Musicality for WCS: Learning Major Phrases
Music is written in major phrases.
Many contemporary songs are written in 32-beat phrases, or 4 sets of 8 beats; blues music that follows the 12-bar blues progression occurs in 48-beat phrases, or 6 sets of 8 beats. Understanding these phrases is a key to good musicality for west coast swing.
Each major phrase ends by resolving to the tonic.
The tonic is the key, or base, of the song.
When musicians play the tonic after doing a bunch of other stuff, the result is a harmonious sound that releases, or resolves, the tension that had been building up.
Because the resolve is a powerful moment in the song, as west coast dancers we want to be aware of when that resolve occurs so we can acknowledge it in our dancing and improve our musicality for west coast swing.
To learn how to listen for the tonic, you can practice a brief line dance.
The dance starts with your weight on your right foot.
Begin by taking slow walks for 16 beats: walk (hold 2) walk (hold 4), walk (hold 6) walk (hold 8), and repeat.
For the third set of 8, point out to the side on the odd beat and then bring the foot back in on the even beat.
So, you will point left 1, step your left next to your right on 2, point right 3, step your right next to your left 4, and so on for 8 beats.
The final 8 gets a little trickier.
Point forward with your left on 1. Hold beat 2.
On the & of beat 2, step your left next to your right and point your right forward for 3.
Again, hold beat 4.
On the & of 4, step your right together with your left, and point your left out for 5.
Now, keep moving every half beat: on the & of 5, step your left together, on 6 point your right forward, on & step your right together, on 7 point left forward, on & step left together, on 8 point right forward, and on & step right together.
This line dance, emphasizes all the main resolves in a 32-beat phrase. The busy-ness in the final 4 beats obviously resolves into the tonic on the 1 of the next phrase.
There are also changes after 16 beats (which is a minor resolve), and the dance builds energy through the entirety of the last 8 beats in order to really accent the resolve on the next 1.
Watch an abbreviated version of this drill.
Our Ultimate Guide to Musicality Video Course includes 17 videos all related to mastering musicality for west coast swing.
When you are comfortable with the dance itself, try dancing beginning on the new phrase for a song that’s perfectly phrased. (A great practice song is Heather Headley – Fallin’ For You; start dancing at the “you” of “I’m falling for you.”)
Musicality for WCS: Identifying Musical Phrases
When you learned WCS, you learned to distinguish downbeats and upbeats.
In musical terms, the downbeat and upbeat are quarter note rhythms: they take up a quarter of a measure, which is the division used in musical scores.
A single measure of music for WCS songs takes four beats: a downbeat, an upbeat, another downbeat, and another upbeat.
(There are exceptions to the previous sentence, but we’ll set those aside for the moment.)
WCS music is generally phrased over two measures, or eight beats.
Each eight-beat phrase is the musical equivalent of a sentence.
Most verses, for instance, have a natural break every eight beats.
For instance, listen to Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel
(Sentence:) Hey pretty baby with the high heels on
(Sentence:) You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known
(Sentence:) You’re just a product of loveliness
(Sentence:) I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress
You can hear the musical sentences or lyrical phrases continue throughout the song. Now it’s time to count them.
How to practice this!
Listen to a song phrased in perfect eight-beat phrases, like The Way You Make Me Feel.
Count the eights: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, [repeat].
Your goal is to train yourself to hear and feel the beginning of a new set of eight.
If you don’t have previous musical training, it will take a while to master this drill. That’s ok!
Being able to quickly identify the 1 of a new phrase is extremely important for musical phrasing, so it’s worth spending time on this skill.
Want to learn all of this on video? You’ll love our “Ultimate Guide to Musicality”
So far, you have spent a lot of time listening to music and counting out musical phrases while trying to master musicality for west coast swing. However, counting to 32 or 48 is not realistic when you’re actually dancing, and counting to 8 can even be difficult during tricky patterns. The next drill is designed to allow you to find the phrases even when you haven’t been counting the whole song.
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It’s the single most important concept for musicality for west coast swing!
The Drill: Pick a WCS song and hit play. In your music player, scroll to a random point in the song. You now have no idea where you are in the musical paragraph or even sentence. Your goal is simple: listen to the accents, chord changes, and other clues to find the new 1, and resume counting.
Once you’ve counted enough to be confident that you did find the 1 of the sentence, scroll to another point in the song. A good starting goal is to identify where you are in the musical sentence within 8 beats; if you can do it in 4, you are doing awesome!
Do you know these 4 things to listen for in WCS Music?
Bonus Variations: When hearing sentences becomes easy, do the same drill but try to identify which set of 8 you are in within the musical paragraph. If you can get back into the count within 2 sets of 8, you are doing well; if you can do it in 1 set of 8, you are a rock star. If you can do it in 4 beats or less you’re probably not reading this 😉
What’s the next step in musicality for west coast swing? Adding this to your patterns!
Learn to apply this to your patterns with our article “Acknowledging the 1 in your patterns”
More advanced? Learn to dance to layers within the music
For an in-depth breakdown of a song, read dancing to musical layers. This article isn’t easy work but if you’re really trying to understand details in the music. This will be helpful.