The Musicality Myth

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This is something that has been nagging at me for a while now, but I feel that I’ve consolidated my thoughts sufficiently to write something about it.  This article is about musicality.

I invite you to consider the notion that musicality does not exist.  It only exists in the minds of some.  What first prompted me to start questioning the whole concept of musicality is that, every time I have a discussion with another dancer about musicality, at some point we get down to defining terms.  However, everyone I speak to has a different definition of what musicality means.  For me, this was enough to start ringing alarm bells.  If we can’t agree on what musicality actually is, how can anyone argue that such a thing even exists?

When I talk to other dancers about musicality, despite the the lack of a universally agreed definition, some common threads emerge.  Ideas that are commonly mentioned in reference to musicality are:

  • Connecting to the music
  • Having a relationship with the music
  • Moving rhythmically to the music
  • Grooving with the music
  • Accentuating the breaks and/or hits  in the music
  • Dancing with feeling to the music
  • Reflecting the vibe/mood of the music
  • Telling a story through the music
  • Dancing to a particular instrument or vocal in the music
  • Dancing as another instrument of the band

I think it’s fair to say there’s some truth to most, if not all, of these ideas, and that these ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  However, then I started thinking.  Aren’t these concepts what dancing is supposed to be about anyway?  In other words, if you’re not doing any of these things, are you even dancing in the first place?  I mean, do you even dance?

Then it occurred to that the idea of musicality only exists because, for some people,dancing has been distilled down to a set of steps, techniques and/or movement patterns.  The way dancing is commonly taught today, the musicality (music) in dancing is separated out from the physicality of dancing, processed, and then, musicality (music) is considered and added back in, after the fact.  This is a bit like bread with added fibre.  It sounds like it’s healthy, but it’s really not.  You can’t remove essential nutrients from food, process it, add some nutrients back in later, and expect to have the same healthy, quality food source.  By the same token, you can’t extract musicality (music) from dancing, process it, add music back in later, and expect the quality not to be affected.

In my opinion, it is only because the way that dance is commonly taught has been bastardised, and this has caused the people within the dance industry to perpetuate concepts such as musicality.  Dancing to the music is not an “add-on”.  It’s not a module or class you take as part of a dance qualification, after you’ve completed dance 101, 201, and 301.  It is integral to dancing.  It is dancing.  If you are dancing without acknowledging the music, then you are not dancing.  Musicality is dancing, and dancing is musicality.  There is no separation between the dance and the music.  Any perceived separation is an illusion.

The second idea I’d like to challenge is that musicality can be taught.  Even if one can make a case that musicality does in fact exist, I don’t believe it can be taught.  However, I believe musicality (music) can be learned.  Wait a minute, how can something be learned, but not taught?  I believe that the expression of all of the ideas, feelings and emotions that music evokes can be learned (or perhaps discovered is a better word), but I don’t believe that any teacher can teach musicality to an individual.  Expression of music is a highly subjective and personal experience.  The best any teacher can do, is expose student to various possibilities, and provide channels through which to access these ideas, feelings and emotions.  However, the actual expression, and learning this process, can only be undertaken by the individual.  A great teacher can open doors, but each individual must step (or is that dance) through the door themselves.

So what can teachers do about this?  While I don’t believe it’s possible to teach musicality, I absolutely believe it’s possible to teach about music.  After all, the key word in musicality is music.  I have heard some teachers say that it’s not possible to teach music to beginners, that they won’t get it.  Too often I’ve observed musicality classes and workshops targeted at more advanced dancers.  Some people believe that beginners can’t understand or appreciate music, or that they will be bored by it.  I think that sells people short.  I believe that, even with zero formal musical background, if a person can count to 4, clap their hands and hum a basic tune, then they can learn to appreciate music to a reasonably sophisticated level.  There aren’t many people I know who lack these abilities.  If a student demonstrates an inability learn about music, I think that reflects more on the knowledge and ability of the teacher, rather than the student.

