Latin Music Styles for the Music Therapist

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Music therapy intern Nathalie Hernandez shares her love for and experience with Latin music in this personal and informative blog post.

An essential requirement to becoming a skilled music therapist is having a repertoire list with popular songs from various decades and genres; one of those genres being Latin music. Latin music is packed with melodic horn lines, steady yet light cowbell and congas, unique harmonies, and a powerful vocalist singing with passion and conviction. As a proud Latina and curious music lover, I wanted to educate myself and other music therapists on the many different types of Latin music and the history behind this music.

I am excited to dig deep into a genre of music that is special to me, and proud to represent this culture as I noticed during my time at school and in my internship, there is not a wide variety of ethnicities among the music therapy field. White, Caucasian, or European music therapists make up 88.34% of professionals in the field, while Hispanic music therapists make up less than 4% (American Music Therapy Association, 2021). It’s important to note, the Hispanic population makes up 19.1% of the United States total population (United States Census Bureau, 2023). As professionals who work with people of all different backgrounds, I hope people of different ethnicities continue to join the field and I hope music therapists continue pushing themselves to learn about different cultures in order to provide the best service for their clients.

During my internship, I was so delighted to work with a few Hispanic clients as I was able to provide music that is so rooted in who I am; a part of me that I usually keep to myself. Not only does it bring personal fulfillment being able to express music so meaningful to me, it’s rewarding to see a client instantly light up when they hear me sing a recognizable Latin classic. Recently, someone asked me why I’m even doing music therapy in the first place, and it’s for special connections like this that I had the ability to create. I feel honored knowing my Latin culture will make me special as a music therapist and will have a unique impact on my clients.

When researching for this blog post, I came across music therapist Eden Medina’s thesis study titled, Racial and Ethnic Representation in Music Therapy Education.  She writes “There is beauty in experiencing a diversity of cultures. When musical representation is diverse and inclusive in music therapy education, students and new professionals may feel better prepared to work with clients of different races and ethnicities” (Medina, 2021). Popular types of Latin music we may come across when facilitating older adult sessions are mambo, mariachi, ranchera, bolero, and salsa.


Mambo is a Cuban music style created in Havana, Cuba and established in the 1930s (MasterClass, 2021). What makes mambo, mambo, is the heavy use of rhythmically complex guajeos, which is a syncopated musical phrase or rhythm that is repeated persistently (Dunnett, 2023), and typically copying a clave pattern (MasterClass, 2021). I know what you’re thinking: who wants to hear the same annoying rhythm over and over again – Latin people do! That clave sound just makes me want to dance more. Splice, a reputable platform for music producers, describes a piano guajeo in Latin music as more of a percussion instrument, serving as a rhythmic anchor accompanying a soloist (Splice, 2023). These intricate patterns are what caught the attention of American musicians and popularized Mambo in the United States in the 1940s and 50s. Salsa music is like the modern-day mambo music (MasterClass, 2023). Just as all genres develop and adapt over time, their name may change too. A mambo song that I know only from hearing it played multiple times at my Peruvian family gatherings is “El Cayuco” by Tito Puente.

Nathalie included a video that highlights American style mambo dancing vs 1950s Cuban style mambo dancing. This link takes you to the 8 minute mark where you can see the steps put to the music!


Mariachi music is a Mexican music style known for its four or more performers in matching attire, singing and playing traditional folk instruments such as the high-pitched five-string vihuela, bass guitar called the guitarron, violins, and trumpets (MasterClass, 2021). Mariachi music evolved from a regional Mexican music style called son jalisciense, where the people from the Jalisco region of Mexico would perform during special occasions (Houston Symphony, 2014). By the early 1900s, son jalisciense performers completely emerged themselves in what we see as identifiable features of a Mariachi band today: the outfit of a ‘Mexican cowboy’ and public performances in local venues (MasterClass, 2021). They sang traditional Mexican songs with emotion and power. What better way to express that emotion than with a big grito! A grito, which translates to “a yell” was a way for mariachi performers to demonstrate their love for the music and audience members to show their gratitude (Salinas, 2016). I asked my brother what his favorite mariachi song is, as his hidden talent is belting out a Latin classic during karaoke, and he said “Cielito Lindo”. This literally translates to “little heaven beautiful”, however in this song it means “sweetheart”, like a term of endearment (I got that fact from my brother!). 

Check out this link for an awesome Tiny Desk Concert from an all female Mariachi group!


