Most people associate salsa music with salsa dancing. It’s natural to hear about salsa music and immediately picture elegantly-dressed men and women flying across the dance floor while Latin music plays in the background.
So what is salsa music? Salsa music has deep roots in Latin history that deserve to be explored and brought to light. We want to focus on that music in the background with you.
Definition: What Is Salsa Music?
Salsa music finds its roots in Latin traditions that predate anything we might call “salsa” today, so asking what salsa music is will help us understand more about the culture and history of the place from whence it came.
A basic salsa music definition would be insufficient to fully describe the context and history of a genre that remains one of the most popular among specific communities worldwide.
Salsa music essentially combines multiple uniquely Latin styles of music into one unified genre. However, the origins of salsa music come into question due to the long and storied past of each element of the genre.
At its most fundamental, salsa music is a style of Latin American music based on son montuno, or “mountain sounds.”
We’ll discuss the history of these elements later on. Still, for now, it’s enough to know that salsa music combines the components of son montuno with tones of mambo, Latin jazz, bomba, plena, and guaracha.
Salsa Music Characteristics
A few essential characteristics of salsa music can help us understand more about the genre and how it communicates to an audience.
- 4/4 time signature
- Rhythmic foundation from clave rhythms
- Melodic and rhythmic syncopation
- Simple harmony, usually in a minor key
- Repeated chord patterns
- Call and response
- Lyrics focus on love and life
One of the most defining features of salsa music is probably the rhythm. The clave beat is a traditional Latin rhythm generally maintained by an amalgamation of percussion instruments.
Salsa music is best known for being upbeat and joyful. It’s easy to dance to good salsa music.
7 Examples of Salsa Music
The best way to learn about salsa music is to hear salsa music. You can quickly get a sense of what makes salsa music so unique when you listen to it for yourself.
Here are seven of the best examples of salsa music.
Performed by one of the most excellent salsa musicians of all time, “Llorarás” tells the story of two lovers who can’t seem to make things work between them. One is constantly leaving the other, begging them not to follow. Then the tears begin to flow.
Despite the upbeat Latin rhythm, Oscar D’León sings this particular song with a certain amount of melancholy in his voice.
The percussion is the driving force, backed up by the piano and the trumpet. The backup vocals lend their support, particularly towards the song's end. There’s a funny sort of heartfelt longing mixed in with the dance beats and happy notes.
La Vida Es Un Carnaval
“La Vida Es Un Carnaval” hits a little differently than other salsa songs. Although only released in 1998, this one became an instant classic.
It launched Celia Cruz into the limelight as a masterful salsa musician, quickly becoming one of the most commonly-covered salsa songs.
When you listen to the tune, you’re listening to an interesting juxtaposition of the minor keys that make salsa so popular and potently uplifting lyrics.
It’s pretty beautiful to consider that something with such a sullen disposition might be communicating hopefulness and joy. While it still has the rhythmic beat of a salsa song, it leans heavily into the minor notes to usher in a feeling of lament.
Vivir Mi Vida
In “Vivir Mi Vida,” Marc Anthony delivers a purely motivational tune that talks all about laughing through the hardships of life and not letting others bring you down. His song uplifts the spirit and encourages the human soul to dwell on better days rather than wallow in misery.
Marc Anthony brings salsa music and power ballads together with this song. He incorporates a stunning selection of harmonies and backup vocals that deliver the power this song ought to convey.
Although heavily reliant on drums, as most salsa music is, Anthony also brings in a distinctive horn section. With trumpets and trombones supporting his vocals, this particular salsa song feels a little more encouraging than others.
“He Tratado” is an excellent example of what happens when the lyrics of a salsa song match perfectly with the overarching tone of the salsa song. This song is a little bit sad, bitter, and more than a little aggressive with the driving beats.
The lyrics match well as we hear the story of a man who longs for his woman to return to him. But the woman has found love with a better man and the man singing this song is not over her.
It’s heartbreaking to hear him longing after he so desperately, especially with the upbeat trumpets blaring in the background and the percussion keeping the song moving so fluidly. But this song embodies salsa music, which is why we love it so much.
“Pedro Navaja” opens with nothing but percussion. The drums set the tone of the song. By the time the piano enters the mix, you’re already into the story that Ruben Blades is telling.
When the horns finally enter, the salsa beat is in full swing, and the building vocals pull you deeper and deeper into the rhythm. The construction of this tune is the closest thing to a masterpiece I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something.
Ruben Blades sings of a man walking the dark streets with a dagger in his jacket. Everything about the building nature of the song gives you the impression that something terrible will happen, but he lingers on it for the whole song until finally reaching the climax.
Periódico de Ayer
Hector Lavoe sings an interesting song about a man who compares his previous love to the passing worthlessness of yesterday’s newspaper: it’s the kind of thing that everyone is excited about in the morning. But when night falls, the excitement is over, and no one cares.