So what can dance teachers do, make music a part of every single class?  Here are some ideas:

  • When you play a song in class, afterwards mention the song name and artist(s), as well as one thing that is notable about the song.  This takes about 5-10 seconds, so there’s no excuse not to do it.  It gets students familiar with artists and their music, and encourages them to explore and find their own connection to the music they love.
  • During the warm up, or when demonstrating techniques for students, don’t just dance through the breaks.  Try and honour the music in some way, even if it means occasionally having to deviate slightly from the pattern being taught.  Students will get to see first hand how more advanced dancers play with the music, instead of just dancing set patterns.  I believe the importance of this “learning through osmosis” approach cannot be overstated.
  • If you’re teaching a pattern, at the end of class, demonstrate it once with counts and then again to music with flavour, so students can see the difference between moving to counts versus dancing to the music.  You can also add a few bars of freestyle at the very end for inspiration, and to expose students to further possibilities.  I love it when teachers do this, and I wish teachers would do this more often.
  • Each week, encourage one student to bring in a song that they like and play it at the end of class, then ask them to very briefly talk about what that particular song means for them.
  • Let your students know when relevant artists are performing in your town.  You could even organise a group of you to go and check out some live music.
  • If you have a a warm-down or practice time at the end of class, quiz your students on what you told them at the beginning of class.  That is, what is the name of the song and the name of the artist(s)?  Again, this only takes a few seconds, but over time this will seep into their consciousness, and encourage them to appreciate the music.

Try and make musical interpretation and appreciation a part of every single class, from beginners to master classes.  It doesn’t have to be an hour long, sit-down lecture.  Often, it only takes a few seconds, but, over time, this will make a huge difference in how students relate to music.

What can you do, as a student of dance, to learn more about music?  There are lots of things you can do.  Here are some ideas:

  • Pick some of your favourite songs and dig down on them.
  • Find out who different artists are, and learn a little about their culture and background and how they came to create the music you love.
  • Listen to the lyrics, and translate them if necessary, to gain a deeper understanding of what songs are really about.
  • Actively listen to certain songs many times over and try to isolate different instruments and voices within the music.
  • Broaden your musical tastes by listening to jazz, classical, hip-hop, rap, country and folk music.
  • Attend live music performances.  You can learn a great deal about music from watching musicians play live.
  • Talk to local musicians about their music.  Many of them will happily talk for hours about their music, because they don’t often get asked about it.
  • Join a local choir.
  • Learn to play an instrument.  I’ve found that guitar is quite easy for beginners to pick up, and you can buy a suitable second hand guitar for $100-200.  There is a vast amount of free information available online.  You can play a lot of your favourite songs using only a handful of chords.  In my experience, nothing will teach you more about music than learning to play an instrument.

All of these suggestions can help you better appreciate music.  Note that none of these ideas mention anything about taking a dance class or musicality class, and these ideas don’t have to cost a lot of money.

In summary, I invite you to forget about musicality.  Consider that there is no such thing as musicality.  There is only music.  Try and focus on making music a part of dancing every single time you dance and see what a difference this makes.

15 Comments

  • Thanks for the article Paul. Good stuff. I really liked when you said “don’t just dance through the breaks. Try and honour the music in some way, even if it means occasionally having to deviate slightly from the exact pattern being taught. Students will get to see first hand how advanced dancers play with the music, instead of just dancing set patterns”.

    I believe a huge component of learning musicality is becoming familiar with many songs. This helps in two ways. When you know the song being played you know where the brakes are going to be. You also learn the musical patterns to be able to detect when I break is approaching. That applies to songs that you don’t know yet. You can hear the changes in the instruments to know that a break is near.

  • Shane says:

    Very intriguing post, Paul. Someone on reddit linked this in /r/salsa. I replied back to it.

    https://www.reddit.com/r/Salsa/comments/50iudh/the_musicality_myth/d76vjd0

  • DancerInLearning says:

    I disagree. Just because something is hard to explain does not mean it does not exist. There are lots of things where a strict definition does not exist. It does make it harder to talk about it since there are slightly differing views, still it can be important to talk about them.

