Your ears aren’t just little ornaments on the sides of your face.
They’re direct pathways to your brain.
Take advantage of this convenient link by sending your brain a direct dose of Spanish music.
Your amygdala is the DJ and the gray matter is the dance floor.
Music stimulates your brain functions to improve your memory capacity, attention span, ability to focus and language skills.
This makes all types of Spanish music ideal resources for learning Spanish.
When you think of Spanish music, you might go straight to the signature sound of Latin America: salsa.
And sure, those twanging guitars, brassy orchestras, big beats and complex lyrics get your brain into the perfect state to learn Spanish.
But there’s a whole wide world of Spanish music genres out there.
Why Language Learners Should Explore the Many Types of Spanish Music
So, we’ve noted that Spanish music is great for your brain and overall learning experience—but why should you bother exploring more genres?
- They’re an enormous part of Latin American and Spanish culture. These genres of music are deeply rooted in history, culture and the Spanish language itself.
- Each region of the Spanish-speaking world has its favorites. You don’t know the Dominican Republic if you don’t know about bachata. You don’t know Colombia until you know classic salsa. You can’t know Argentina without knowing tango.
- They make for unforgettable Spanish lessons. Music is incredible for memory, even if you think you’re not the musical type. Learning a few choice lyrics can get vocabulary and grammar to stick in your brain effortlessly.
- Singing along polishes your pronunciation. When you start memorizing lyrics so that you can sing along, you’ll naturally start picking up on tone and how letter sounds are vocalized in Spanish—something that’s much harder to do when staring at a book.
And singing along employs the effective language learning strategy called shadowing—where you do your darndest to imitate the person you’re listening to. It’s well known as a strategy to improve pronunciation.
- Singing a whole Spanish song is a major confidence boost. Dude, once you’ve memorized a whole song and can sing along without looking at the lyrics, you’ll feel like a legit native. You’ll finally feel the soul of Spanish.
- Dancing + learning = good vibes! What more can I say? There’s no more enjoyable way to learn Spanish than listening to foot-tapping music with plenty of passion.
You’re much less likely to feel discouraged or negative while studying with Spanish music—it was made to make you happy!
The more you broaden your musical horizons, the better you’ll understand Spain and Latin America, and the more Spanish vocabulary you’ll pick up along the way.
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FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
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10 Irresistible Types of Spanish Music to Make You Dance
We’ll start off with the genres you probably already know since these tend to be the biggest and most popular genres throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
If you someday travel around Latin America, these genres will make up the background music of your life every day you spend walking around towns and cities—they emanate from every house and tiendita (little store).
Then, we’ll dive into some more niche and regional genres. After you get past the section about rock and roll, expect some new twists and turns.
With every type of music below, I’ve included a little playlist of songs that fit into the genre so you can get a taste of the sound.
The earliest form of salsa arose in Cuba in the 1920s as a mixed salsa (sauce) of Cuban son and rumba music. This early salsa absorbed a number of other musical influences, including jazz, rock and mambo, over the decades to become the modern salsa we all know and love.
In any given salsa song, you’ll usually hear bass guitar, piano, bongo and conga drums, claves, maracas, a guíro or two—and maybe even a brassy orchestra to fill out the sound.
The guíro is a dry, hollow gourd with lines cut into it that can be scraped with a stick to make a scratchy, rhythmic sound, similar to the sound of a washboard. Claves are basically just two sticks that are banged together. When dancing salsa, follow the beat of the claves.
The often romantic, poetic lyrics are excellent for language learners to improve the richness of their vocabulary.
While it gained popularity in America the 1950s, it only really took off in the 60s, during “The Fania Years,” when Fania Records made a huge push to grow salsa’s popularity worldwide—obviously, with great success. The 60s are still considered the golden age of salsa, giving birth to the classic sound that was adopted and adapted by Celia Cruz, Marc Anthony and more over the years.
Merengue can be fast, extremely fast—even impossibly fast for newbie dances. Luckily, the two-step, left-right-left-right dance is simple enough for anyone to master, so long as you have the energy to keep up with the crazy-fast beats.
It’s great for language learners because it covers such a vast array of topics and themes, and lyrics are often more humorous.
All you really need is a tambora drum and a guíra (a scraper instrument, similar to the guíro but made from metal) to get the merengue party started. Ask anyone in the Dominican Republic—the country where this music originated in the 19th century—and they’ll tell you.
Bachata is another Dominican sensation that’s popular worldwide, and not just in Latin America and New York City—weirdly enough, this genre has a dedicated fanbase in Japan.
It’s a very slick dance with two partners dancing close, requiring lots and lots of hip wiggling and foot-pop flourishes.
The lyrics tend to be over-the-top romantic or sexual in nature, often including themes of heartbreak and forbidden love. It’s the kind of stuff you just want to belt out in a ridiculously dramatic way, which is, of course, amazing for studying Spanish.
