We focus on one song per week for our Monday night Rueda and Rhythm classes in Oakland. In January 2017, Ryan put together a mix of 45 seconds of each of our first 100 Songs of the Week, for a 75-minute-long, super-danceable mega-track, available as a free download here. Here is a YouTube video playlist of all of our past songs of the week. We also have a Spotify Songs of the Week Playlist (though about 1/3 of the songs are not available).


To dance is "to move rhythmically to music;" to truly dance you have to move with rhythm – con ritmo. Dance music is often belittled as simplistic (and often it is), but salsa dancers, and casineros in particular, know that the music we dance to is anything but.

In part because of its many African roots, timba (modern Cuban popular dance music) is a very rhythmically sophisticated form. This sophistication, while sometimes overwhelming at first, ultimately can be incredibly satisfying. Timba's complex rhythms provide dancers with possibilities upon possibilities – there are many different ways to move rhythmically, to truly embody this music.

We emphasize musicality in our classes, choreographies, and social dancing. We believe that a deep understanding of the roots and rhythms of timba will not only make you a better dancer – it will allow you to more fully enjoy your dance experience.

On this page, we've provided a brief sample of the types of musical material we cover in our classes. If you'd like to know more about rhythm and music, please check out our Monday Rueda and Rhythm Classes or consider taking Private Lessons

Percussive Patterns of Salsa and Timba

Salsa and Timba are both polyrhythmic, layering rhythms on top of rhythms. We'll explain just a few of them here.

Campana (Open Tones)

One of the easiest percussion patterns to hear is the campana (cowbell) which typically is played in the second main part of a song (called the montuno section - see below). Here is one way you might visualize this rhythm:

Beat 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 +
Campana (open tones)  O       O       O       O      

The dancers' eight counts are on top, plus +'s for the subdivisions in between. Thus the open tones of the campana are on 1, 3, 5, and 7. (The full campana pattern is a bit more complex than this, but we'll get to that a bit later.)


"Un poco de coro, un par de clave, y ya." This, according to Tirso Duarte, is all that is really necessary to make a great timba song. A little bit of chorus to provide the melody, and a pair of claves for the rhythm. "Clave" can refer to either the instrument (a pair of thick wooden sticks) or the rhythmic pattern that instrument plays. Clave (the rhythm) comes in 4 main varieties in timba – 2:3 son, 3:2 son, 2:3 rumba, and 3:2 rumba. Here they are: 

Beat 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 +
2:3 Son Clave     O   O       O     O     O  
3:2 Son Clave O     O     O       O   O      
3:2 Rumba Clave  O     O       O     O   O      
2:3 Rumba Clave      O   O       O     O       O

Note that 2:3 son clave is the same as 3:2 son clave except that what falls on the first four counts in one falls on the last four counts in the other, and vice versa. The same relationship holds between 2:3 rumba clave and 3:2 rumba clave.

Next note that 3:2 son clave is the same as 3:2 rumba clave except that one of the five hits is a half beat later in the rumba version. The same thing applies to 2:3 son clave and 2:3 rumba clave – just one hit is slightly later.

Tirso's lyric reflects the fact that the clave is considered to be the rhythmic essence of timba and salsa (and almost all Cuban music). The rhythms that every instrument plays, as well as the rhythms of the lyrics, all relate to the clave in a particular way, not by directly mimicking it, but rather by interlocking with particular parts of the rhythm. To illustrate this, we'll come back to the campana pattern.

Campana (Full Pattern)

In addition to the open tones that we saw before (which are easiest to hear because they cut through the rest of the band quite clearly), the campana also plays closed tones. Here is the full pattern (O for open and x for closed).

Beat 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 +
2:3 Campana (full)  O   x   O   x x O   x x O   x x
2:3 Son Clave     O   O       O     O     O  
3:2 Campana (full)  O   x x O   x x O   x   O   x x
3:2 Son Clave O     O     O       O   O      

The full campana pattern consists of the open tones on counts 1, 3, 5, and 7 as we saw above, but it also has closed tones in between. Usually there are two closed tones that come right before an open tone, except in one case, where there is just a single closed tone. This single closed tone lines up exactly with the clave. In the 2:3 direction the single closed tone lands on count 2, right with the first stroke of 2:3 son clave. In the 3:2 direction, the single closed tone lands on count 6, with the fourth stroke of 3:2 son clave.

This is just one example of how the rhythms in salsa and timba align with the clave. If you'd like to know more about how the clave relates to the rhythms of melodies, read Ryan's Thesis on the Coros of La Charanga Habanera.