    You can dance without any music at all, moving around to your own rhythm if that is your fancy. I will not be the one claiming that that isn’t dancing. Using such a narrow minded definition of dance is in my opinion counter productive. But I do agree that most of us think that music and dance have a very interconnected relationship.

    Still you can dance to music but not really dancing to the subtle nuances of that music. And for me this is what musicality is trying to help out with. Different styles of music are built in different ways and musicality tries to break that down in a way that a non-musician dancer can use the music to their advantage. When we start out dancing we usually follow the beat slavishly, or at least try to. When we progress (hopefully) we learn to play with the dance moves to better suit the music being played, whether or not it is breaks etc. Please note that I am NOT talking about learning different songs to “know where the breaks are”. That is memorizing, and something entirely different from musicality. I can hear slightly in advance in many bachata songs where and when a break, timing change, etc are coming. I cannot explain exactly if I hear it in the guira, bongo or any other instrument. But I hear it in songs I have never heard before. (The same with kizomba, although it often has a much simpler structure so most people that knows just little about how kizomba music are built can do the same. I have not yet achieved that proficiency with salsa music, but am working on it.)

    If I was a fully taught bachata musician perhaps I could say what it is, but as a dancer I do not need to know exactly what musical pattern precedes such a change in the music, as long as I can detect it.

    Your advice to improve knowledge on music are solid but overshoots the target. In order to be a good photographer you do not NEED to know how a camera works on a technical level. But if you DO you CAN use that knowledge to improve your shooting. That does not mean that your shooting WILL improve just because you know about the technical details of photography, but it MAY. I believe that the same relationship exists between many other disciplines, and music/dancing is another one. You can be an accomplished musician, but that does not mean that you are a great dancer. You probably will have 1-up on some aspects of dancing compared to someone without any musical schooling at all. In the field where I work we have a saying “you get better at what you train”. It might seem like a tautology, but it more subtle than that. If you want to excel at something you need to work on that. To be a more skilled runner you must run. Improving other aspects, like lifting weights and improving flexibility will most likely help you too, but you will have a hard time to be a good runner if you JUST lift weights/do yoga and NEVER run. The same with dancing: in order to be a good dancer you must dance, learning more about music will help you but just learning about music will not make you a great dancer. So focus your time on what will help you the most, and this is where musicality comes in, as a “lite” version of music theory.

    I also believe that musicality can be learned, but I do not agree that it cannot be taught. It is hard to teach though, just the same as with photographical composition. There are theories and pointers to help out but you are essentially trying to convey feelings, and since feelings are subjective it is hard to get them down precisely. You can give advice on what evokes these feelings. It is not a fool proof recipe, still used properly it can help you on the way. You yourself hint at this by saying the teacher can expose the students to various possibilities. Since every dancer has their own expression they must themselves find their own personal style. This is not unique to teaching dance. It is in fact the very essence of teaching: No teacher can teach you anything unless you, the student, are willing to learn. The teachers are just guides helping you along your own travel along the road.

    I have taken a few musicality classes at congresses, and from each class I got a small nugget of wisdom that has furthered my knowledge. No class has given me the complete insight though. Still, I value them.

    Your point on dance teaching being barstardised is a bit harsh and avoids the most troubling aspect of teaching: You cannot, I repeat CANNOT, give a beginner the full rundown. Somehow you have to break down a very complex problem into smaller pieces and teach them each in a sequence. Years of teaching dance has resulted in the methods we use today. Are they optimal? Probably not, but sufficiently good and perhaps someone will find better methods. Are they the only way to slice the problem into smaller, easily digested chunks? No. But it seems the are the way most students find them easy to learn. Go back to when you started to learn math in first grade. At first you only had positive numbers. Later on you learned that there was a number zero. Then that there were negative numbers, fractions, irrational numbers and imaginary numbers. At each level you were taught the “truth” at that level. The next level was based on the previous levels. If you start teaching imaginary numbers to a first grader, you will probably see that it is hard to make them grasp the concept. This is the same with anything. You learn the basics before you advance. You might argue that music (or musicality) should be taught at every level, as an integral part of dance. If that is what this article is all about, I am slightly more inclined to to agree with you and actually think this is what is being done today. If you are like me, someone that grew up in a place without any dance and as an adult trying to learn how to dance – think back to your very first formal dance lesson, trying to learn which foot to place in front of which, music(ality) wasn’t even on my list of priorities. I had too much going on at the time. The only musicality taught at that level was to take the steps to the beat. That was the appropriate level at the time. The songs being played at those classes were simple, without breaks etc that would confuse us students.

