Clave: 3-2 or 2-3? Understanding the Difference and Its Applications


Note: This piece will serve as a bridge/introduction to other music-related pieces which I will be writing in the future. Stay tuned for more!

Versión en español aquí.

If you have been dancing casino for a while, chances are the word “clave” is not new to you. Indeed, some instructors teach with the help of this instrument, or mention its importance during their lessons. On the other hand, when some people talk about finding the one count, many use the clave pattern that is implicit or explicit in the music as a point of reference.

Chances are you have heard the word “clave” in any of these aforementioned contexts. And if that has been the case, chances are, too, that you have heard mentioned, or read about, the different types of claves: the 3-2 clave, and the 2-3 clave. This difference is made, in most of the cases, in conversations about music, so that it is not uncommon to hear someone say, “That song has a 2-3 clave;” or “That song has a 3-2 clave.”

But what does that mean? Let’s find out.

Here is a video showing the basic clave pattern:

So, the clave goes: pah-pah-pah…pah-pah. The sticks touch five times.

Let’s call the “pah-pah-pah” the “3 side” of the clave (because the claves touch three times), and the “pah-pah” the “2 side” (because they touch twice).

Now, the video says this is a 3-2 clave. Why is it called this? Because when he began playing the clave pattern, he began with the 3 side, which was then followed by the 2 side. Therefore, 3-2.

Pretty simple, right?

What would playing a 2-3 clave mean, then?

Exactly what you think it means, based on what you saw 3-2 meant. It means that the pattern of the clave begins on the 2 side of the clave, and is then followed by the three side. Listen to this for at least thirty seconds:

So, the clave goes: pah-pah…pah-pah-pha.

Now, the thing that you probably noticed when you watched this second video is that, as the clave played along, even if it started on the 2 side, in your head, it became a 3-2 clave. That is, you were hearing “pah-pah-pah.. pah-pah” (3-2) as it kept playing. So, even if you knew it was a 2-3 clave, when you listened to it as a loop, it became a 3-2 clave. We can say, then, that the clave, in its “natural state,” is a 3-2 clave. That’s why there are some people who would argue that the 3-2 clave is the only clave there is.

So, if the 2-3 clave is going to become a 3-2 clave, anyway, why make the distinction in the first place?

This is the part where knowing a bit of how the music works helps.

First, I want you to watch the video below. This is another video showing the difference between 3-2 and 2-3 clave. But this video has something that the other ones did not: it has a music bar at the top of the video. I want you to pay attention to that bar and notice the numbers. (Note: if you ever practice playing the claves with the actual instrument, please do not play the claves like this person is doing. His technique is quite horrendous. Imitate the videos above instead.) Here is the video:

If you looked at the numbers as I suggested, you should have noticed that the numbers went from 1 to 4, and then from 1 to 4 again. The count did not go from 1 to 8, which is the count that we, as dancers, use. For us who dance, we start moving our feet to dance on the 1, and we consider that we have done a full basic step when we get to 8 (or 7, if you do not count the 8, which is, nonetheless, there).

But the musician is not counting from 1 to 8, like we are doing as dancers. The musician is counting from 1 to 4!

So, in the same span of time that we dancers count from 1 to 8, musicians count from 1 to 4 twice. So musicians have two 1 counts, when dancers only have one.

But what does this all mean?

If you go back to that last video you and you look at the numbers, you will see that, below them, right on the line, there are these “p” looking things (these are called quarter notes; the second “pah” on the 3 side is actually an eight-note). These quarter notes indicate where in the count each “pah” of the clave gets played. As you can see, no matter if it’s a 3-2 clave or a 2-3 clave, the 3 side of the clave takes four counts, and the 2 side of the clave takes the other four counts. That is, each individual side of the clave (3 or 2) gets its own 4 counts.

And that is where the 3-2 clave and the 2-3 clave distinction comes in.

The 3-2 clave, or 2-3, refers to the side of the clave on which the musicians choose to have the 1 that we, as dancers, hear.

Take this song, for example. The person is actually giving you the count. (In case you do not know to count in Spanish, “uno, dos, tres” means “one, two three” and “cinco, seis, siete” means “five, six, seven”). Fast forward to 0:52, when the clave pattern comes in. Count with the person. You’ll notice that right after you count the 1 you hear the “pah-pah” of the 2 side of the clave. (To see how each “pah” of the clave fits with the count, see video above.)

So this is clearly a song with a 2-3 clave.

Another example, this one from Adalberto Álvarez y su son’s “Verdaderos soneros.” Start the song, not on the beginning, but at 0:37. There you will listen to the clave pattern without much of any other instrument. When listening to it, we hear the one count happening on the 3 side (because, again, the clave in its “natural state” is a 3-2 clave). However, at 0:46 the piano and other instruments come in on the two side, making it a 2-3 clave. (I will continue working with this song later in the piece.)

(Note: as we talk about 2-3 clave, it is important to distinguish the 2-3 son clave from the rumba guaguancó clave, which many refer to as 2-3–erroneously, as I’ve explained here— because they hear 2 “pahs” followed by three more “pahs.” But there is a difference between the son and guaguancó claves. Here, take a listen at the guaguancó clave. See the difference for yourself:

All of this said, the guaguancó clave is also used in son music. So you will hear some songs that actually have the guaguancó clave. That has to do with the fact that son also borrows from the Afro-Cuban music tradition, which I explain in detail here.)

