Musicality: Listening to Music

You’ve decided to start listening seriously to music in order to improve your dancing. Congratulations! This “drill” is designed to guide you through some essential elements to listen for in order to increase the quality of your musical interpretation. Although this list is not comprehensive, it should give you a solid foundation for analyzing west coast swing music.

Listening to west coast swing music

The Drill: Put your song on repeat and sit back. Listen for the following elements. After you’ve listened to the whole song a couple of times, don’t be afraid to pause and rewind the song a few seconds in order to hear a specific part over and over.

  1. What style of song is it? Are you listening to something smooth and lyrical, like John Mayer’s Free Fallin’, or something hard and fast like Usher’s Scream? A groovy jazz piece like High-Heel Sneakers by Urban Knights, or a passionate R&B like Mario’s How Do I Breathe?
  2. What is the musical structure? At this point, you should be listening for elements like rolling count/straight count, 32-beat vs. 48-beat phrases, whether the song follows a standard pop structure like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus, whether the song pulses the upbeats or has a relatively constant beat, etc. Danny Gatton’s Funky Mama has a very different structure from the latest pop hit; you should be able to explain that Gatton is doing variations on a theme rather than a verse-chorus structure.
  3. What instruments are featured? Every instrument suggests different colors and movements. The horn in Cleo’s Mood screams for a sharp hit of energy. The piano in Sweet Home Chicago creates a light yet energetic sound. Observe the textures created by the instrumentation and vocals.
  4. What are the repeated elements? Is there a repeated lyric, hook, or accent? Does the music have predictable hits? Is there a consistent build into a new phrase? Etta James uses a percussion build into the new phrases of Baby, What You Want Me to Do?; Junior Wells has the instruments except for the percussion die away for the last four beats of the phrase in Sweet Sixteen.
  5. Where are the contrasts in the song? Does the song change volume between the verse and the chorus? Does the tempo change? Does the style switch from staccato drums to legato vocals? Where does the song do these things—at the beginning of the new phrases, during the bridge only, or in the middle of the phrase? Usher’s More becomes quiet and feels like the tempo was cut in half at the bridge; Son of a Preacher Man has a subtle acceleration into the chorus.
  6. What are the lyrics? Are there brief moments where you can do what the song is describing? For instance, you can move perpendicular to the slot when Tomi sings, “Move it to the left” during Baby Get Down. Be creative!
  7. What in the song is unexpected? Are there beats tagged on to the end of a phrase? Is there an accent that is not repeated (or a repeated accent that doesn’t appear at some point)? Al Green freely adds notes to the phrase during Tired of Being Alone. During I Gotta Feeling, the Black Eyed Peas skip a repetition of a call-and-response “Boom boom!” Soul Serenade has a syncopated series of trumpet notes towards the end of the song.

What else is happening in the song? Is there a counter-melody in the background? Do the smooth vocals contrast with a tight rhythm section? If you eliminated the obvious parts of the song, what is left over? In Spankin’ Leroy, you can’t miss the breaks. But notice that during the breaks, there’s a gentle pulse on the upbeats, and later a synthesizer. You can make the exact same break look completely different by choosing to dance to one of those three elements (the break, the pulse, or the synthesizer).

Listen to Music More Frequently

How often have you watched an advanced dancer hit something in a song that you never knew was there before? Dancers with great musicality have the ability to bring out elements in a song that we’ve overlooked, and it seems magical. But it’s not—it’s actually a skill anyone can learn.

The Drill: The secret to hearing all those little nuances in a song is really straightforward. Listen to the song more. A lot more. Most of us listen to a song a couple of times, at most, before we move on to the next song. For this exercise, we’re going to listen well beyond that.

Pick a WCS song that you enjoy and give yourself at least 20 minutes. Put that song on repeat and simply pay attention to the song. This is not the time for multi-tasking: you don’t want to have your attention split between the song and the dishes. 20 minutes should be enough time for you to loop the song at least three or four times. This should give you a really solid feeling for what the overall feel of the song is.

Now we’re ready to get serious. For the next week, find as many opportunities to listen to that song as possible. Put on your iPod and play it while you’re taking out the trash. Play it while checking your email. Play it in the car. Your goal is to listen to that song at least 25 times during your week. Since most songs are between three and four minutes, you’re committing somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes to listening to one song. It’s a lot, but it will pay off!

Listen to the song in a variety of situations. Listen while there’s background noise, and when it’s quiet. Listen when the volume is a little higher, and when you can barely make out the song. In every environment, you can hear music slightly differently, so keep changing it up.

As you listen, you will discover little nuances in the song. It may be a syncopation in the bass line, a vocal inflection that changes before the second chorus, or an instrument coming in during a build. Keep listening! Being able to identify those nuances is essential to all-star level musicality. And, the bonus is that you’ll find it easier to pick up on those elements in other songs as you get more comfortable hearing them in one song.

Bonus Variations: If you really want to blow your mind, keep listening to that one song. Sprinkle some sessions of single-minded listening in with listening while you’re doing other things. Keep adding to the play count. Some songs are relatively simple and give up most of their secrets after 20 or so plays, but some really rich songs will still be revealing fascinating elements even after 100 plays. See how deeply you can get into an amazing song, and watch your musicality improve across the board.

 

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