Latin Music: Rhythm, Dance, Instruments & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Latin Music
  • 0:51 Latin Rhythm
  • 2:38 Latin Instruments
  • 3:25 Latin Dance
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Latin music is becoming more and more popular in the United States and it's really not hard to see or hear why. Explore the basic traits of Latin music and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Latin Music

Fruor musica latinae. Dives et lenimur et pulchra est. Bunom est vivere in mundo quod habet bonum musica.

What? I'm talking about music in Latin. Isn't that what this lesson is about? Latin music, right? Oh, you mean the music of Latin America, or the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

Latin music has roots in Southern Europe, Africa, and the indigenous cultures of Latin America, so it's a pretty cool synthesis of world music. It is motivated by emotion and passion, rhythm and movement, so get up on your feet because you can't take Latin music sitting down. As they say in Latin America, ¡Baila!

Latin Rhythm

One of the most famous aspects of Latin music is the rhythm, which is largely inspired by traditional African beats that were developed in the Caribbean. Although there are many variants on this rhythm, the most fundamental form is called the clave, which is simply the basic Latin rhythm. This basic beat is what holds all of the complex rhythmic patterns of Latin music in place.

There are two main patterns. The first is called the son clave, originally named after the Cuban musical genre of son Cubano. Basically, the son clave features alternating patterns of threes and twos. This pattern gives the music a pulsating beat filled with the building and release of musical tension. The first three beats are called a tresillo, or triplet in English, which means three notes evenly spaced across two beats. This means that they are slightly off the beat, which is part of what gives it that driving momentum.

The other main clave pattern is the rumba clave, which flips the son clave around and has two alternating patterns of twos and threes. The two paired beats come first with a triplet coming next. This mixes up the beat, but the effect is still largely the same, creating music with a heavy, driving rhythm that is as much the focus of the song as the actual melody, if not more.

Latin music is characterized first and foremost by the rhythm. This is not some background or subtle beat; the rhythm is in many ways the real focus of the music. But, it's not the only part of the music; melodies and harmonies are both important parts of this music as well.

Latin Instruments

Latin music developed as a mixture of musical traditions from around the world and this means that it is actually pretty open when it comes to instruments. There are few restrictions as far as what is and is not allowed. Latin music has always embraced a certain freedom of experimentation.

Drums, of course, are important, as are the sticks often used to beat the clave rhythm, which, incidentally, are also called claves. The percussion section may also include shakers, like maracas or tambourines. Again, percussion is pretty important to Latin music. Brass instruments, such as trumpets and tubas, are popular for the melodies and harmonies, as are guitars, which can play both melodies and rhythms.

Latin Dance

But, of course, we can't talk about Latin music without also talking about dance. Dance is integral to Latin music and really the driving motivation behind it. Latin America is full of dances, from the rumba to salsa to cha-cha to samba. Each of these are distinct but generally emphasize a rhythmic strutting with the hips in a pattern of advancing and retreating. Two steps forward, two steps backwards, that sort of idea.

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