One of the biggest challenges most people have when they take up social dancing later in life is timing. There are numerous reasons for this, but the biggest contributor to your difficulty with timing is that you have probably picked up certain habits when listening to music that are not congruent with staying in time with music. The worst of these is listening to the lyrics more than the music.
If you do not know how to play an instrument, which would true for most of us, then the lyrics are easiest thing to listen to sync with. Because of this, after years of listening to music with a focus on the lyrics, your ability to keep time has not been exercised. In fact, without this exercise, your ability to keep time has probably regressed.
Many people who talk about musicality talk about the need to break the habit of listening to the lyrics and then focusing on the music. Some techniques for this are listening to music that has no lyrics – such as a lot of social dance music. The issue with this is that it might be hard to listen to such music for extended period – you simply might not like it enough.
It would be best if you could actually listen to the music that you like listening to to develop your ability to hear the timing in music. It would be even better if you could use your tendency to listen to lyrics to develop this skill too.
There is a way that you can do this.
I came across this method after talking to the owner of a music shop. I originally was looking for book on the basic theory of music so that I could develop my musicality further by having a solid base. I spoke the owner about what I was trying to do and explained that it was for partner dancers who wanted to improve their timing. This was the first time that he had ever heard of such a thing – I think he was so into music that the thought of having trouble dancing to it was alien to him. He mentioned the traditional methods such as clapping with a metronome, but as we spoke about it more he realised that the issue was not so much having rhythm, but actually hearing the beat in the music.
As we spoke about the nature of the issue, he showed me a range of books that each had a collection of sheet music for a variety of songs. Each book had a theme: hits of a year or a decade, style (jazz, swing, heavy metal etc.), artists and things like that. The thing about the sheet music is that it also has the lyrics – lined up with the music. This means that if you know how to read sheet music and you have it for a song you like listening to, then you can use the lyrics to spot the points within the song that bars start. This makes it easier to find the 1 beat.
And that’s basically the method.
- Buy a book of sheet music of songs that you like.
- Listen to the song with the sheet music.
- Look for words in the lyrics that line up with the start of a bar.
- Listen for when the word is sung and also listen for features of the music that change at the same time.
As you do this, you will become better at hearing the start of bars. You can then start counting the beats in bars. Soon you will be able to pick the start of each bar by listening to the music and counting in time. The key is that because you started off with the lyrics, you were able to start with your strengths to do this. It is also more fun because you’re listening to music you like and you get to find out what the actual lyrics are instead hoping you sing along correctly with the song.
The shop owner also said that you are better off buying printed and properly published books of sheet music. This sheet music is approved by the artists and checked numerous times before publishing. Many of the sources you find online are not checked, and have numerous mistakes. Also, if you need learn the basics of sheet music, then the stores that sell the sheet music will also stock books on the basics so that you can read the sheet music. You need not go to a music store either, you can buy published books online.
This is probably the one that most people would like – it has songs of different styles, from different years and by different bands.
I actually listed to the first song (Babylove by the Supremes) a few times over while looking at the sheet music. It was remarkable to me to start being able to pick how the lyrics were starting with the first beat at times and then the second beat at other times. It’s good when you can count the music while following the sheet and see the words coming up on the right count.
If you do need to learn more about sheet music, then I have found Mark Harrison’s Contemporary Music Theory (level one) an easy to read with a good coverage. It has a lot more than what you need as a dancer, but that’s what you would expect from a music book. I like having it as a reference..