Tango Argentino > Tango Music for Dummies

Discussion in 'Tango Argentino' started by Shandy, Mar 17, 2011.

  1. opendoor

    opendoor Well-Known Member

    hi Shandy, let me first post some resources that might be of interest and hook on to the discussion later (sorry, in a hurry).

    a musicality workshop by a guy I dont know youtube.com/watch?gl=DE&hl=de&v=Uxi7WFlQAf0

    the musicality workshop by Joaquín Amenábar youtube.com/watch?v=jROT1ipMySc

    Simba´s material on hearing simbatango.com/2009/12/19/what-to-listen-for-in-tango/
  2. dchester

    dchester Moderator Staff Member

    I've debated whether to attempt to address your question, as it is rather difficult to explain. These terms/concepts (like "phrases" and "sentences") don't have the same meaning to everyone, which makes it difficult to be sure if you are really understanding what others are really trying to say. Also, not all songs (whether tango, or most any other genre) are structured the same (assuming we could all even agree on what the "structure" on a song means). In any case, I've decided to give it a shot, with hope that we won't get bogged down too much over debates about terminology. The important things are the concepts.

    For me, my guiding principles are that I dance to what I hear, and what I feel. I couldn't care less about what is actually written on the sheet music, even though I do (or at least had) a music background. However, I do use music concepts to guide what I do. It's just that how I feel the music, might not match what's on the score (sheet music).

    OK, the first thing I'll start with is the "beat". For the purpose of this conversation I'll only use the terms, the slow beat and the quick beat (even though there are other beats, even quicker). The slow beat is what I base everything on, and will be the main unit I'll use to describe things in this post. Two quick beats take the same amount of time as one slow beat. A common 4 beat rhythm is Slow - Slow - quick quick - Slow. Just hoping to show the difference.

    Now onto the main structure (based on beats):
    I'm going to (mostly) talk about the typical or common type of tango song, but keep in mind that many (if not most) songs will vary from this, but they all vary in different ways.

    The typical tango song is of the type I will describe as A B A B A. As you may guess, the A section typically occurs 3 times and the B section typically occurs twice. BTW, I a lot of people call this type of song, an A B A song, regardless of how many times each section is repeated.

    In tango, each of these sections is typically 32 slow beats long (although a common variation is that some songs will only have 16 beats for the "B" section). Most often, the underlying rhythm will be noticeably different between the A section and the B section, or sometimes, it's just the melody (or lead) that changes between sections.

    Also, there may (or may not) be a brief intro at the beginning of the song (1 to 16 beats). There may also be 2 or 4 beats in between the A and/or B sections of the song, but I think more songs go right into the next section without any extra beats. There may also be something added on for the ending of the song, while others might slow down, or play some other games with the ending. One artist who is unique is Rodriguez, as what "typically" would be the last beat of the song is "missing".

    Another interesting thing about tango songs, is that typically, when there is a singer, he won't start until the second time in the "A" section of the song.

    Now I'll talk about some terminology within each section (32 beats). To be honest, I'm not sure how much of this stuff is really important, as I don't really think about most of this when dancing, but you asked about it, so I'll try to explain it.

    Sentence - Basically the 32 beat section can be divided into two 16 beat sentences (that's the most common usage of that term that I've heard, but like I said, I don't really think about this when dancing).
    Phrase - The 32 beat section can also be divided up into four 8 beat phrases. Again, we are counting slow beats. Thus a "sentence" consists of two 8 beat "phrases".
    Sometimes the first three phrases are very similar, with the 4th phrase being more different, (partly as a way to create a little tension in the song (to be resolved), and also to facilitate transitioning to the next section). In other songs, the last two phrases could be very different (with respect to the melody).

    As for me, I tend to mostly think in terms of 4 slow beats. For me internally, I think of it as a measure of the song in 4/4 time (music terminology). I know some people think in terms of two slow beats, 4 quick beats, or even 8 slow beats (a phrase). Occasionally I might also think about the phrase, but only in terms of two measures (not a single entity).

    The 4 beat measure is really what I think about in deciding my step rhythms. At times, I think of the step rhythms as the missing percussion (drum beats) in the song. Tango songs normally do not have percussion/drums, which is why some people have trouble finding the beat.

    Everything I've talked about thus far, has to do with the rhythm. Another aspect has to do with the melody (or lead), vs the accompaniment (the other instruments that are not playing the melody). Generally speaking, the lead (or melody) does one thing, while the accompaniment (sort of) does another. The accompaniment generally will keep a strict rhythm, pitch, etc., while the lead may occasionally vary away, although not for very much or very long. Most people will take their step patterns or cues strictly from the accompaniment, some will be influenced mostly by the lead, while others will bounce back and forth (and even jump between various instruments for their cues (Poema is one such song)). Typically, I'll distinguish between the lead (melody), the bass, and the rest of the accompaniment.

