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Tango Musicality

The Tango Orchestra

What are the elements of tango music ?   What makes an Argentine Tango sound like an Argentine Tango ?   What makes tango music different than ballroom music or classical music ?   What are the instruments we listen to in an Argentine Tango Orchestra ?

Instruments in an Argentine Tango Orchestra
Violins  3  and a Viola  (sometimes a viola or a cello)
Bandoneons 4

Sometimes the orchestra is accompanied by a voice.   There were many great tango singers in the past, including Carlos Gardel.  Typically when we go to a milonga, the music we hear is from 1928 through 1954, also known as the Golden Age of Tango.   There are no drums in an Argentine Tango Orchestra.

The Range / Pitch of the Instruments
The bass has the lowest pitch and a rather short range.  It's strings are bowed or slapped or plucked.   When plucked, this is known as pizzacato.  Conductors had their own preferences.   Di Sarli's bass player never plucked, always arco....the bow sound.   Pugliesi music, sometimes you will hear the bass beings slapped with the bow.  Pulling strings so hard on the bass that the strings are slapped back at the bass is called a "slap pizzicato".

The piano is the most versatile instrument, with the greatest range of pitch.    The left hand playing single notes, playing the lower notes, the same as the bass.   When the piano is playing the rhythm, the right hand is playing chords....in very straight time, very short chords.    The piano can also play the melody.

The bandoneon, playing the marcado or short and sharp notes.  Almost like barking sounds.   The bandoneon gives us the passion of the dance !  ..it makes us want to dance !   The bandoneon can also play the melody.    The bandoneon, similar in looks to an accordian is however very different.   The layout is very chaotic.   The buttons on the right side are like an accordian key board in that they play chords.  The buttons on the right side play the higher pitch notes.   The left side buttons are not like an accordian keyboard, with each button only getting one note, rather than a chord, and they play only the low notes.  Some notes change pitch if you are pulling or pushing on the box and other notes do not change pitch making it a very complicated instrument to play.   One can also make rhythmic percussive sounds by making a scratching sound with the buttons by raking fingers over them or tapping on the side of the bandoneon.    A history of the bandoneon can be found on the BANDONION TAB.

Violins -  are played either by using a bow, bowing.....or by plucking the strings, known as pizzacato.  The violin is often leading the melody, however can also play the rhythm section, by playing really close to the bridge and with a sharp down stroke, creating a very short and sharp rhythmic sound.

Voice -  is always very lyrical and flowing.  

All instruments can play the rhythm section, with the exception being the bass, which never plays the melody.  Often, all the instruments seem to be desiring to be percussive instruments, though they are not.

Melody, Harmony & Rhythm

Melody, Harmony and Rhythm

Melody - is what can be "hummed" and it can be played in two ways.

Legato - meaning lyrical.   When an Argentine Tango Orchestra plays legato, the notes are never played exactly as written, that would be considered bad technique, bad form.   Legato is played with pushes and pulls.  When we dance....we whirl...we pause.  The orchestra will steal from one note, creating the sensation of the pulls and pushes, creating an expressive quality, creating an "interest".  This is very unique to tango.

Staccato - meaning play short.   The Argentine Tango Orchestra will play the melody notes, if written in staccato, exactly as written.

Counter Melody -  this is a secondary melody and is always played Legato.    Typically the violins play the counter melody and sometimes the bandoneon.

Special Effects -  very unique to tango are special effect sounds......like birds chirping, or whistling sounds, sounds of laughing and other sounds.   "Stuff like that just doesn't happen in Jazz or Rock n' Roll.