I’ve heard it said of the above genres that merengue is having a crush in musical form, while salsa is love and bachata is sex. Do with that information what you will.
Ah yes, the controversial, love-it-or-hate-it genre that’s undeniably popular in the Spanish-speaking world at large. It’s now also gaining popularity in the United States and other countries that aren’t majority Spanish-speaking.
Most recently, the popular reggaeton song “Despacito” beat out Taylor Swift in the U.S. top music charts. And you and I both know we danced the heck out of “Gasolina” by Daddy Yankee when we were back in middle school. It’s fine to admit it.
Reggaeton is usually straight-up party and dance music, which makes it perfect to blast loudly, dance to and sing along with. In my book, it’s perhaps the best genre for Spanish students just because of the fun factor.
And in terms of lyrics, it’s often very wordy music, especially between choruses, so it’s great for practicing informal Spanish, slang and yes, curse words.
Now, rock probably needs no introduction. Plenty of varieties of rock have made their way around the Spanish-speaking world, so you’ll find fans everywhere abroad.
Imagine my surprise upon arriving in Cuenca, Ecuador and finding roving gangs of rocker-dudes with all-black clothing, band T-shirts, bike chains and long hair grown out for headbanging.
Turns out, rock music is wicked popular in the mountain cities of Ecuador, for whatever reason. I can dig it.
There’s Spanish rock music out there featuring the classic styles from all big rock-and-roll decades in American history, including the 70s, 80s and 90s—there are even angsty emo-rock bands that capture the sounds of the oh-so-edgy early 00’s.
Bob Marley was a huge sensation internationally and, of course, his music touched the heart of Latin America. You’ll hear his tunes playing all over, especially in coastal areas.
It’s just the perfect vibe for a little ocean town, isn’t it?
Naturally, the reggae love inspired a number of Spanish-speaking musicians, who now produce their own reggae with a bit of Latin twist. The lyrics are mellow, as you might expect, and you’ll usually hear Spanish reggae artists singing about love, unity, world peace and, uh, a certain herb.
All around, it’s fun, slower-paced sing-along music for Spanish learners.
This genre of music originated in Colombia and was largely influenced by the culture and musical traditions of black Colombians.
In any cumbia song, you’ll hear the hollow, clacky sound of traditionally-handmade percussion, along with indigenous wind and string instruments. In modern cumbia, these instruments are sometimes replaced with modern instruments or even synthetic, electronic music that imitates the sounds.
It’s fun, percussive, upbeat and often features lyrics about life, community and happiness. And of course, like with any musical genre, it has its fair share of songs about love and loss.
This genre is definitely going to keep you feeling happy and encouraged while you sing along!
This is yet another genre of Colombian origin, with the name harking to the valle (valley) where it was created by cattle farmers.
It sounds similar to cumbia, having a distinct Colombian folk sound, but the main difference is that it includes an accordion and a “washboard” type sound produced by a folk instrument.
Often mushy and sentimental, there’s just something about a quality vallenato song that gives me goosebumps.
This is not my favorite genre in particular, but hey, we’re not dealing in opinions here, we’re dealing in facts. And the fact is that Balada (ballad) tunes are very popular.
They vary in sound, some being more pop and rock in nature while others have a more folk sound. Basically, a lot of different genres might fall within this—but the common factor of a balada is its powerful vocals and sappy, dramatic lyrics.
And it’s about 99% of the music in the books when you go out for a night of karaoke in Latin America. Locals there find it fun to drink their beer and sing sad songs as loudly and dramatically as humanly possible!
So, learn a few of the big hits of ballads and prepare yourself for nights out while traveling.
10. Música folklórica
Of course, “Folk Music” is a broad phrase that can hardly cover all the varieties found across Spain and Latin America.
At least in Latin America, this phrase tends to refer to music of indigenous cultures. Though, technically, cumbia and vallenatos are both good examples of folk music. It was produced by the more modern mestizo inhabitants of Latin America.
Every country in Latin America is home to different indigenous cultures, each with their own unique languages, instruments and musical stylings, so you can get lost in a sea of music if you begin exploring this genre. The trick for Spanish learners is to find folk music that’s sung in Spanish rather than an indigenous language so that it can supplement your language learning.
That said, some regional varieties of Spanish mix in indigenous words. For example, Ecuadorian Spanish speakers often mix a few choice Kichwa words into their speech. It might be valuable for you to listen to music in indigenous languages, just to get a feel for how those sound.
You’re fully prepared to sing and dance your way to Spanish fluency now.
The key is exposure. Try all of these genres out and find which ones you enjoy the most.
Then, stick with it! Dive deeper into your favorite genres, make playlists, burn CDs, download them to your smartphone—whatever you can do to keep this music accessible to you at all times.
Make it a goal this week to learn one Spanish song completely by heart and you’ll be amazed how much closer to fluency you’ll feel.
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