The trumpets play a crucial role in “Periódico de Ayer,” delivering on the essential moments and solos. At the same time, the percussion and piano keep a steady beat throughout the song.
Lavoe’s song doesn’t deliver a very positive message, but it has the same steady energy that is so critical to salsa music on the whole. It also features some lively instrumentation that makes the song incredibly interesting.
“Cali Pachanguero” is more about a place than a person, although the lyrics are mysterious. It leaves plenty of room for imagination as we listen to the Grupo Niche sing their ode to this thing they love.
It’s most likely that they’re singing about all the women they can meet in woo in California. The driving percussion keeps this upbeat salsa song moving at the right pace, and the dedicated trumpet gives it a little extra something.
The harmonies lean heavily into the dependence on the minor key that salsa music tends to inspire. But the lyrics are more uplifting and upbeat than other tunes about lost love and broken hearts.
5 Top Salsa Musicians
Now that we’ve heard a little bit of salsa music, it’s time to journey through some of the top musicians who have made their mark on salsa music over the years. Looking at the lives of these salsa musicians will help us gain a better appreciation for the genre as a whole.
It will also help call to mind faces and names to go along with a general grasp of what makes salsa music so unique.
Born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso in Havana, Cuba, in 1925, Celia Cruz would be known as one of the most loved and famous Latin artists of the 20th century.
Cruz was a singer and an actress, getting her start in Cuba before eventually moving to America after the 1960 Cuban Revolution. Already a success in her homeland, Cruz quickly became a sensation and an advocate for Cuban exiles in the United States.
With 37 studio albums in her discography, Celia Cruz is likely one of the best-known figures in salsa music.
Sometimes he is lovingly referred to as the “pharaoh of salsa” for his massive contributions to the genre. Born Oscar Emilio León Somoza in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1943, d’León’s interest in music dates back to his childhood.
He started by learning percussion with the random resources that he had around and taught himself bass as well. His musical career stayed on a steady uptick, and he eventually became active in various vocal groups.
His career took off in the 1980s, and he became quite a hit around the United States and Spain. His award-winning music has earned him a spot in salsa music's long and storied legacy.
While he is known professionally as Marc Anthony, the salsa singer was born Marco Antonio Muñiz Rivera, in New York City, in 1968. He got his start as the son of a musician, named for a musician, and raised loving music.
Anthony is an award-winning musician with multiple Grammys and Latin Grammys. His success across continents has established him as one of the best in the music industry, particularly in the Latin music industry.
His particular salsa music style is tropical salsa, and his success in this realm has been unparalleled.
Tito Puente was an American salsa musician, but his Puerto Rican heritage served him well over a 50-year career that included bandleading, songwriting, and record producing. He focused on dance-oriented songs that got people on their feet.
Born Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr., in New York City, in 1923, Tito’s music would one day be featured on popular television programs. His songs are some of the most recognizable salsa songs, and his popularity never seems to fade.
Tito’s career peaked in the 1950s, and his work did a lot to bring more mambo and other Caribbean sounds to the music industry.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1935, Cheo Feliciano became famous for composing salsa and bolero music. He was a singer, songwriter, and a wonderfully talented musician who would own a recording company one day.
Feliciano started pursuing music at a young age, and it turned his life into something outstanding. When he moved to the United States in the 1950s, he became a percussionist and eventually played with an orchestra.
Then he started singing, and things only took off from there. Although a heroin addiction nearly derailed his life completely, he was able to get things back on track and became one of the most beloved figures in salsa music.
The History of Salsa Music
As we noted at the beginning of this article, the origins of salsa music are masked in controversy. While we know that salsa music has been around in some form or other for decades, it’s hard to say precisely when it started.
The term “salsa” was never popular until the mid-1900s. Before that, iterations of salsa music existed in mambo and son montuno music styles.
Son montuno relies heavily on brass and percussion instruments, an offshoot of the older son Cubano, which started in the eastern Cuban highlands around the late 1800s.
As an amalgamation of these different styles of playing music, salsa became popular in the mid-20th century.
Throughout its history, it has seen many equally successful iterations. Most recently, a timba-fusion style of salsa music has become a hit.
As each new version emerges, salsa music remains one of the best genres for dancing and experiencing a little bit of culture.
What is Salsa Music? Final Thoughts
What is salsa music? To recap, salsa music is a beautiful cultural expression of rhythmic sounds and minor keys that tend to communicate something extraordinary about love or everyday life. It’s an upbeat genre of music that gets people dancing and grooving.
Salsa music is a very unique style of music that combines moments throughout time and brings them together into one tight, percussion-driven, trumpet-heavy sound that you can’t help but love.