Rhythm Section  -  Who is playing the rhythm ?
- bandoneon    (note:  Di Sarli preferred to showcase the piano and seldom the bandoneon)
- bass
- piano
- and sometimes the violin    

Tango orchestra arrangers will use all the instruments switching one or more instruments from melody to rhythm.   One "phrase" the violins may have the melody and the rest of the instruments are playing the rhythm.   Another phrase, the violins may be playing staccato matching the rhythm of the bass, while the bandoneon will play the melody.  Or two or one of the violins may play Legato, while the other violins play staccato, either in melodic or with the rhythm section .   The arrangements can be endless and can be very intricate.    Just remember, the bass will never play the melody.    The next time you listen to a tango song, try to pick out, which instruments are playing the rhythm and which are playing the melody.   And what is the rhythm that is being played ?   Read on........

Two ways to play tango rhythm
Marcardo in 4   (a faster paced or even paced beat)
Marcardo in 2   (a slower paced beat or beats with more "space" between the beats)

These two rhythms are a big defining part of the tango orchestra.      Pugliese preferred the Marcardo in 2.   
Two additional rhythms that add variety to the Marcardos are "syncopath", and all tango arrangers use "syncopath".    Another is a rhythm known as "3 3 2" rhythms.

A milonga (remember the three definitions for milonga....see the glossary tab) song is different from a tango song.......in that a milonga defines what the bass is doing. The bass is playing a habanera rhythm, with many breaks that lead into the melodies.


Tango as a Story with Phrases ABACA

Tango Form Phrasing

- think of "phrasing" like "Mary had a little lamb, her fleece was white as snow" or "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are".

Tango has 8 slow beats.  And think of sentences that end.  A good example is Di Sarli's "Viviani".   Try listening to it and try counting out the 8 beats.   All tango songs follow this....but NOT always 8 slow beats.   There are trends but not formulas.  Some tangos don't have special effects.   Some are written in Marcado 4 and some are written in Marcado 2.    One phrase may have six slow beats instead of eight.   So, if you expecting, looking for eight beats, your dancing will be off by two beats.  So, it is important to listen to the melody line as they come and go and find the rhythm.

As Tango Dancers.......we learn to walk, we learn ochos, we learn to cross.......and the phrasing gets lost.   We learn to dance one word sentences.   
But....when we dance.....we want to dance sentences, dancing the phrases.

The old tangueros of Buenos Aires told me "it is like telling a story, when you dance a tango.  There is the introduction of the characters, the connection, the pressure, the playing out, a tense moment and then the release near the end.  Each one, each tango dance....is telling a story...it's not about executing one thing, then finishing and executing another thing and finishing and executing.  The old tangueros describe the dance as telling a story.

And musically, what is going on...is.... you have sentences, that tell a story.

When you dance you want to dance a story.   You want to dance musical sentences.   Four phrases make a section....each section like a paragraph.  And there is always three sections, A, B and C sections.    

The first paragraph introduces the characters and melody.  There are three musical sections:  A, B and C.   There is always a repetition of section A.  If you do not know the tango song and you are chatting with your partner during the first 30, 40 seconds of the opening section, it is a good time to take it in and learn what the song is about.

A section:  introduces the characters and melody.  Maybe a happy melody.
B section: will have a different feel or tone to it.   Maybe a darker or different melody.
A+ section:  a variation of the first A section.  The orchestra never repeats A as A
maybe the melody in A+ will be staccato, with a counter melody in legato
C section: different from A or B and often with a resolution step...and the variation to come in A".
A++ section: The Variation with rapid rhythms typically at the end...(very tango)....let's dancers show "what they got"

The musical progression could be ABA'CA", however could also be ABBA'CA", or ABCA'A".   There is no set form.

As social dancers we don't necessarily think about this progression of phrases too much, because we are improvising, we do no know in the A section what we are going to do in the C section.  Nor do we need to know.   These are things we come to expect....that there will be these changes and you will deal with them as a dancer.

The first time we hear Tango music
- We hear a Wall of Sound
- We don't know what instruments are there, we hear the music as just one piece.
- As we get better, we should be able to distinguish rhythms from melody.
- Learn to hear it in layers as multiple things coming into your ear, not just one block of sound.
- And begin to catch the melody and the counter melody.

When You Dance I Hope That You Feel the Music and Dance A Story !