Dance Floor Primer: Finding the Beat of Music

Woman listening to music
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Finding the beat of the music can be a difficult task for new dancers.

In fact, a common concern of people who think they can't dance is that they have "no rhythm." 

Anyone can have rhythm, however. If you have no background in dance or music, you simply may have never been taught how to identify it. 

Rhythm is a natural part of our existence, from the beginning of life. In the womb, our mother's heartbeat kept a steady rhythm, and today, our own heart and lungs keep a constant beat. You can hear steady beats all around us, like in the ticking of the clock. 

The beat of a song is no different. Think of it as a clock ticking, amid a variety of other instrumental melodies and sounds. 

The ability to pick out the beat of a song is important when learning how to keep time to music. Timing in dance is a critical skill a successful dancer must learn through practice. Dance timing is especially critical for partner dances because both you and your partner will depend on each other to hit certain moves at precisely the same point in the music.

What Are Beats and Rhythm?

A beat is the basic time unit of a piece of music.

A sequence of beats is referred to as the rhythm, or groove, of a song.

Most often, music is characterized by both strong (stressed) and weak (unstressed) beats. The speed at which these beats occur is known as the tempo. If the beats are quick, the tempo is fast.

How To Find the Beat

The first step in finding the beat of music is to listen for the stronger beats. Sometimes you might hear a group of four beats, with the first beat seeming a little louder than the next three. Beats in music are often counted in a number series from one through eight. To break it down, we will just think about the first four.

Look at the following set of beats:

ONE two three four
ONE two three four

Now try clapping your hands to the stronger, louder beat and stomping your feet to the next three weaker beats. You should be clapping once and stomping three times. This is the beat.

The pattern varies with different songs. You may also often hear the strong beat alternating with the softer beat, one after the other:

one TWO three  FOUR

Having Trouble?

Start with a song that has a strong percussion component (that's the drums). Some songs, such as some classical or acoustic, don't have drums, which can make it extra challenging for newbies to hear the beat. 

One of the biggest challenges with hearing the beat is it can get lost in the other sounds of the music. Try to ignore the singing and other instruments and focus only on the drums. Tap your hand or clap to the beat of the drums. 

Apply It to Dancing

Many forms of dance count the beat in “eight counts.” This is just what it sounds like. You count each beat until you get to eight and then start over again. This helps break down dance sequences and movements into smaller, manageable chunks (because many songs are written in 4:4 time, which means there are four beats in a measure. This is referring to how the music is written).

If you need help with eight counts, first listen to and find the pulse of the music. Then begin counting the strongest beats, from one to eight, and start over again.

Many dance classes start an eight count with 5-6-7-8. This is just a way to get everyone on the same page, so everyone starts counting one at the same time. 

If you're having a hard time applying the counting to the beats, practice by writing the numbers one through eight on a piece of paper. Tap the numbers with your finger to the beat of the music and get used to associating counting to the beat. Over time, it will become so natural that you won't have to think about it. 

Keep Practicing

The best way to become good at finding the beat is to listen to lots of music. Listen for the drums and tap your fingers or clap along with them. With time and practice, you will soon be keeping time to music without even trying. You can then apply that knowledge to improve your dancing.