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Musicality: Can it be learned?

When dancing it is important to be receptive to music, particularly as you advance from the simpler beginners patterns to more advanced patterns. However musical receptivity is something that not all of us find natural. In fact, for some individuals (Caucasian men often fall into this group) it can seem downright impossible to perceive the music in a useful manner. Hearing the phrasing of a tango, the beginning of bars/measures in a rumba or cha cha cha, or even the beats in a salsa or samba. Does this mean you are destined to never get it?

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Not at all!

In fact, whilst some individuals seem to naturally possess great musicality; I believe the great majority of musical people have been trained. Not necessarily formally (eg, attending a music college or learning an instrument) but through exposure to different types of music, by tapping fingers and/or moving their bodies to music.

This post will some ways you can train your own musicality, or improve your skills.

What is Music?

Let's start with the basics of music, at least as far as dance is concerned.

Music is a series of repeating beats which are strung together to form a bar or measure. Most songs that are danced socially are in 4/4 timing (think rumba, cha cha, zouk, swing). What this means to a musician is that there are 4 quarter notes per bar/measure; but to a dancer there are 4 beats to the measure. There are some common social dances which use different timing such as waltz (3/4 - 3 beats per measure) & samba (2/4 - 2 beats per measure).

Almost all songs are arranged into phrases, however the phrasing is very important for some dances (eg, tango). A phrase is a long-(ish) musical idea. For example, in the tango you will be able to clearly hear 8 beats combined into a phrase. This just happens to match very nicely with our basic tango timing of Slow-Slow-Quick-Quick-Slow or expressed as beats 2-2-1-1-2=8. If you listen to Hernando's Hideaway below you can clearly hear the phrasing.

So now we know what music is, how do we use it for dancing?

Significance of Beats, Bars, Measures & Phrasing for Dance

When we first learn to dance we are taught a series of steps which will, generally speaking, match the beats of the music. For example, a rumba basic consists of three steps which are timed quick-quick-slow. What this means is that we step on beat 1, beat 2 & beat 3 but then 'hold' beat 4. So what we have done is consumed 1 bar/measure through a series of three steps. If we we're doing a waltz basic, then we would also use three steps but in this case all the beats are equal. That is, waltz has three beats per measure so we step on beats 1, 2 & 3.

At a beginners level we don't usually worry too much about phrasing except in the tango. Here the phrasing is so obvious that if we get it wrong it just feels well wrong! We can in fact start a tango at any stage and, when doing the basic, stay in time; however it will feel odd if you don't get the phrasing right. Listen to Hernando's Hideaway again and you'll see what I mean.

With the other dances, phrasing becomes increasingly more important as you move beyond the beginner level. It is through phrasing that you will use your dance to 'express' the music.

So we can see that it is vital for our dancing careers that we are, at a minimum, able to hear beats, measures & phrasing.

Learning to Hear Beats

Learning to hear beats is actually very easy. Start with some music which has a good strong beat without a lot of other distractions such as as singing or other musical rhythms. The two songs below are excellent for this but choose something you like. I'd suggest steering clear of cha cha cha, salsa or samba music at this stage. Just listen to the music a couple of times.

Now that you are familiar with the music, listen again but this time try to find the beats. In the first song, loves me like a rock, you should be able to hear a series of 4 beats to each measure (it's a swing with 4/4 timing). Come away with me is a waltz, so listen for 3 beats with a strong beat 1.

Once you have found those beats, then try counting. In the case of the waltz you should get to 3 before the next strong beat. When that strong beat comes again start counting again. For example, 1-2-3,1-2-3,1-2-3,etc.

Finally, it's time to tap along with the beats. Again, using the waltz, try tapping your index finger on beat one and then another finger on beats 2 & 3. This will begin to train your musicality to use different movements for different beats.

Finally, try this exercise with some music that you are dancing to. Just listen to the music, find the beats, and tap along.

Measures & Phrasing

Now that you can hear the beats in the music clearly, you will begin to notice the phrasing. In most cases, the phrasing of music consists of 2 bars of music. In our example music pieces this means eight beats for loves me like a rock, and six beats for come away with me. Listen to both of these songs (remember to tap along) and try to pick out the phrases. You should be able to hear two bars which 'feel' right together. Once you have them, then count to 8 (0r 6) these will be your basic beats for dancing.

Let me give you an example. When learning the waltz box (as a man), your teacher will have taught you to step forward on beat 1, sideways on beat 2, close feet together on beat 3; step back on beat 4, sideways on beat 5, and close feet together on beat 6. Of course this would be the natural opposite for the woman's part. This basic box has taken 1 full phrase of the music, or 2 measures, or 6 beats.

Try it! You'll find that dancing with the phrasing of the music just feels more natural; and once you ha and through it you will be able to express yourself more fully through dance.

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Posted in Performing Arts Post Date 01/02/2017


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