Common practice music employs only a small handful of time signatures, but there is a multitude of different dances. The steps are different. But is there something other than meter and tempo that makes a piece of music more suitable for one dance and less suitable for the other?

For example, sarabande and minuet are both slow dances in 3/4 time. Is the music interchangeable? If not, then what makes them musically different?

I would be particularly interested in examples from baroque music and European folk music.

  • 1
    Meter and rhythm are very different things. You dance to a rhythm, not to a meter. A waltz is more that "one, two, three, one, two, three", and a tango is more than "one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four". Aug 7, 2019 at 5:55
  • In modern ballroom, both rumba and cha-cha (American form) are played about 120 bpm but are different.Similarly for tango and foxtrot (also about 120 to 128 bpm) and are clearly different. (To be fair, some dancers will do any of them to any of the music.)
    – ttw
    Oct 7, 2019 at 18:49

2 Answers 2


At least for dances from the Romantic era and backwards, music for different dance types in the same meter and tempo are not quite interchangeable. For example, even though they are both fairly slow dances in triple meter, the polonaise uses an 8th-16th-16th rhythmic pattern more often, emphasizes the first beat more, and often sounds more stately, while the sarabande (or at least its Baroque incarnation) emphasizes the second beat. Thus, rhythmic patterns and emphasis in the melody can make a piece of music more suitable for one dance and less suitable for the other.

  • Or you could contrast the polonaise with the mazurka. In addition to the differences in stress, there is the characteristic accompaniment of the polonaise, as you mention. (Chopin's Polonaise Op.44 contains a Tempo di Mazurka as a middle section!)
    – DjinTonic
    Nov 3, 2023 at 18:21

For ballroom dance, phrasing and melodic style matter. Rumba and cha-cha-cha are both in 4/4 with tempi around 112-136 or so. The rhythmic patterns are different as are the steps. In American styles, rumba music has a half+quarter+quarter feel (with the dance steps starting on beat 3, but that's another matter.) For cha-cha-cha, the style is quarter+quarter+quarter+eight+eight with the steps starting on beat two (country-western dancers start on beat one) and taking two quick steps on the last two eights and an accented step on beat one.

Often, people will choose to dance different dances to the same music. Swing and foxtrot are similar but the dances are different (both have dance steps that last a bar and a half.)

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