How Does Music Influence the Way We Dance?

Published in  
September 17, 2020
When feeling sad, we often play music as if it was a soothing pill. Music gives us an escape from the everyday grind and allows us to forget pain and struggle. But how do musicians and dancers cross paths to create a masterpiece?

Even if we do not consider dancing for a moment, music is one of the most primitive forms of art that has altered people’s behavior and feelings for centuries. When feeling sad, we often play music as if it was a soothing pill. Music gives us an escape from the everyday grind and allows us to forget pain and struggle. But how do singers and musicians do it?  

A bestselling author Daniel Levitin led research named “How musicians convey emotion through music.” The study showed that subtle changes in the timing and volume that the musicians make when playing are the key to their ability to convey emotion through music. The effects of such small changes allow the audience to perceive the tunes deeper or shallower, thus creating a different feeling in the listener.  

Try to listen to those two pieces of music from one of my favorite composers- Olafur Arnalds. How do you perceive them, what feelings do they invoke in you? Please let us know in the comments below.

For Now I Am Winter by Ólafur Arnalds

Near Light by Ólafur Arnalds

To understand how music influences our dancing, we must first understand what the music tells us how it makes us feel, and how we interpret what we hear. The different instruments used, the vocals or lack thereof, and tempo all play a role in constructing our “feeling” for the music.  

This topic is generally very abstract, and such is art but let’s try to put some structure into things so we can see what can happen in our bodies when we listen to different pieces of music.

We can categorize music by many different criteria, but one that I find most accurate to represent ballroom dance music is sound perception. For that purpose, we will use three main categories and two subcategories to give us a clearer distinction. Now bear in mind that this is not an exact science, and there is no “right” answer. The way you perceive a song might be different than the way others perceive it. Use this general classification as a starting point.

No items found.

Music categories by sound perception

For the exercise we will focus on Rumba music, but the same categorization can be used in all dances.

Three main categories:- Light, Medium, and Heavy.
Two sub-categories- Light- Medium and Medium-Heavy


What makes it LIGHT:

Tempo- the song is a little faster than a regular Rumba, which makes is sound a little bit more upbeat.

Vocals- the presence of vocals draws attention to the sound of the singer’s voice. On the other hand, the singer’s voice can be classified as a baritone that is noticeably higher/uplifting than a bass voice, giving a more grounding feeling.


What makes it Light-medium:

Tempo- For me, the tempo of about 26bpm will directly put this song in the light-medium category.

Instruments- Percussive instruments are used to create the basic rhythm, but throughout, we can hear brass instruments and a lot of wind instruments used all together to create an uplifting atmosphere. One suitable for the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.


What makes it Medium:

Tempo & Rhythm- the song has a regular tempo of 24BPM and a strong and clear percussive rhythm.

Instruments- Percussive instruments like maracas, conga, and clave are primarily used in this song. Still, the use of the trumpet brings a shade of lightness to the composition.

Vocals- Marc’s voice sounds very clean with little husk to it, creating a clear and lighter articulation.


What makes it Medium-heavy:

Tempo- In this song, the tempo is normal at about 25bpm, which keeps it closer to medium than heavy.

Instruments- The song utilizes the tunes of both string and percussive instruments. The percussive instruments like the conga and clave give us a strong sound making us feel more grounded.

Vocals- Olga Guillot’s voice is husky, sultry, and at times melodramatic, bringing it up towards the heavy category.


What makes it Heavy:

Tempo- the song is a lot slower than a normal rumba. It is perfectly suitable for a show or a practice song but not for a competition. This tempo creates a feeling of depth.

Instruments- gentle guitar tunes help the singer carry out her message to the audience. Spanish guitar can create a deep, dark, bass-like sound. Light sounding percussive instruments like the triangle are missing.

Vocals- Even without knowing what the singer is singing about, you can notice a sense of drama and pain in her voice.

So far, we have discussed ways to categorize the music and what influences that categorization like the vocals or the tempo. We can now move onto exploring ways in which this information can guide us to adjust our dancing to the music, so we become one with it. That is the whole point, right? When the musician cannot express themselves any further, the dancer comes to help.

No items found.

Matching your movement to the music

Pink and Orange Abstract Quote Instagram Post.jpg

Understanding the music is the first step to creating a movement that embodies the sounds. We separated the music in three major category - light, medium, and heavy. When we think about the words we used to describe the music, they can easily be used to describe weight. We can say- this bag is heavy.

Establishing the connection between music and weight will allow us to further explore the link between the music and our center of gravity's position throughout our movement.

As you can see from the graph, light music will correspond to a higher center of gravity position, which will make the range of motion in actions like settle in rumba shallower. This corresponds to the fact that lighter sounding songs will be faster in speed; therefore, there is a lack of time to finish a big and deep settling action.

The medium sounding rumba songs are represented in yellow on the graph. Those songs will prompt us to adjust our gravity centers to the middle position, around the waistline. The range of motion should be comfortable for everyone to perform, neither reaching a deep settling action nor rising much above the waist level.

Perhaps the most challenging, requiring a big range of motion, flexibility, and exquisite body control, is the center's low position to perform to heavy music. Also heavy music is very often slow and very emotionally charged. You can see an example in Sergey and Melia’s rumba show. If they were to dance to this music uplifted, happy and chirpy, that would create a dissonance between the movement and the music.

NOTE: Those recommendations are relative to everyone. I find that they work best for most basic actions and routines based mostly around basic rhythm. Open level routines are generally complex with different dynamic characteristics designed to tell a story or highlight specific strong features of the dancer; however those should also be connected to the music at all times.

When talking about describing and perceiving music, one can come up with so many words to describe it. Why? Because it is not tangible, it is a perception, and thus no one can truly agree on what a piece of music "sounds" like. What you can do is use words that make sense to you to translate the music to your body. I can recall some of my teachers use to describe Foxtrot piece of music as 'autumn.' No matter the words, the important part is to remember that we need to relate the musician's intention through our bodies to the world around us. Leaving you with an excellent video example from the movie Nine in which the music is happily married to the dance! Enjoy!

No items found.
No items found.
Ballroom Dance insights you won’t delete.
Delivered to your inbox.
NO SPAM, we hate it too.
Success! You are on the Ballroom Dance Express!
Oops! Something went sideways while submitting the form.