Sometimes the clave is not played explicitly, but rather it is implied by other instruments such as the campana. One of the great, fun challenges of listening to and dancing to salsa and timba is figuring out where the clave would be if it were being played, which we can determine relative to what the other instruments are vocals are doing. After listening and dancing attentively, you will come to realize that dancing to a song in 2:3 clave feels very different than dancing to a song in 3:2 clave, and will affect the timing of our movement as dancers. These are some of the topics we cover in our Monday Rueda and Rhythm Classes in Oakland.

Song Structure

In addition to being aware of specific patterns, it is also important for dancers to know about the broader form of the music. A timba song consists of two main parts: the cuerpo and the montuno. A song may have other sections as well, such as an introduction before the cuerpo, a bridge between the cuerpo and montuno, and a coda following the montuno, but the essence of timba is in the cuerpo and the montuno.

To help students understand the general structure of the music, we have created a series of Form Charts. For the rest of this section, to illustrate the form of a timba song, we'll refer to a particular song – La Tremenda by the band Bamboleo on the album Ya No Hace Falta. For best results, download our Form Chart for La Tremenda and get the mp3 at (or listen on YouTube).

About Our Form Charts

The charts have two columns. Each number at the far left of a column represents one dancers' eight count (or one cycle of clave, what we'll call a measure). La Tremenda has 132 measures in all. Usually there is one eight count per line, but we've condensed more than one per line in some cases to fit a single page.

The main sections of the song are underlined and in CAPS, for example the CUERPO section which starts at measure 7. Important structural elements of the song are also in CAPS, for example CORO 1 starts at measure 41.

Approximate track times are also underlined, for example the cuerpo starts at 17 seconds in the track, 0:17.

Rhythmic material is in boldface. A strong accent at a particular beat is inside (parentheses). For example, at measure 1 you see (8+) which indicates there is an accent on the subdivision after beat eight.

Lyrics are in "quotes." We haven't attempted to transcribe the full lyrics, as we're focusing on the music.

Gears are in italics. We'll get more into the details of what those mean a bit later.

Now that you understand the notation of the charts, let's move on to discussing the two main sections of a timba song.

The Cuerpo Section

This section overall is characterized by being softer energetically than the montuno section that follows it. The cuerpo usually has a single lead singer. It has more variety in harmonic, melodic, and lyrical material. The percussionists usually play more quietly – the timbalero will typically play on the sides of the drums rather than using the bells, for example.

The Montuno Section: Coros, Mambos, Bloques, and Gears

This section is higher energetically than the cuerpo. It features a call-and-response between a lead singer and a chorus. The lead singer sings improvised or pre-composed lines called guías (capitalized in the charts), and the chorus responds with repeated coros (capitalized in the form charts and labeled numerically, for example CORO 1 is repeated at measure 41, 49, 57). There are many different guías in the song, but only three different coros. The first coro also appears in a shortened version (picao), labeled as CORO 1b.

The montuno section is more repetitive than the cuerpo section harmonically. The piano and bass and keyboards play repeated lines called tumbaos.

The montuno section features mambos (capitalized in the form charts and labeled numerically – La Tremenda has three mambos). "Mambo" in the context of a timba song refers to a part of the song where the horns play a repeated melody.

The montuno section also has unison rhythmic figures played by the percussion and bass called bloques. Like the rhythmic accents, these are in boldface. This song has a particular bloque used by the group Bamboleo in many of their songs, which you might call the Bamboleo Bloque. It happens at measures 93 and 117. If you listen to a lot of songs by Bamboleo you will hear this bloque over and over.

The final aspect of the montuno section that appears in the form charts is what are sometimes called gears, which we've marked in italics. These are essentially "modes" of the rhythm section – different patterns that the percussion and bass play (or don't) to give the music a different feeling. Bamboleo uses three gears: MarchaPedal, and Bomba.

Marcha is the basic gear – the percussion and bass play their full, normal patterns. The drummer/timbalero will play on the bells, and the campana pattern will be sounding full-force.

Pedal is a noticeable change from marcha. The conga stops playing entirely and the bass stops except for playing very sporadic, long, pedal tones. The drums also play much more sparsely.

Bomba is also noticeably different from both of the other two gears. The conga and drums play very aggressive patterns and the bass plays loud slides.

Bamboleo uses these gears in almost all of their songs, and other groups have their own systems of different gears. Changing back and forth between them greatly increases the energy of the music, and is one of the ways that timba distinguishes itself from non-Cuban salsa, which does not use gears.

If you’re interested in more form charts, here’s one of Santa Palabra by NG La Banda - listen on YouTube, or contact us.

Besides making listening and dancing more fun, having a strong knowledge of rhythm and form also will also have a real impact on how you dance, and will truly connect you to the music, which is ultimately what this dance is all about. For specifics about how this musical knowledge affects the dance, please see below.

If you are interested in learning more about timba, we highly recommend you check out You'll find an amazing amount of information about the music, musicians, and history of this unique style. You can also download DJ P.A.Trix’s Harvard Thesis on Timba here.