(Note #2: notice that in all the videos I have shown you the word son keeps appearing. You will find, however, that other videos will call it a “salsa clave.” This is a misconstruction, born out of ignorance. For starters, the claves, the instruments themselves, were created in Cuba. And the clave pattern was being played in son music (a Cuban genre) before people thought of salsa as more than the stuff you ate. In the same vein, you will find many salsa timing videos which explain the clave, but no son music videos which do, which has further contributed to this misconception. As you learn more and more about this music, I hope you realize why I always go back to son when it comes to music, rather than to salsa or timba.)

Let us go back to the two claves, and how they are used in the songs, lest we wander off too much into other topics.

So, let us talk a bit more about the music. Do you remember the music bar on the clave video that I told you to took at? Do you remember how it is divided into two sets of four? Well, each one of these sets is called a measure. When combined (because the clave takes up two of these measures), they form what is called a “phrase.” A phrase just means (very broadly) that consecutive notes, when grouped together, get played a certain way. This type of music we listen to (son music) is played, for the most part, using this two-measure phrasing. That is, the pattern of the piano, bass, cowbell, timbal, bongo, and conga happens within these two-measures phrase, and then it repeats again.

Take, for instance, the following video of what is called the montuno or tumbao in son music. You will notice that the piano plays the same two-measure phrase over and over again, and these two measures fall inside the same two measures in which the clave pattern gets played (notice the clave is playing in this video, too). Of course, as the tumbao progresses, the person playing the piano in this video starts adding extra notes to the phrase, but these notes still remain within the two measures. At the end, even as he adds extra notes, the feel of the original tumbao is not lost:

Because this two-measure phrase the piano plays (and the timbal, cowbell, bass, etc) has a beginning and an end spanning both measures, that is why we, as dancers, only hear one 1, even though each of the two measures of the phrase have their own 1.

And it is the musicians who choose, when playing a song, on which side of the clave they will begin, and on which side they will end. Therefore, in a 2-3 clave, the phrase begins on the 2 side, and ends in the 3 side. And in a 3-2 clave, it is the exact opposite. That is why some people make so much emphasis on talking about what clave the song is on: because, once you know the type of clave that is being played in a song, all you have to do is listen for that clave and, once you find it, you will know where the 1 count (the beginning of the phrase) is.

But again, each of the two measures in the phrase has its own 1, which theoretically means that musicians have two 1s to work with (whereas we dancers have one longer set of eight counts). That, in turn, means that they can switch where our 1—the dancer’s 1—is within the clave pattern in the same song. So they can start the largo with the 1 being on the 3 side, but when the montuno kicks in, with the call and response and the cowbell, they can switch the 1 to the 2 side. This does not happen often, but it does happen, and I point it out because it proves the point that I am trying to make–that is, that the musicians can–and do–work with two 1s. The song I always like to use to illustrate this is Pancho Amat’s rendition of Miguel Matamoros’ “Lágrimas negras”.

Fast forward the video below to 4:35. From 4:35 to 6:32, it feels better to dance with the one being on the 3 side. But after 6:32, and especially after 7:07 it feels like the one is on the 2 side of the clave.

The same thing happens with the Adalberto song we listened to earlier. If you now listen to it from the beginning, you’ll realize that, when the song begins, it begins on the 3 side of the clave. And it stays on that side until about 0:47, when the emphasis switches to the two side.

Regardless of where the dancer’s 1 actually is, there is nothing that says that you have to dance to a certain 1 count. Because musicians are using two 1s, you, too, could use any of the two. Either way, you will be hitting a 1 count.

Hitting the “right” 1 count becomes more important when you want to apply some musicality to your dancing; you want to get the “hits” that are happening in the song, you want to be more connected to what the instruments are doing. Then yes, going with the “right” 1 there matters, because that is the one that the musicians are emphasizing.

And that is when what I am about to say matters: Most of modern son music (timba, if you want to call it that) produced by Cuban musicians nowadays is done on 2-3 clave. That is, once you hear the 1, you can assume, with a very good degree of certainty, that the one you are hearing is happening on the 2-3 side of the clave. Therefore, if you hear the clave in the song, the 1 will most probably be on the 2 side.

If this is the first time you are being exposed to these concepts, I hope you did not just read through. I hope that you actually took the time to listen to the examples. Otherwise, you will not really benefit from this post. (Though what I think will be even more beneficial than this post is to learn about the role the conga drums in your dancing. In fact, I consider the conga to be more important for the dancer, and specially beginner ones, than the clave. So I highly recommend that you take a look at this post in which I actually advocate against clave and in favor of the conga drum.

Returning to the clave now: Do come back to this piece every now and then, and listen to the examples again. The more you do it, the more you will understand it. Clave is not something that is learned in a day, or two. It took me months to understand these things. So do not feel discouraged if you do not get this at first. Keep listening. Keep practicing.

I hope this helped.

P.S. The way I have explained clave here has been specifically tailored for people who are dancers, not musicians. That is why I have tried to avoid much of the musical jargon that would usually characterize any explanation about clave. That said, there is an outstanding piece on this clave difference written by none other than the great Kevin Moore, which, if you feel adventurous enough and willing to take on the challenge, you can read it in this four-part study here.