Every Millisecond Matters

West Coast Swing Online Musicality & Timing

When we dance, we generally think about timing in terms of beats of music or large subdivisions of the beat: & counts or &a if we’re being really precise. But humans can be much more accurate.

Just how much more accurate? About two hundred times more. Just ask Larry Mullen, Jr.

You may not recognize Mullen’s name, but you’ve almost certainly heard him play. He’s the percussionist for U2.

When Mullen was working in the studio for “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” he was recording while listening to the rest of the band and a click track—a computer-generated beat to keep all the musicians in sync when they record their parts separately. Mullen complained that the click track didn’t match up with the rest of the band’s parts. Although the producer, Brian Eno, was certain that the click track was on time—after all, the rest of the band had recorded with it just fine—Mullen insisted that it wasn’t right.

To humor Mullen, Eno decided to adjust the click track ever so slightly. Now Mullen said that he went too far, and so Eno adjusted it back in the other direction, all the while undoubtedly thinking that Mullen needed to get over himself. Finally, Mullen was satisfied and proceeded to record his track.

Afterwards, Eno decided to double-check the equipment, and while doing so he discovered that Mullen was right: the click track was initially off. It was off by six milliseconds. When Mullen asked Eno to bring the track back the other direction, it was off by just two milliseconds. Just imagine breaking a single second into 500 parts. Mullen could hear the difference made by just one of those 500 parts.

It’s true that Mullen is a world-class musician, and even among that group he’s elite for his ability to keep time. But think about how much more precise your dancing could be if you worked to achieve even a tenth of his timing ability. If you want to be an amazing dancer, don’t limit yourself to gross subdivisions of the beat. Counting &a1&a2 will get you started, but really moving through the beat requires an awareness of many more points between the beats.

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