Music Structure: Variations

We’ve looked at how to understand and anticipate how most ballroom dance music is structured, so we can improve timing and musicality. But most songs won’t follow those rules perfectly. Today, we look at some of the little variations made within ballroom dance music structure.

The Early Phrase

In a perfect world, the downbeat, vocals, or ‘emphasis’ in the music all coincide with the ‘1’ of the music, making it easy to spot and step to. Musicians aren’t interested in making your life easy however, and often start playing an instrument, or singing, just before the ‘1’, that is, at the end of the previous phrase. A great example is the vocals in Harry McCormick Jr.’s ‘One Fine Thing’ (starting at 0:23).

Harry McCormick Jr.’s ‘One Fine Thing’

To keep from getting confused, focus on another instrument that stays consistent; in this case, the drum and high-hat (making a ‘boom, tic’ sound in the background). If you count carefully, you’ll notice the instrumental phrase repeats every 4 ‘booms’ (listen to the piano). The first boom in the phrase (just after he starts singing a verse) is the ‘1’.

Ad-libbing the Sections

Frequently, ballroom dance music will make use of ad-libbing, meaning part of the vocals or instruments deviate from an established melody to add intensity and variation. In some cases, the pattern can vary so much, it might trick you into thinking you are in the bridge, or an alternative chorus. Listen to the first build in Nelly Furtado’s ‘I’m Like a Bird’ (0:44), followed by the last ad-libbed one (2:33).

Nelly Furtado’s ‘I’m Like a Bird’

As with early phrasing, the secret lies in finding something in the music that stays relatively consistent (again, listen for the drum set) to stay on time. In this case, the lyrics stay the same, so we can still recognize the build-up to the chorus.

The Cool Down

An easier-to-explain variation in ballroom dance music is an optional tail-end for the chorus, before the next verse begins. We’ll call it ‘the Cool-Down’, for now.

The Cool Down is a short piece of music that smooths the transition of energy from a chorus back down to the next verse. It can sometimes be a repeat of the intro, or it can be completely different from the other sections of the song. Listen to the guitar riff just after the chorus in ‘Gimme Sympathy’ by Metric (1:19) to get the idea.

So if it feels like the chorus has completed, but the next vocals haven’t started yet, don’t panic: keep following that drum beat, and maybe pull off something slow and dramatic until the vocals start again.

Musical Breaks

When I was first learning to dance salsa and merengue, one of the most frustrating tricks the music would play on me would be to suddenly remove the baseline and continue with only the vocals, or sometimes just a few sharp accents for me to find my way. A particularly challenging version of this is in the beginning of Ismael Rivera’s ‘Las Caras Lindas’.

Ismael Rivera’s ‘Las Caras Lindas’

When this happens, you have two options.
The first is try to maintain the tempo until the beat returns (like trying to walk a straight line with your eyes closed – as you practice, you’ll gradually be able to do it longer). The second option is to fit something dramatic into your dance that you can hold for the duration of the break, like a tango Corte, or a dip.

At the very least, you should now be a lot more familiar with where ballroom dance music can trip you up. In our final section, we will be discussing types of dance music that completely deviates from the intro-verse-chorus-etc. we described in part one.