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Clave (rhythm)

Clave is a rhythmic pattern used as a tool for temporal organization in Afro-Cuban music (such as salsa). The word clave is Spanish for “key”, in the sense of an answer key or a musical key signature. The word is usually pronounced clah-vay in the Spanish style, but many American musicians pronounce it to rhyme with save.

Depending on the style and musicians involved, the clave may play a role from a simple rhythmic decoration to an elaborate structural framework to which the rest of the music must relate.



Son clave

The most common type of clave rhythm in Cuban popular music is called the “son clave”, named after the Cuban musical style of the same name:

(Listen to a Midi "son clave.")

Because there are three notes in the first measure and two in the second, the above is said to be in the 3-2 direction. The 2-3 clave is the same but with the measures reversed.

Rumba clave

Another type of clave is the rumba clave. This is most commonly associated with the folkloric Guaguancó style. It also can be in the 3-2 direction, as shown below, and in the 2-3 direction, although 3-2 is more common.

6/8 Clave

The third Cuban clave, often called the "6/8 clave", is an adaptation of the well-documented West African 12/8 timeline. It is a cowbell pattern and is played mainly in the ‘’rumba colombia’’, ‘’abaquá’’, and other older styles.

Different ways to count the 6/8 clave

This 6/8 clave is written incorrectly. The last note played in the first measure lands on beat 6, not on beat 5. To correct this simply take the rest in the first measure and make it a quarter note rest, then take the last quarter note in the first measure and make it an 8th note.

Brazilian clave

(Note that the material in this subsection is disputed. Clave in its original form is a Spanish word and its musical usage was developed in Cuba.[1] The Brazilian rhythms that are sometimes called claves occasionally share rhythmic similarities—but not always—and tend to have a different musical function. Culturally, linguistically, and in terms of ethnic background, Cuba and Brazil are both also quite distinct. However, through trade and other interactions in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is possible that common musical material was exchanged, but this remains to be verified historically.)

It is often mistakenly believed that Brazilian music is largely without clave. As examples, these are transcriptions of several clave patterns found in various styles of Brazilian music on an ago-gô and surdo. Legend: L=low bell, H=high bell, O = open surdo hit, X = muffled surdo hit, and | divides the measure:

  • Samba1: LL.L.H.H|L.L.L.H.
  • Samba2: LH.HL.H.|L.H.LH.H
  • Samba3: L|.L.L..L.|..L..L.L|
  • 3rd Surdo: OO.OX...|O.O.X...
  • Partido Alto: L.H..L.L|.H..L.L.
  • Maracatu: L.H.L.H.|LH.HL.H.
  • Samba-Reggae: O..O..O.|..O..O..
  • Ijexa: LL.L.LL.|L.L.L.L. (HH.L.LL.|H.H.L.L.)


Alaiande Alaiande Xirê performed for Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá in Salvador, Brasil.

The singer enters in on the wrong side of the clave and the ago=g"o player adjusts accordingly. This recording cuts off the first bar so it sounds like the bell comes in 3 of the 2nd bar. Proof of clave in Brazilian music.

Notice that son and rumba clave can be extropolated from most of the rhythms above. LL.L.H.H|L.L.L.H.

For Samba3 above, the clave pattern is based on a common accompaniment pattern played by the guitarist. B=bass note played by guitarist's thumb, C=chord played by fingers.


What often differentiates Samba clave feel from Cuban clave feel is that whereas Cuban clave is typically one bar of rhythmic tension plus one bar of relaxation (speaking only generally), Brazilian clave tends to place the tension at either end with the relaxation in the middle. The pickup to the first bar sets off the tension.

In other music styles

Although the actual term clave is mostly used in the context of Afro-Cuban music, the rhythm also permeates Rock and Roll and Jazz. This is not surprising, as early twentieth-century musicians from Havana and New Orleans would take the twice-daily ferry between both cities to perform.

Both the New Orleans "Second-Line" rhythm, and the variation in popular music which came to be known as the "Bo Diddley beat" are in similar to the son clave rhythm, with a shift of the accent from the third note of the three-note portion to the first note of that portion. The son clave rhythm is also used in the catch phrase "Shave and a haircut, two bits").

It should be noted, however, that whether or not there was any continuous exchange between musicians in Louisiana and Cuba, African musical traditions in the United States are very much a part of the musical heritage of the African American culture since the first slaves landed in the US.

Discussion of clave in Bossa Nova has been very problematic because of the insistence that Bossa Nova is distinct from samba. João Gilberto, the father of Bossa Nova, was not composing new song forms but was interpreting the Sambas-Canções (plural of Samba-Canção) of Tom Jobim, et al.

The bass riffs of China Grove by the Doobie Brothers use clave.

Rhythm instrument

Claves is also the name of the percussion instrument that plays the clave rhythm, consisting of two small wooden sticks that are hit together to produce a high-pitched sound, the regular clicks being the easiest way to recognize the clave rhythm.


  1. ^ Ortiz, Fernando (1950). La Africania De La Musica Folklorica De Cuba. Ediciones Universales, en español. Hardcover illustrated edition. ISBN 84-89750-18-1.


  • Ortiz, Fernando (1950). La Africania De La Musica Folklorica De Cuba. Ediciones Universales, en español. Hardcover illustrated edition. ISBN 84-89750-18-1.
  • Mauleón, Rebeca (1993). Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. Petaluma, California: Sher Music. ISBN 0-9614701-9-4.
  • Crawford, Richard (1935) America's Musical Life. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York. ISBN 0-393-32736-4.
  • Castro, Ruy (2000). Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. A Capella Books, ISBN 1-55652-409-9.

External links

See also

Categories: Rhythm | Cuban music

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