Salsa has an 8-count basic step. There are a few people out there that count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, but most choose to use 1-2-3-*-5-6-7-* as their count since nothing happens on the 4 or the 8. By the way, the nothing happening on the 4 or 8 part is true whether you dance on1 or on2. Moving on, it's important to know that salsa music is written in 4/4 or some variant thereof which means that you can always pretend like it's in 4/4. What does that mean? Well for our purposes, we'll say that a "measure" of salsa music has 4 beats. Therefore, an 8-count is actually two measures of salsa music. The 1-2-3 part of the count is the first measure and the 5-6-7 part is the second measure.
The clave is the heartbeat of salsa. This is played with two sticks called claves. There are several clave beat patterns in latin music, but there are only two main patterns in salsa. There is the 3-2 clave and the 2-3 clave. These numbers refer to how many strikes of the clave are present in each measure of the music. A very common misconception that dancers have is that the 1 count is always on a particular side of the clave. This is not true. It is actually the melody that determines where the 1 count is found. More on this later. Below, you'll find examples of the 3-2 and 2-3 claves.
|3-2 Clave||2-3 Clave|
The next layer of salsa music is what's called the tumbao. It's played on the conga drums and it provides the most distinct indication of beat aside from the clave. The conga is capable of making many very distinct sounds, but there are only two that you really need to be familiar with for dancing salsa: the open tone and the slap.
The open tone is the most distinct sound that the conga makes. It is what is identified most easily in salsa music as being produced by the conga. It sounds like this: In the basic tumbao, you will hear 2 quick open tones. This happens on the 4 count and you should not be taking any steps when you hear the open tones.
The slap sounds like this: You can use the slap to find the 2 count and the 6 count if you dance on2. On1 dancers should still be aware of the slap and its placement in the music.
A tumbao pattern takes two measures of music. The open tones (DUN DUN) will be heard twice -- once on the 4 beat and again on the 8 beat. Be careful with open tones though because although you will hear them on the 4 and the 8, the conguero may choose to take other liberties with open tones. A very common example is the 3-point shuffle below which also contains open tones on the "6&" beat.
|Basic Tumbao||3-Point Shuffle||Tumbao with Clave|
Montunos are repetitive patterns usually played by the piano. There are montunos for almost every type of latin music. The ones for salsa are very distinct.
The classic salsa montuno is a I-IV-V-IV chord progression. I put a 2-3 clave over it so that you can see how it fits together.
Montunos get fun because the simplest variations can make a big difference. Here is the same chord progression with harmonization. I'm still using 2-3 clave.
Just so you can hear how 3-2 clave is used, I'll give you one of my favorite chord progressions. It's a bit more jazzy. It's a II-V progression that goes from major to relative minor. To hear how this flows, I've put some synthesized bass on top of it.
Listening to the montuno is the way that you can tell the difference between the 1 count and the 5 count. If you were to sing the montuno to yourself, your natural starting point would be the 1. It doesn't matter whether that starting point is on the 2 side or the 3 side of the clave. Listen again to the examples above and see if this makes sense to you.
Putting it all together
Now that you have the basic elements of salsa music decoded, pop in a CD and see if you can find the beats. Don't take everything I've said here for granted. These are only the basics. Musicians take lots of liberties and make lots of variations on basic patterns. Even so, you should be able to use your understanding of the basic forms to figure out the beats to the more complicated songs.