    Perhaps it is very simple and musicality just is a dumbed down version of music theory targeted for dancers. But if that is what makes dancers use the music better, I am all for it.

  • DancerInLearning says:

    Sorry for the lack of formatting, all the paragraphs got lost when posting my last post :-/

  • HB says:

    A very well done article on a very important subject. I loved it. Thanks!

  • Laura says:

    I’m with DancerInLearning. Musicality can be taught. But, it’s not ‘simple’ to teach, because it involves teaching students how to understand and interpret for themselves.

    Conversely, some people are unable to ‘discover’ musicality without being taught what to look for. Some of that has to do with understanding how music is structured, but much of it is learning how to control and move their body to what they’re already hearing.

    This is a learned skill.

  • Paul Ski says:

    The way I think of it is this. A dancer is just a musician who uses their body as the instrument for musical and self expression. The problem is that the way dance is commonly taught has been disconnected from music. Many newbies learn movements first, sometimes for years, without much, if any connection, to music (and culture, which are inseparably linked, in my opinion). If you ask a musician, did they learn “musicality”, they’ll probably look at you strangely. The might learn theory, improvisation, or particularly styles, such as jazz or classical, but they don’t learn anything referred to as “musicality”, they just learn about music. The fact that you, as a dancer, have to take musicality classes, is a sign that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. My opinion, and this is an opinion piece, is that music should come first, and be an integral part of dance classes. I believe people dance to, and because of, music, not the other way around.

    So my point isn’t so much about it being a learned skill, it that music is separate from dance in the first place. Dancers who are learning “musicality” are really just learning “music”, and using their body to express this.

    Learn music, not musicality.

    Peace

  • Mick from Australia says:

    In Australian social salsa dancing classes, the reasons for attendance in no particular order are depression (I just got divorced), obesity (my doctor told me to find a fun way to exercise), loneliness (see depression), hot women (see loneliness), hot men (no sex in the final 15 years of marriage).

    Note for USA readers: this is a piece of Australian irony, lashed with a twisted sense of humour. Please forgive.

    People in Australia who love salsa music to the extent of listening to it as they drive to work each day, and can name all the instruments in Spanish, are as rare as Aussie salsa dancers who know what descarga is.

    When Oliver Pineda spent an hour explaining some musical basics to our group, the majority regarded it as boring (and they had to stop talking).

    So spare a thought for Australian salsa teachers, half know nothing about the music themselves, and the rest are busy providing an important social service where music is only background noise.

  • Fred says:

    When I was learning salsa, it would have probably destroyed my love of salsa if any teacher had tried to talk to me a lot about musicality!! I’d say it can probably be taught to beginners, but not the way it might be done with more advanced students.
    If you want to destroy peoples’ love for salsa, do such things as explain such more challenging concepts a lot. It’s called “motivation.”
    The key is to provide enough information to challenge students, but not discourage them! They need to see some success. Then, as they progress, more detailed and challenging concepts can be introduced. “Musicality” may sound like a simple concept, but to a beginner it can be a deal breaker!
    I remember when I was a learner, like many people, i attended classes where teachers attempted to explain to students what “On 2” was!! And, I’ve over the years also tried to explain it to friends etc. It almost ALWAYS doesn’t work! I’ve seen so many very creative teachers try to explain it, and I see students nearly nodding off always!! The best way I’ve seen to learn it, is by simply DOING IT!! The explanation comes along somewhat later!!! It’s just better to DO it!!
    Anything to do with EXPLAINING such concepts too much is not advisable. It is better to DO as much as possible, or emphasize learning by doing!! Just have students do it, do it, and do it, and then as they go along explain it, especially these days where we are all impatient.
    One can do more explaining for more advanced students who already have many concepts done and can appreciate the explanation, but for newer dancers it is likely to be a negative and a de-motivater!! It’s that way not just in salsa, but in any form of learning!!
    Now, I look at videos of explanations on youtube etc, and understand them, but there’s no way they’d have made sense years ago when i was totally new. Can “musicality” be taught? I think it can. However, one needs to keep in minds that it also likely won’t look the same for everyone! Everyone has their own signature styling! The goal should not be, and isn’t to have everybody doing things a given way. It is to enable dancers to better appreciate and bring out their unique individual inner interpretation of the music. And, this takes time. Of course, it can’t be taught in one or two classes. This appreciation comes over time, as one spends more time dancing salsa, even years. Often, we make the mistake of thinking classes alone teach us the skills and that’s it. I think class time alone isn’t adequate. To really learn and bring out ourselves in the music and dance takes time and repetition. It’s not a microwaveable process through a class. But classes, in my view, do help this process. For me personally, classes have helped, but they’ve not been enough. In my experience what has pushed me over the hilltop, if one may, or really taught me, is to go out dancing, and doing so OFTEN!!!
    Repetition and practice at dances and parties, for me, is what has made a difference. I am not a pro or i am not super great dancer, but I think I’ve gotten to where I can have some reasonable fun, and I can, and hopefully will continue learning. So, I’d encourage and recommend classes, but I think one has to supplement the classes by partying!! You gotta dance and practice at parties if you want to take it to the next level, in my view!! Classes are great, but when you also party, you see it in practice and put it yourself in practice. You learn what works for YOU and what doesn’t, or how you might make it work or modify it your way. You see how other dancers pull it off etc etc.
    Also, in terms of musicality one problem there is for students who don’t go out often enough, or haven’t danced else where, especially in larger cities, especially NYC for mambo dancers, or Havana or Miami for Cuban salsa folks. I think dancing in these places helps one realize and understand what creativity and musicality is really about: it’s not about looking a given way or like others! People there do it all sorts of ways, so it helps one harness their own take on it and make it work. When you go to a Jimmy Anton social, you’ll see people who don’t give a crap about looking like everybody or others. They just do it their way, and it looks great!!! I think it helps learn and understand what musicality implies!!

  • Fred says:

    I think it can be taught. If it can be learned, it sure can be taught.
    The question, I think, is about the state of the factors that affect learning, like availability of time to teach or learn, the quality of the student or teacher etc.
    Many people might take an hour of classes a week, if they do, and others may take even many more. And then, it also likely depends on the quality of the student. Some students are quicker learners than others. And it likely also depends on the quality of teacher or even their motive in teaching. Some teachers may simply be trying to “milk” students. So, say, they teach tit bits each time, or prolong or obfuscate things, so that people just keep coming for classes but aren’t really getting anywhere. I’ve seen teachers all over the place where money seems to have clouded a good part of the dance, where students can’t even take a video of a pattern etc. We all probably know these teachers. Learning such a concept as musicality or the various other skills in such circumstances is likely to be a money pit with little positive results!! Unfortunately, salsa in many places has really turned into a bit of a money grab. I’ve been to places in NYC where they seem to nickel and dime dancers, you have to check in the jacket, check in the bag, check in the shoebag (cause of course, you have a shoebag for your lovely salsa shoes, right!? You’re not carrying them in your hands on the subway or London underground, right!?) And then, I’ve been to a place like Jimmy Anton’s social, or Solas in NYC where they don’t seem to charge you for these things, and seem to be more interested in you coming to have a nice evening out etc etc.
    And even then it’s one thing to learn things in class and another to get them into practice in the social dance. So, one has to be able to transfer them, which takes going out more and trying them out.
    So, I see no reason why musicality can’t be taught, if one has the right teacher under the right learning and teaching circumstances. Don’t expect to be better at it in a week, if you’ve never heard of salsa, and never danced a day in your life, never even been in a dance posture. On the other hand, if a student is new at salsa, but has ballroom training, or modern dance training, or some physical activity/body motion training, and is so eager and interested to learn, is investing a lot of time in class, out of class, is a party animal, is talented in terms of movement etc, they’re likely to learn scary fast. We probably have seen some of these people. It’s all relative. We are used to current western style learning and teaching, which is often governed by the clock, cause it exists in a commercial sense or culture or system. But other cultures or even western culture itself often didn’t and don’t learn or approach learning this way. Lawyers used to “apprentice” for years in the US in colonial times, or even doctors. Now it’s all in a “class” and it has a restricted time, beyond which we seem to have assumed it can’t be taught or learned. I have an American friend who’s a monk, and he’s been studying to be a monk in a Tibetan temple or “university” for nearly 20 years!! He speaks Tibetan, and even writes and reads the stuff!! Its just so unbelievable!! Its more difficult than rocket science!! But, he loves it, he’s devoted his life to it!! They even have painting students who learn to paint the old apprentice way, they’ve done so for years. In that form of learning, one is very likely to learn, cause it’s not a one-size-fits-all learning/teaching system.
    So, learning and teaching I think depends on all these factors. I wouldn’t rule out anybody being able to train and learn, if the right conditions exist.

