So far in section one and section two, we’ve focused on changes in energy in ballroom dance songs, and how we can use this to determine the pace and predict where the song is going. But some styles of music can prove much more complicated then the intro-verse-chorus pattern we discussed earlier. To better understand these, we must learn about musical form.

An Introduction to Form

To understand what musical form is, think of a sandwich.

The slices of bread on the sandwich form the basic melody and tempo of a piece of music – we’ll call it the Rye Theme. The stuff in between the slices – ham, cheese, tomato and so on – compose elements of the song that vary from one musical phrase to the next.

They might include vocals, tempo, harmonies, and so on. If we change the sandwich ingredients without changing the overarching structure, it becomes a variation on the Rye Theme. An example of a song with a repeating Rye Theme would be the Animal’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’.

The basic melody is provided by the twanging guitar that starts in at the intro, and all the variations are just layered on top of it.

What if the underlying theme changes? That would be like replacing the rye bread on the sandwich with say, pumpernickel. Both Rye and Pumpernickel can have their own variations, but they are now clearly distinct from each other. Listen to the Beatles ‘Yesterday’ to get the idea.

The musical structure is Rye, Rye, Pumpernickel, Rye, Pumpernickel, Rye, with each section roughly 16 seconds long (ignoring the intro and conclusion). Some ballroom dance songs have even more themes and variations, as we will see below.

Samba, Salsa

Two of the more predictable Latin music styles, both types of ballroom dance songs usually stick with a single theme, with variations layered inside. For example, Sum Svistu ‘Lo-Lo Dzama’.

The structure here is almost entirely Rye, with pumpernickel providing a short musical solo around 1:43. Otherwise however, the song follows a completely different pattern from what we’re used to – for instance, where is the chorus?

Listen for musical breaks and solos in between sections, as they don’t always follow an 8-count.

Merengue and Tango

These ballroom dance songs use a lot more themes, but also have very pronounced downbeats, so it’s easier to count time with them then many other styles. Sticking with the sandwich metaphor, let’s add two more themes: Ancient Grain (AG), and Whole Wheat (WW).

Tango tends to change themes constantly, although the original theme is sometimes repeated later. Here is Stanley Black and Orchestra’s ‘Rosita’.

Here’s the structure: Rye x2, pumpernickel, AG, WW x2, WW x2 (w/ higher octave variation), instrumental fade out.

Finally, merengue with it’s fast tempo and subtle energy changes can be one of the hardest of the ballroom dance songs to follow. Listen to ‘Abraza la Flaca’ by Danzas Del Mundo.

The full structure is as follows (each section is 16 beats long): Rye x2, pumpernickel, rye x2, pumpernickel, rye x2, AG x2, AG (w/ variations) x3, rye x2, AG x2, AG (w/ variations) x3, rye x2, WW (w/ variations) x3, quick fade. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, several of the rye and AG sections actually begin midway through the previous section. Practice counting out loud until you catch the pattern.