Music & Entertainment

Learn About Music: Clave Rhythm Definition and Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 5, 2019 • 5 min read

African and Caribbean traditions have had an indelible influence on pop music, particularly when it comes to rhythm. Afro-Caribbean rhythms are noted for their light, “danceable” feel, due to their emphasis on syncopation and asymmetrical rhythmic patterns. To understand how these concepts actually manifest in music, consider the rhythmic pattern known as the clave.

Pronounced clah-vay, clave translates to “key” in Spanish. It’s been suggested that the name derives from a clave being the keystone that holds a house together in construction.

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What Is Clave in Music?

A clave is a set of repeating rhythmic accents that are emphasized on top of the groove of a song. This means that while the band grooves like it would on any other song, they continually accent certain beats above all others. A clave can technically accent any beat, but some accents are particularly popular within certain genres of music.

The key to clave is that it is asymmetrical: it does not accent the same beats on every measure, unlike other more standard time signatures (2/4 or 4/4). This makes it distinct from rock, pop, hip hop, funk, and country songs that do not draw on the Afro-Caribbean tradition. Those genres may feature rhythmic accents that are the same on every measure. But when you utilize clave, you ensure that no two consecutive measures will accent the same exact set of beats.

There are many forms of clave in Latin music, but the style most commonly heard in popular music is the son clave, which originates in Cuba.

Is Clave an Instrument or a Rhythm?

Clave is the name of a rhythm, but there is also an instrument called a clave. It’s a set of two wooden sticks, typically with a high pitch that can cut through the sound of a large band all playing together. The clave player has one purpose: to play the steady repeating clave pattern throughout all or most of the song.

What Instrument Do You Need to Play Clave Rhythm?

Any instrument, including the clave, can play the clave rhythm. This is because clave is not a set of pitches; it’s a set of rhythmic accents. And while not every instrument uses pitch, every instrument uses rhythm.

What Does Son Clave Mean?

There are two types of son clave—the 3:2 son clave and the 2:3 son clave.

The 3:2 son clave is a repeating two measure set, where the first measure has 3 accented beats and the second measure has 2 accented beats. In music notation, it looks like this:

music notes

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If you want to imagine the sound of this pattern, think of the classic ‘60s pop hit “I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves.

A 2:3 son clave is simply an inverted 3:2 son clave, where the first measure gets two accented beats and the second measure gets three accented beats.

sheet music

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Musical Genres That Use Clave Rhythm

While clave music doesn’t dominate the Top 40 in the United States, it’s still heard in popular music in one form or another. Clave is the primary orienting rhythm in:

  • Salsa
  • Rumba
  • Conga
  • Songo
  • Son
  • Mambo
  • Dancehall
  • Songo
  • Timba
  • Afro-Cuban jazz
  • Reggae
  • Bossa nova
  • Samba
  • New Orleans jazz

To hear prevalent use of clave seek out the music of the Caribbean, particularly Cuba. The musical traditions of Cuba, and surrounding nations like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Barbados, can be traced in a direct line from the enslaved people brought to those islands from sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s also worth noting that these musical genres don’t all use the same clave patterns. For instance, rumba clave is nearly identical to son clave, the pattern is different by one single eighth note, and that vastly changes the overall feel.

Meanwhile, bossa nova is considered a highbrow musical style in Brazilian culture, and it frequently features son clave. But samba is considered the music of everyday people in Brazil and is much more ubiquitous in the culture—and its clave pattern is something completely different. (And some Brazilians will insist there’s no clave whatsoever in their music—possibly as a point of national pride to draw a distinction from Cuba.)

Examples of Famous Songs With Clave

Clave patterns are all over popular music, and not just Latin or Afro-Cuban recordings. The key is that most clave accents are surrounded by an overall drum pattern, so they may not always jump out to the untrained ear. Listen carefully, though. It’s in there.

  • “Son de la Loma”: This salsa classic (which translates to “they are from the hills”) is a good example of 2:3 clave buried inside a robust full rhythmic pattern. Many recordings exist, but check out one by Tito Puente on Lo Mejor De Lo Mejor (1990).
  • George Michael, Faith (1987): To repeat, clave patterns go far beyond pure Afro-Cuban music. Listen to the hit title track from this 1987 George Michael album to hear a hard 3:2 son clave in the rhythm guitar.
  • Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley (1958): If you’ve ever heard someone use the term “the Bo Diddley beat,” they’re more or less talking about a 3:2 son clave. Listen to this debut recording from the R&B guitar legend to hear for yourself.
  • Santana, “Oye Como Va” (1970): This song was originally composed by the aforementioned Tito Puente, but the Santana version is the most famous rendition, as it introduced clave and other Latin rhythmic ideas to a rock audience. Discover how clave and other rhythms influenced Carlos Santana here.

Clave in Afro-Cuban Jazz

Traditional Afro-Cuban music is rhythmically exhilarating but harmonically predictable. A lot of the chord changes are remarkably similar from song to song. Jazz, on the other hand, is known for its incredibly sophisticated harmonic patterns—whereas some Afro-Cuban folk music might only have three or four chords, it’s common for jazz tunes to have a dozen or more. (Learn about jazz forms with Herbie Hancock.)

So when you fuse the harmonies of traditional jazz with the rhythms of traditional Afro-Cuban music, you get Afro-Cuban jazz. It is oriented around clave, unlike most jazz. But it uses the typical instruments and sounds of jazz, unlike most types of music featuring clave.

Some prominent artists performing Afro-Cuban jazz and their songs are:

  • Dizzy Gillespie, “A Night in Tunisia”
  • Cal Tjader, “Ritmo Uni”
  • Machito, “Minor Rama”
  • Paquito D'Rivera, “Son for Maura”
  • Arturo Sandoval, “Dear Diz”