    At the end of the day as a leader, you just want to create interesting step patterns that accent the song. Of course, every beat doesn't deserve an accent, and there are many correct answers for what should be accented (or stepped on).

    Here are a couple songs that follow the more or less "typical" song that I tried to describe. Neither have any intro, so they start right with the "A" section. Also, there are no extra beats in between each section. Poema does have one variation, in that it's "B" section only has 16 beats instead of 32.

    Bahia Blanca: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvQ3wgo9jLc

    A few comments:

    • Chicho does his first step at the start of the second phrase, then pauses for the next three beats (the rest of the "measure", then makes his second step at the start of the next "measure".
    • The first "B" section starts around 0:36 into the video.
    • The second "A" section starts around 1:10 into the video.
    • The second "B" section starts around 1:44 into the video.
    • The third "A" section starts around 2:18 into the video.

    Poema: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pgbt0oD-MnA


    • I couldn't help noticing that like is the prior video, the first step is done at the start of the second phrase (the 9th slow beat), and the next step is done at the start of the next measure (the 13th beat of the song).
    • The first "B" section starts around 0:40 into the video (only 16 beats, instead of 32 beats).
    • The second "A" section starts around 0:56 into the video (where the singing starts).
    • The second "B" section starts around 2:02 into the video (again only 16 beats).
    • The third "A" section starts around 2:18 into the video.

    I hope this helps, at least a little.
  3. tangomonkey

    tangomonkey Active Member

    Well done!
  4. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    I enjoyed your post, and found your exposition regarding typical song structure crystal clear, so thank you.

    Then I watched the first VT clip, and can't stop laughing. Their obvious technical facility aside, if I EVER start dancing like that, please will someone tell me, and I'll go home, and promise never to dance tango again. I've never seen anything so grotesque: poor Di Sarli, did he ever guess that you could do a both-feet sacada by just jumping at your follower, and the whole preceding section was just more-and-more outrageous. Just because you can, doesn't mean that you should. It's made my day, but ...
  5. dchester

    dchester Moderator Staff Member

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I was wondering how long it would take me to learn how to lead that triple gancho they did.

  6. Shandy

    Shandy Member

    I LOVE my Spotify. 33 different version after taking out all the full-string orchestra versions plus the ones that start singing within the first few seconds. Includes four different versions from Francisco Canaro.

    Overkill maybe, but my mum told me to learn something new everyday!!
  7. Shandy

    Shandy Member

    So many thanks to everyone so far!

    Dchester: "a little help" lol - that was so clear and helpful, lots and lots to digest. It took up all my screen and whilst reading it, I was thinking how brilliant, I sort of understand it but I wish there were examples, scrolled down and WHAM. Took a workshop with Ney Melo in London and he did his chair-musicality thing (actually, that was the straw that convinced me that I wanted to 'run-the-extra-mile') on developing my understanding of the music. The dancing is a separate matter, even though we all know they're related.

    Opendoor, thanks for those resources: hopefully some posters will be able to use them to develop this thread.
  8. bastet

    bastet Active Member

    dchester that was awesome. It's has similarities to the basic musicality lesson I do.

    I'll add on, listening to the music and understanding the basic things like phrasing is great, and then translating it to movement gets more difficult.

    One of the first things I usually ask people to do in actual practice is concentrate on beginnings and ending and acccenting those. I usually ask people to walk and just stop and do simple weight changes or pauses as they hear end of phrase approaching so they can start to get the idea of closure/resolution and begin again as they hear a new beginning of phrase and then build on it with other more complicated movement. I've always thought it a good exercise at least to help put the theory in to practice.
  9. tangomonkey

    tangomonkey Active Member

    The next step is to see how well El Choclo fits into dchester's (excellently described!) tango framework. Is the structure A-B-A-B-A? Is there an introduction and/or coda (an ending bit that is different than the other sections)? Are the sections (the A and B parts) 32 beats long? How are they divided - into two 16 beat phrases, or four 8 beat ones, or something else? How are the sections different - rhythm, melody, mood...? When sections are repeated are they varied, and if so how?

    I've done the analysis on El Choclo and am familiar with most of the recorded versions by the main Golden Age bands. And I have a few recordings by modern ensembles too. PM me or start an El Choclo thread is you want some help. Good luck and have fun.
  10. tangomonkey

    tangomonkey Active Member


    Learn the terminology of music. It exists to eliminate confusion when describing and talking about music. "Structure" (or "form"), "sentence", "phrase", "introduction", "coda", "beat", "syncopation", etc. have clear definitions. Read about time signatures and keys and note values too.

