Musicality: How to Tell When (Some) Songs Are About to End


the end is near

The other day I was at a dance social when a girl came up to me and asked me out to dance. I told her, “Sure, but let’s dance the next song. This one is about to end.” By the next thirty seconds or so, the song that had been playing when the girl asked me to dance had, indeed, ended.

As the girl and I danced during the next song, she asked me, “How did you know the other song was going to end?” The question itself caught me by surprise. What I had said to her—that the song was about to end— had come to come almost instinctively. In truth, I had never listened to that specific song. It was my first time hearing it. And yet, true to my prediction, the song had ended shortly after she had asked me. Yet somehow I had known it was going to end.

So I gave her an answer that made me sound like a know-it-all. “I just knew,” I said. I didn’t say it to brag, or anything. I said because I hadn’t thought about that question before and therefore I hadn’t developed a better answer. And because that “better answer” would require a lengthier explanation.

That “better answer”, with the lengthier explanation, is what this post is about.

But before writing anything else, let me ask you a question:

When you dance casino, does it often happen to you that the song to which you are dancing ends while you’re in the middle of a turn pattern? In other words, do you end up in an awkward position in relation to your partner when the song ends?

If you answered “Yes” to these, then this post is exactly for you. If you answered “No,” then you have a great ear for music, and there might not be much that I can say to you. I would nonetheless invite you to keep reading. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Maybe not. Nevertheless, the invitation stands.

Now, this post is about how to figure out when the song is about to end so that you don’t end up in the middle of a turn pattern with your partner at the end of the song. It is at this point that I have to make a little disclaimer: The information that I am about to give you does not apply to every single song to which you’ll dance casino. It only applies to a number of them—a good number of them, mind you—but not to all of them. It’s the nature of the music. Son music is very versatile. And at the end of the day, musicians do whatever they want.

As far as I have thought about it, there are four ways to know when a song is about to end:

  • You have an extremely good ear for music. It comes to you instinctively.
  • The sound does a fade-out, signaling the song’s end.
  • You know the song. Therefore you know when it’s going to end.
  • You know something about the way the music is played, and therefore from there can infer, based on what the instruments are doing, that the song is about to end.

For the purposes of this post, I am not going to delve into the first two. The first one leans toward the instinctive—that is, the stuff that does not come from thinking or learning. This post, on the other hand, is an exercise in both thinking and learning (for both you and I). The second is explicitly telling you it’s going to end, so you don’t need me for that. As for the third, yes, it is true that sometimes you do know the song and how it ends; but what happens with songs you do not know—which, believe me, are more than those you do know?

Number 4 is something that we can work with, because it’s about understanding what is happening, musically, in the song. Let’s focus on that.

If you have read my previous posts, specially this one, you will know about the largo-montuno structure in which I have tried to explain the music to which we listen. The structure that I have given in the past is very simple: there is a largo—a slower section of a song—and there is a montuno—a more up-beat section of the same song. Again, this is very simplified. Songs can have—and do—bits of a montuno instrumentation during the largo, like the first twenty seconds of Adalberto Álvarez’s song, “Para bailar casino.” On the other hand, songs can also have an instrument solo during the middle of a montuno, which means that the up-tempo “feel” disappears so that the instrument doing the solo may be better heard. An example of this is Chappottín’s classic “Camina y prende el fogón” [“Go and turn on the stove”]. In the video below, the montuno is already under way by 2:20; but around 2:26 there are both piano and guitar solos in which the instrumentation changes to a slower tempo characteristic of the largo. The montuno picks back up at 3:44 when the solos are over. Take a listen:

Learning to distinguish the largo from the montuno is paramount to move forward here. In the post that I cited above, I talked about the call-and-response between the singer and chorus as one of the telltale signs that the montuno had begun. But there is also stuff that happens in the instrumentation, namely the introduction of the cowbell. (If you don’t know what the cowbell sounds like, or cannot hear it because there are other instruments playing, this video, though the person is using his hand rather than a cowbell beater, should get you acquainted with the pattern and sound of the cowbell):

So, when you hear the cowbell, more often than not the musicians are in the montuno. The video below exemplifies this.

(Now, before you watch it, I want to note that when I say that the largo is “the slower section of a song”, I don’t mean by this that the largo itself is slow—though it can be—but that it is slow in comparison to the montuno. You’ll see it yourself, when the cowbell enters the song at about 0:35, that even if the song was playing at a fast pace, with the cowbells—and the piano, which begins playing a different, more aggressive tumbao—the songs acquires a more up-beat feel.)

