The Clav


The study of Latin music is important to a salsa dancer as it is desirable that a salsa dancer dance to the music. What this means is that a salsa dancer has to react to the changes in the piece of music, it?s varying dynamics and sometimes changes in tempo. Latin music as a genre is rich in both melody and complex rhythms that make up the beat.

Of these rhythms, it is the tapping of the clav? (pronounced kla-veh) that gives each style of Latin music its identity. Like how the time signature tells whether a classical piece is a march, a waltz or a gavotte, the beat of the clav? tells whether the piece music it is a rumba, cha cha or salsa. The clav? tells the melody how to move in the sense that the melody resonates with the basic rhythm of the clav?.

To begin a study of Latin music, one would be required to have an understanding of the clav?. This article will provide a brief overview of the clav? and will assume that the reader is familiar with standard musical notation and has a basic understanding music theory.

The Clav? Rhythm

Like most music, Latin music is usually in 4/4 time. This means that there would be 4 beats in a bar and that usually, 4 bars make up a phrase. The rhythm of the clav? repeats continuously throughout the whole piece and lasts for 2 bars, hence the counting from 1 to 8 during a salsa dance. Below are 2 examples of a clav? rhythm:

2/3 Son Clave
Figure 1 ? 2/3 Son Clav? (salsa)

2/3 Rumba Clave
Figure 2 ? 2/3 Rumba Clav? (rumba or cha cha)

As can be seen in the above figures, the son clav? that salsa uses differs only slightly from the rumba clav?. cha cha, which uses the rumba clav? gets its distinct cha cha shuffle from the last quaver in figure 2, bar 2. Note that in both Figures, bar 1 would correlate with bars 1 and 3 of a musical phrase, which generally consists of 4 bars. When this happens, we call the clav? a 2/3 clav?. This is because there are 2 notes in the first bar and 3 notes in the second bar. The reverse can also occur, and it is called the 3/2 clav?. This can be seen in figures 3 and 4:

3/2 Son Clave
Figure 3 ? 3/2 Son Clav?

3/2 Rumba Clave
Figure 4 ? 3/2 Rumba Clav?

Similarly, bar 1 of both figures would each correlate to bars 1 and 3 of a phrase. This rhythm gives a satisfying resolution in bar 2 for the syncopation in bar 1. This is even more pronounced in Figure 4 due to the last quaver in bar 1. This rhythm is also pronounced in the melody in this short excerpt found in the following figures:

Clave Example
Figure 5 ? The correct 2/3 Clav?

Wrong Clave Example
Figure 6 ? The wrong 3/2 Clav?

In Figure 5, notice that the rhythm of the melody closely resembles the clav? as compared to Figure 6.

Dancing with the Clav? in Salsa

The clav? not only gives salsa music its unique rhythm, it also gives salsa dancers a reference point. For dancers dancing New York On 2, this is especially important as this is the basis of the dance style. This is illustrated below in Figures 6 and 7. Note that these steps are for ladies.

2/3 Clave On 2.jpg
Figure 6 ? 2/3 Son Clav? with New York On 2 footwork.

3/2 Clave On 2
Figure 7 ? 3/2 Son Clav? with New York On 2 footwork.

For simplicity purposes, a compromise is usually made during the teaching of New York On 2 and the student usually syncopates the 2 and the 6 anyway as shown in Figures 8 and 9:

2/3 Clave On 2 Syncopated
Figure 8 ? 2/3 Son Clav? with the 2 and 6 syncopated.

3/2 Clave On 2 Syncopated
Figure 9 ? 3/2 Son Clav? with the 2 and 6 syncopated.

This simplification, although technically wrong would suffice as it is difficult for a student who is not musically trained to ?get? the clav?. Note that the student is now dancing to the rhythm of the Tumbao. The rhythm of the Tumbao is shown below in Figure 10:

Figure 10 ? Rhythm of the Tumbao.

Clav? Changes

In some Latin music, the clav? can change from 2/3 to 3/2 or vice versa. This can cause much confusion for dancers especially if this is not done elegantly. This change can be implemented by playing, say bar 2 of Figure 1 twice. This method is almost seamless for dancers, although there might be a feeling of a break in the music. This can be shown in Figure 11 which borrows its melody from that of Figure 5.

Clave Change
Figure 11 ? Repeating the Clav?.

As Figure 11 shows, bar 5 of the clav? is a copy of bar 4 and hence the clav? is changed from 2/3 to 3/2. Also note that I have modified the melody slightly in bars 5 to 8 so as to accommodate the change in the clav?.

Another way is the New York style which can cause much confusion for dancers. This method extends the regular 4 bar phrase to 3 or 5 bars before going back to 4 bars. Because the clav? continues playing without interruption, this causes the first bar of the next phrase to end up in the first bar of a different clav?. Figure 12 illustrates this:

New York Style Clave Change
Figure 12 ? New York style Clav? change.

Note that there are only 7 bars in this excerpt despite there being 2 phrases, with the first phrase lasting 3 bars and the second lasting 4. As the figure succinctly illustrates, this can cause much confusion to dancers as many dancers, On 1 or On 2 dance to the melody and this disruption in structure may cause dancers to feel that they?ve had their counts reversed and are starting on 5 instead. Furthermore, as most salsa music is, to put it simply, in ABA form, this change would occur at least twice, thus causing much undue frustration.

Absence of the Clav?

Sometimes dancers are not able to hear the clav?. This is not due to a hearing disability but merely the lack of the clav? in numerous recent salsa pieces. This should not be a problem for On 1 dancers, however, but On 2 dancers might face difficulties if they attempt to dance as Figure 6 illustrates. A way of overcoming this might be to listen to the way the melody plays. This can be done because even without the clav?, salsa melodies tend to follow a certain clav? pattern (2/3 or 3/2) as shown in the melody of Figure 5. Of course, the simplest alternative would be to simply dance On 1.


Latin music, and most importantly, salsa music is varied and complex, however, despite its richness, Latin music derives from the rhythm of the clav?. This article has briefly summarised the various topics regarding the clav? and hopefully has provided you with an appreciation for Latin music. I hope that this enhances your dance experience. See you on the floor!


1.???????? Salcita, California Institute of Technology, Salsa in Caltech, viewed 2 May 2006, <>
2.????????, Timba Talk, viewed 2 May 2006, <>
3.????????, Clave (rhythm) ? Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, viewed 2 May 2006, <>

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