As any dancer knows, the rhythm of Salsa music is an essential ingredient in making the music "live!" So here is some general information on the role of percussion instruments and rhythms in Salsa music and dance.

By Barbara Bernstein, Director of 
The Clave & other Percussion Rhythms
The Clave & other Percussion Rhythms
In the clave patterns below, the instrument is struck on the beats that are underlined in the 8 beat phrase.

3-2 Clave Rhythm

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

2-3 Clave Rhythm (also called "Reverse Clave")

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

Note the difference between the above two clave patterns. In the 3-2 clave rhythm, there are 3 clave beats that are hit in the first measure and only two in the second measure. In the 2-3 clave rhythm it is the reverse. In fact, we simply reverse the first and second measures to get from one clave rhythm to the other. The nature of the music determines which of these clave rhythms to use in a given song.

All other instruments have to be consistent or coordinated with the clave. This is sometimes referred to as "going with the clave." This coordination is essential because the clave is (literally) the "key" or foundation of the Salsa rhythm.

The following additional expressions underscore the importance of the clave: If a DJ "mixes songs on the clave," that means he goes from one song to another while maintaining the integrity of the clave. Likewise when dancers refer to "dancing on the clave," this means that the dancers' steps are consistent with the rhythmic underpinning of the music. (It does not mean that the dancer takes a step each time the clave is struck since dancers take 6 steps in 8 beats while the clave is struck only 5 times.)

There is a distinctive feel to each of the clave measures. The one in which 3 beats are struck creates a syncopation or tension. (The timing on these three notes is somewhat similar to the timing of playing three notes of even length in four beats of music---which is technically called "triplets." Triplets create rhythmic tension that is similar to the clave rhythm, and is a device used in other types of music.) By contrast, the clave measure with 2 beats is less syncopated and resolves the tension. Interestingly, the two beats that provide the resolution tend to be louder and more emphatic-sounding by their nature.
For further details on the content of the last two paragraphs, readers are encouraged to review the excellent material written by Steve Shaw at this web address.

Considering the very crucial role that the clave plays in Salsa music, it is a remarkably simple instrument. It was originally two pieces of wood that were hit against each other. These days there are also plastic claves which make quite a nice sound as well.

I want to add a couple "footnotes" of interest. I had a conversation with Edie, the Salsa Freak, about rhythm, and she told me something that really underscores the crucial role of the clave. She said that she has gone to jam sessions where there were drums playing but no clave. When she joined in with her clave, "all of a sudden it sounded like a Latin jam session! It changed the whole flavor of the sound."

I also spoke to Mike Bello and Charley Gerard who are both authors of major works in this field. (See the bibliography at the end of this paper.) In the course of these discussions, both men independently mentioned that the concept of a 3-2 clave and a 2-3 clave is an American construction. That is, in Cuba, musicians don't divide the clave rhythm into these two categories.

I was told that Cuban musicians would say that it just depends on where you start the melody. They grow up listening to these rhythms all their lives and become extremely accustomed to them. So they can easily identify which measure of the clave to play in a given section of music. The way they look at it, which measure you start on is of little consequence, hence the two clave rhythms are not really that distinct.

Drums such as congas or bongos generally hit all of the beats in the chart below, so the drums mark the underlying structure. However, certain beats are emphasized.

Note that the way a drummer hits each stroke is not identical. Drums can be hit in different spots, creating a rich and textured sound---something more interesting than just the even marking of beats.

A. The pattern below could be thought of as a simplified version of what a single conga drum might play. The underlined beats are accented (louder). The conga rhythm is called "tumbao."

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

B. And the pattern below could be thought of as a simplified version of what the bongos play during a Salsa piece. (In reality, there is an alternate sound also made on beats 4 and 8 on the bongos.) The name of the bongos' rhythm is "martillo" (which literally means hammer).

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

There are a number of rhythm patterns that can be struck on a cowbell. If a percussionist had one cowbell, he might strike it on the beats listed below.

1 2 and 3 4 and 5 6 7 8 and (for songs in 3-2 clave)

1 2 3 4 and 5 6 and 7 8 and (for songs in 2-3 clave)

Where and how the bell is struck determines whether the sound is high or low, strong or weak etc.---adding texture to the pattern. If the bell is held so that the opening is the lower part, then hitting the bell at the lower end produces a low tone. The top of the bell does not vibrate much and when hit there, the bell makes a high sound.

Photo by Jim Pesci
Salsa/Mambo dancing is done by taking three steps during four beats of music. The steps are most often taken on beats one, two, three, five, six, and seven, or on beats two, three, four, six, seven, and eight. Sometimes the timing is described as follows: "quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow" with the "quick" step representing one beat and the "slow" step representing two beats.

In an eight beat phrase, dancers generally change direction twice when doing the basic step. That is, they change from going forward to backwards and vice versa. This change of direction is referred to as the "break step."

If a dancer steps on one, two, three, five, six, and seven, and does the break steps on one and five, this is referred to as "dancing on one."

If the dancer steps on two, three, four, six, seven, and eight, while doing the break steps on two and six, then this is referred to as "dancing on two."

Note that a dancer can step on one, two, three, five, six, and seven while breaking on two and six. That would also be a form of "dancing on two." Eddie Torres is credited with the idea of having people start on beat one while doing the break step on beat two. Many people find it easier to begin dancing on beat one. This clever maneuver preserves the dancer's ability to start on the first beat, while still putting the break step, which has special importance, on beat two.
Because the break step is when the dancer changes direction, it is the body movement that is the "strongest" or most emphasized. In a sense, you might call that the dancer's accent. When this accent comes on the downbeat (one and five), the feeling is very different from having that "body accent" occur on two and six. Accenting the two and six creates a greater feeling of rhythmic tension and syncopation. Hence some people say that dancing "on one" is dancing "to the music" while dancing "on two" is dancing "in the music." Mike Bello describes dancing on two as dancing "in the fabric of the music."
I want to reference here the excellent material written by Steve Shaw at this web address.

Edie, the Salsa Freak, had some interesting things to say about "on one" and "on two" dancing. She said that what is important is dancing "to the music" by responding to the hits and breaks in a song, rather than whether the dance is structured "on one or two." In her opinion, the best and most musically rich experience is to respond to the accents of a particular piece of music by altering where your break steps are to match those accents. Then afterwards you can resume whichever pattern ("on one or two") you were doing for the bulk of the dance. In short, she felt that flexibility in responding to the music is more important that being wedded to a particular style or break pattern.

The fact is that it is perfectly fine to dance on one or on two. It is up to what the dancer prefers. In both cases, the dancer is stepping on three of the five clave strokes. What is essential for a Salsa dancer is to keep the tempo of the music by consistently taking three steps in four beats of music---whether dancing on one or on two. This is really the most fundamental and important dimension of rhythm and timing as it applies to dance.


Salsa music is counted in 8 beat phrases. These 8 beats constitute two "musical measures" of 4 beats each.
Copyright 2005 by Barbara Bernstein of