  • Pierre says:

    Musicality is the ability to convey a deeper understanding of the music – it’s mood, it’s sentiment, it’s meaning. That may come from a subjective interpretation but, when done properly, it evokes that same understanding in your audience, whether it be a crowded auditorium, a panel of judges, your social dance partner or even yourself.

    The key word is “understanding”. You can dance to the music without understanding it. Many social dancers do not understand salsa music or bachata music but they still perform their moves and patterns with varying degrees of competence and in blissful ignorance of the finer details of the music.

    The reason that you know that someone has musicality is because they evoke an emotional response that resonates between you and the music.

  • Melissa West-Koistila says:

    Great article!!

  • Nice attempt, but I disagree with your article almost entirely. I teach Musicality workshops all over the world. It is one of my most popular workshops.

    It’s easy to teach and learn, if you know how.

  • Paul Ski says:

    This is an opinion piece. You are entitled to disagree. However, a more constructive response might have been to respond to the points in the article.

  • Jonny D says:

    To an extent, I agree with this article.

    I think the crux of the article is that musicality, ultimately, can be disseminated down to a purely subjective stance, based on emotions and personal feelings. Whether that invokes empathy in others is a separate consideration entirely. But if something is so inherently personal, can it ever be a “universal truth” so to speak? And, as such, can one argue it doesn’t exist at all?

    Having read through the responses to this post, I think there are definite battle lines drawn here. My tuppence worth being that you CAN teach musical theory. You CAN teach musical styling and phrasing. You CAN teach the tools to somebody so they can interpret / appreciate / understand the music more than they currently do, for whatever style. However, the term “musicality” is for me a smokescreen – if you truly appreciate and dance “with” the music as opposed to “to” the music, you are a connected dancer.

    In closing, I think you can teach somebody the tools to appreciate music more but I’m not convinced that this teaching is actually teaching somebody musicality – I think musicality is a very personal thing. Sure, you can teach somebody how YOU interpret X, Y, Z and create lots of clones who think about things the same way you do but, given the whole artistry of social dancing is ultimately in the marrying up of technique with creativity (of which “music” provides the inspiration and canvas), somebody with what I’d class as “true” musicality haven’t been taught it, they’ve learned it for themselves (regardless of how helpful congresses, tutelage or direction have been).

    So objectively, I feel you can teach somebody HOW to be musical, so you can give somebody the tools to achieve musicality; subjectively, you cannot teach somebody something that’s ultimately a personal interpretation and understanding, rather you can guide and help them evolve to that point.

    Peace out,

    Jonny.

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