Take a listen:

Although it seems that I have been writing a lot and not really talking about the stuff that you, as a dancer, could use to know when a song is about to end, trust me, this is all part of it. Understanding this is as important as what I am about to say. Keep reading.

So now we get to the main part of this article, where I explain to you how to discern when the song is about to end. Again, remember that this information is not applicable to every song. But there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of songs which do follow this format, and so you can apply this concept, even if you haven’t heard the song before.

So, let’s get to it. To exemplify, I will use this one video, which shows pretty much everything I want to say. In this video, Son Habana play a cover of “La esencia del guaguancó.” As you watch this video, I want you to pay close attention to the cool-looking dude playing the bongos (smaller drums), and notice what he does at around 1:20. Go watch the video, but don’t watch it entirely. I would say maybe watch one more minute of it. Then keep reading below. Here is the video:

As you saw, at around 1:20, the bongo player pretty much stopped playing the bongos, picked up the cowbell, and started banging into it. If you notice, that is also when the singer and chorus began engaging in call-and-response. In other words, at 1:20, that’s when the montuno started.

Now, go back to the video and fast-forward to about 4:40. Pay attention to what happens at 5:15. Watch until 5:23. Then keep reading this.

[Assuming you watched as I suggested]: At 5:15, as you saw, the cool-looking dude in the glasses stopped playing the cowbell, and returned to playing the bongos. What happened there is what is known, in musical terms, as the coda, which acts as a sort of epilogue to the song. (This is why I say what I am talking about here cannot apply to every song. Indeed, not all novels have epilogues.)

At 5:23 the song formally ends. Yes, they start playing a bit of rumba afterwards, which is their own addition. But the song itself is over at 5:23.

All of this, then, to state the following:

When you stop hearing the cowbell during the montuno, and it is not a solo what is following, the song is very likely about to end.

That’s what I had noticed when the girl from the social the other day had asked me to dance. I had noticed that the song was in its “post-montuno” (coda) section, and therefore was about to end. So yeah, me telling her, “I just know” was true. But it wasn’t an instinctive, “I just know”, that is, something that I could not explain. Rather, it was because I knew what was happening in the song. Therefore I knew that it was about to end.

What follows is advice as to how to incorporate this musical knowledge into your dancing. In order to do this, I will use myself as an example.

But listen to this song first. In “En la confianza” by Manolito y su Trabuco, you will find both the largo-montuno structure, and the coda at the end, exactly at 4:35 (you will notice the cowbell disappears).

So, at 4:35, I, as a dancer, identify that the song is about to end. And so that I don’t get stuck in the middle of a turn pattern at the end of the song, what do I do? I keep it simple. I go back to closed-position, and I stay there, waiting for the song to be over while doing simple stuff like an Adios (maybe), but mainly doing my basic step. Here, take a look at what I do at 4:35, when, as you have seen, the coda begins.

Likewise, in the following video, dancing to “Mujer celosa” by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, at 4:12 the coda begins, and I, following that, stop the turn patterns and get into closed-position. I actually say in the video, “Slow”, acknowledging that the up-tempo characteristic of the montuno is gone, and now it feels more like a largo again.

As you have seen in both videos, when the song ends, I am not in the middle of a turn pattern. I am comfortably dancing with my partner in a position that, as you saw, allowed us to finish the dancing at the exact same moment that the song ended.

Now, for the purposes of full disclosure, I do have to say that I did know both songs. I listen to them a lot, because I really like them. However, if I had not known these songs, and I had this information that I have just given to you, I would have ended the dancing in exactly the same way. Indeed, once I had identified the coda, I would have slowed down, gotten into closed position and waited for the song to end, just like I did in the video.

Your next step now is to start listening to songs, both that you know and you do not know, and see if you can identify which ones have codas and which ones do not. My recommendation is that, once you identify these songs, play them, dance to them (on your own, if you want), and try just doing your basic step when you hear the coda and continue doing them until the song ends. Get used to listening to the changes in instrumentation in songs that have codas, and how they sound at the end. With this, I am not suggesting to start memorizing songs, but rather to start learning to notice the changes that occur within a song so that, next time you are out dancing and there is a song you do not know, and you notice a coda after the montuno, you can end your dancing in what I am sure will feel much better than the middle of a Setenta.

I hope this helped!