Ranchera is a Mexican music style that developed from mariachi identified by its polka rhythm, which is a waltz rhythm, and its classic mariachi instrumentation of violins, trumpets, guitars, and guitarron (World Café, 2012). If you’re unfamiliar with polka music like me, polka music originated in Eastern Europe, and was introduced to the people of Mexico in the late 1900s by the immigration of Germans and people from what is now called Czech Republic (Music Interviews, 2015). Ranchera, which translates to “from the ranch”, established its traditional rural sound during the Mexican Revolution around 1910 singing songs about love and patriotism (World Café, 2012). As the revolution continued for the next 10 years, Ranchera music changed its message to songs about the political climate. These songs were staples in Mexican movies during The Golden Age of Mexico, late 1930s to 1960s. “Mexico was the cosmopolitan of Latin America. Imagine if Hollywood and Broadway were in the same city” says Felix Contreras, NPR’s Alt.Latino co-host. I discovered “La Llorona”, performed by one of the most famous ranchera singers of all time, Chavela Vargas, was also a featured song in the recent Disney movie, Coco. As you can tell, ranchero music and mariachi music are still very popular in Mexico and in the United States today. 

For the English translation of "La Llorona"'s lyrics, follow this link. The caption of this video also gives a brief description of some of the song's rich history. Nathalie also included links to performances of this piece by Lila Downs and Daniel Robledo for your viewing pleasure!


Check out this link to learn how to dance Bolero!

“Besame Mucho'' was released in 1940 and was written by Mexican songwriter, Consuelo Velazquez (Wikipedia, 2023). I remember being happily surprised when a number of people in an older adults group sang along to this song during a music therapy session. The genre of this song is considered to be bolero. Bolero music is not a different style of rhythm or instrumentation, but is used to describe Latin love songs. Written mainly by Mexican composers, Boleros gained attention and popularity from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world in the 1940s (Contreras, 2008). Boleros burst with feelings of eternal love, heartbroken love, and everything in between. One of my favorite songs off Celia Cruz’s album titled Boleros, is “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”. “La Llorona”, the Mexican folk song previously mentioned above, is also considered a bolero.


The latest Latin music style music therapists should become familiar with is salsa music. This Cuban influenced genre is used to describe dance music from Latin America and the Caribbean. I was surprised to learn salsa music was actually created in New York City in the 1960s by Cuban musicians of Bantu (indigenous African) descent (MasterClass, 2021). While there are incredible salsa musicians from all over Latin America, early salsa in the United States was played by many people from Puerto Rico which led to salsa elements in popular Puerto Rican genres as well such as bomba music. Salsa music’s climb to popularity became evident when salsa spread from New York City back to Latin America and Caribbean countries in the 1970s. Recognizable characteristics of salsa music include bell patterns, Afro-Cuban rhythms, guajeo patterns, tumbaos bass patterns, Spanish-language lyrics, and influence from an abundance of Latin American music styles. Another feature of salsa music is a large group of percussionists and percussion instruments. I know when my Peruvian family breaks out the cowbell, it’s time to dance! One of the biggest salsa artists of all time, and one of my favorite artists, is Marc Anthony. My current favorite salsa song is "Mala" from his latest album, Pa’lla Voy.

Check out these videos to learn salsa dance basics, or watch some amazing moves from professional salsa dancers!

Final Thoughts

Writing this blog post made me fall in love with Latin music all over again. While there are still so many different types of Latin music styles I want to explore, and share with the music therapy world, I feel as though these 5 are most beneficial for a music therapy session with older adults. Latin music is such an influential part of who I am as a musician and who I am as a person. I’m excited to use this newfound knowledge and sparked inspiration for my culture in the next chapter of my music therapy journey. 

Works Cited

American Music Therapy Association. (2021). Workforce Analysis. Retrieved on December 26th, 2023, from

Contreras, F. (14 February 2008). Canciones de Amor: Boleros for Your Lover. Songs Of Love And Loathing. NPR Music. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, from

Dunnett, B. (2023). Ostinato. Music Theory Academy. Retrieved on December 26th, 2023, from

Houston Symphony. (24 July 2014). The Untold Story of Mariachi Music. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, from

MasterClass. (2 November 2021). Mambo Music Guide: A History of Mambo’s Cuban Origins. Retrieved on December 26th, 2023, from

MasterClass. (8 September 2021). Mariachi Music Guide: A Brief History of Mariachi Music. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, from

MasterClass. (2 November 2021). Guide to Salsa Music: A Brief History of the Salsa Genre. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, from

Medina, Eden. (2021). Racial and Ethnic Representation in Music Therapy Education. Theses & Dissertations. 109. Retrieved on December 26th, 2023, from

Music Interviews. (11 March 2015). How Mexico Learned To Polka. NPR Music. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, from 

Salinas, B. (23 August 2016). In Mariachi Music, A Distinctive Yell Speaks To The Soul. Morning Edition: Code Switch. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, from 

Splice. (3 October 2023). 3/ Guajeo. Twitter. Retrieved on December 26th, 2023, from

United States Census Bureau. (28 September 2023). Hispanic Heritage Month: 2023. Census. Retrieved on December 26th, 2023, from

Wikipedia. (21 November 2023). Bésame Mucho. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, fromésame_Mucho

World Café. (18 October 2012). Latin Roots: Ranchera. NPR Music. Retrieved on December 27th, 2023, from