    The more you can identify when listening (not dancing) to music the better, ie. the deeper will be your understanding. Then let your dancing flow freely and intuitively - no thinking, just doing. Dance what you feel and let your intellectually gained knowledge operate subconsciously.
  11. AndaBien

    AndaBien Well-Known Member

    Good advice, and I think all dancers should be able to discuss music using clear terminology. Unlike tango, music has well-defined terminology, and as had for centuries.
  12. Shandy

    Shandy Member

  13. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    Aww, come on...
    Yeesh, how hard are you gonna make us work?
    Let us know what you found.
  14. tangomonkey

    tangomonkey Active Member

    OK. I'll start a thread and go over El Choclo when I get a chance.
  15. Gssh

    Gssh Well-Known Member

    Gsshs Tango for Dummies
    (my standard speech to beginning leaders)

    1) Musicality is the easiest part of tango to fake. A trick takes a lot of time to master, and you can only use it once per dance, having basic musicality works all the time.

    2) Every 4 bars something interesting happens, every 8 bars something more interesting happens. Counting bars up to 8 for a week while driving and having tango playing will make this automatic enough that it is no longer distracting from dancing.

    3) Do something, anything to mirror these interesting things in the dance - pause, accelerate, do a trick, start a giro, end a giro, switch instruments, switch rhythms. What exactly the interesting thing is depends on the structure of the piece, and will be pretty obvious after a few hundred miles on the dancefloor, but for now the nice thing is that it doesn't really matter what you do. If the music pauses and you start running it is nice to form a counterpoint to the music. If there is a crescendo and you pause it is nice to feel the tension building and resolve it when the crescendo reaches its max. If the orchestra is mischievous and doesn't do the expected thing - just laugh and enjoy being tricked - if the follower is musical she gets the joke, and if she isn't it doesn't matter anyway.


    I not sure if musical terminology and reading sheet music actually helps - for me musicians music and dancers music are almost two separate things. I tend to think of the tango orchestras more like i think of great dj's at clubs who mix and scratch and slow down and and accelerate the music to get specific effects on the dancefloor. I think there is a lot of things going on in the music that are not on the sheet - like the swing in milonga or the rhythmic structure of vals. That is one of the reason some of the modern tango bands don't seem to be that much fun to dance to to me- they are great musicians playing all the right pieces but their phrasing seems to me to be subtly off and does not support the dance.
  16. sudoplatov

    sudoplatov Member

    It's as easy to read both as to read either.
  17. AndaBien

    AndaBien Well-Known Member

    Sounds like a good way to explain it.

    I'm reminded of an old-timer playing music in a folk cafe, who wanted the audience to sing along. He said, "If you sing the same note, it's called unison. If you sing a different note and it sounds good, it's called harmony. If you sing a different note and it sounds bad, it's called jazz".
  18. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    Learning to read music most certainly doesn't tell you everything abput the music you hear. But it DOES reveal the basic structure(s) and other things I think are important.
    For instance "there are no pauses in milinga". Not only do I hear them, but I see them in the written versions. They are of shorter duration than in vals or tango itself, but they are there.

    One of the reasons there is so much confusion and miscommunication regarding AT is that there has been little standardization. While it's possible to create something as good as what has gone before and stood the test of time (many many books have been written about dance, but you would think not), the chances are slim, I think, of out doing someone who has, for instance, years of study and decades of experience.

    I agree with Gssh about the importance of those nearly impossible to define qualities in music (and probably dance, too). And I cherish the people who known enough about it to point out, for example, the differences between original big band swing and "neo swing", and between original rockabilly and neo rockabilly. I haven't found the same level of analysis yet in AT music.
  19. AndaBien

    AndaBien Well-Known Member

    I agree.

    However, learning to read music well enough to follow an orchestra could be a challenging and frustrating task. I do think learning to understand the structural basis of tango music would be very valuable, especially to a leader, but I think it could be done a lot more easily than by learning to read music. I would guess that 80-90% of the tango dancers in BA can't read music.
  20. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    Oh, my, the tango dancers in BA.
    You think that many read music?

    No disrespect to the old-timer, but my father used to say something like that. He said other things about music, too, that turned other to be utterly wrong.

    When I first brought up looking at the sheet music to see how things were notated, I wrote that it was something you could do in you "really really" want to get into it.
    I've been at this for some time now, and have the benefit of being somewhere where the level of "tango awareness" is pretty high. I've learned from that enviroment, and want to keep learning.

    Looking forward to reaping the benefits of tm's study of El Choclo.

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