – in 5 languages! This is by far the most interactive tool on this list, and I encourage you to play with it – single out each instrument, get used to how it relates to the instructor’s count; then see how it combines with a second instrument. Turn off the instructor’s count, and count the beat for yourself. The listen to a salsa song and listen for the one or two instruments you were just playing with – does the beat make more sense now? Rinse and repeat!

Salsa Timing Exercises
If you take to the Internet, you can also find CDs of salsa timing practice. There are the ones that break down the beat structure of each instrument, then put them together (much like you can do yourself with the Salsa Beat Machine). There are also salsa practice music CDs consisting of simple melodies at various speeds, which can be looped easily for simplified practice (because switching songs is *such* a hassle). Have a browse, and see what you like and find useful. My favourite in this category is Alex Wilson’s Salsa con Soul Timing Workout – just one 5-minute track that breaks down the beat of each instrument within an overall melody:


(I have no idea what Luigi is doing here, but I guess it beats putting up a blank video for the sake of the audio track?)

Listen to Salsa Music
As awesome as these tools are, they by no means replace listening and dancing to lots of salsa music. The variety of salsa music alone is more than can be explained by any single tool. So once you’ve bookmarked your favourite resources, go back to your music library and play a few salsa songs!

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