Scarlet Mambo

Musicality of Salsa. Why an 8-beat measure?

This is a response to an email that I received commenting on a previous post (On 2 SalsaBeat – How to dance On2).
I will answer a couple of questions presented on this comment: “Why an 8-beat measure? I hear salsa in 4/4 time.”

Steve, Thanks for your email. I appreciate the invitation to discuss the starting step for men in mambo (Salsa On2). But first I think I need to address the music, then the different styles of dancing.


Your assertion that salsa is written in 4/4 timing is correct. For a musician (piano, bass, trumpet player, etc.), the music is best organized with a 4-beat measure. Wearing my guitar player hat, I like to feel salsa music in 4/4 time (count 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4…) because I’m interested in the harmorny (chord) changes and basslines of the songs. I come from a rock/blues background and I like to hear the chord changes on the 1st beat of every measure. So, Yes I agree with you that I can feel 4/4 timing in salsa. In salsa, it is very common to hear chord changes in the 1st beat of the 4/4 measure (or the 1st and 5th beat of the dance measure).

Rhythm and Dance

Things change, however, when I listen to melody and rhythm. Let me differentiate by defining the following:

Musical measure is 4 beats. Following is two (2) musical measures

|1 2 3 4 |1 2 3 4|

Rhythmic and Dance Measure is 8 beats

|1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 |

Two (2) musical measures equal one (1) dance measure in terms of length of time.

When listening to the general rhythm of the music, one can hear that various elements of the song repeat every 8 beats (i.e. clave, piano montuno, melody hooks, conga tumbao, bass rhythm, trumpet phrases). It is to this general feel of the music to which we really dance since we also repeat our dance movements every 8 beats.

Notice that I have not addressed any style of dancing yet!

One can make the argument that the rhythm repeats every 4 beats in the music, and therefore salsa is in 4/4 timing. This is true for songs that have a very strong 1 3 5 7 beats. While sometimes the conga tumbao (8 AND, 2, 4 AND 6) seems to repeat every 4 beats there are other elements in the music that give a voice to this tumbao rhythm and turn it into an 8 beat feel.

When I first started learning Mambo (salsa on2) and hence listening to the music, I had a lot of trouble finding the difference between the 1st and the 5th beat. But after listening to all the intruments as a whole, I am now able to clearly differentiate the 1st and the 5th beat.

On beats 1 2 3 4 of the dancers measure a tension is created with a bit synchopation. This rhytmic tension is resolved on beats 5 6 7 8. The rhythm of the 1 2 3 4 and the 5 6 7 8 is similar but there a difference between the two. So we agree that there is a difference?

If you were to transcribe songs, which I do for choreographies, you would notice that salsa songs are mostly arranged in blocks of four (4) 8-beat measures. Salsa music treats 8-beat measures just as regular western music treats 4-beat measures.

On this post, I wrote “assuming an 8-beat measure” because I didn’t want to type a lengthy answer. Ha! But it came up yesterday and today, so I hope this helps understand why 8-beats makes a dance measure.

Keep in mind that this is only my way of making sense of the music.  It works for me for the reasons that I explained.  If counting in 4/4 time works for you, then great !  The important thing is to dance and have fun!

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