Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Five

In the fourth part of this series I looked at a popular tune ‘Mimosa’ recorded by the Francisco Canaro Orchestra in 1929, and proceeded to break down the structure of the tango tune in some detail.

I showed how the structure broke down into musical phrases, sections, and other components, and how these components repeated with variation, and described how a dancer could predict phrases of music and better interpret a tune even if not familiar with the tune.

So for in this and future parts of the Musicality series I will start looking at other Orchestras and their musical differences. I will look at a typical tango tune, and a vals and milonga by the same orchestra (where available – not all orchestras recorded vals and milonga tunes).

So in this Part 5 I am going to look at the ever popular Carlos Di Sarli Orchestra. Carlos Di Sarli’s music is often described as romantic, lyrical, smooth, and so on, but Di Sarli didn’t always sound like this. His early arrangements for quartets, sextets and so on, were far more traditional, compared to his hey day when he had finally found his own style.

However by 1944 when he and his Orchestra recorded the tune I am going to analyse now, he had established the well known Di Sarli style. The tune is ‘Motivo Sentimental‘ written by Emilio Brameri, with the marvellous voice of Alberto Podestá singing the lyrics of Carlos Bahr.

In this post I’m not going to break down the tune using pictorial representations like last time so we can dive straight into the music.

Tango – Motivo Sentimental

Here is the entire tune to listen to first. See if you can pick out the repetition of the different sections and phrases within each section, then I’ll break it down.

The first thing to notice is that this tune has 5 sections of approx 34 seconds each, resulting in an overall tune length of 2:50 minutes. This is very similar timing to Canaros recording of ‘Mimosa’ that we looked at last time, so even though there are 15 years between these two recordings, the same basic tune structure creates the same basic tune timing.

Now what follows are the different sections to listen to.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section A

You’ll notice Section A has one phrase repeated twice with a slight variation in the repeat which sounds a little more staccato. Also listen out for the ‘pom pom’ at the end of the section. It is a lot softer and less obvious than in ‘Mimosa’ but it is there. Remember that the ‘pom pom’s signal a dancer that the section has finished and a different melody is about to start.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section B

In Section B we have a different phrase repeated with slight variation again. The repeat sounds a little more staccato as did the second phrase of Section A. This time at the end of Section B there is no obvious ‘pom pom’ but there is a little 5 note trill played on the piano that helps to signal the end of the section. At the end of Section B we are just over a minute in and no sign of singer Alberto Podestá yet, so all musicality has had to developed using the tune only so far.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section A variation 1

Now Alberto Podestá starts to earn his crust with his fine voice, and Section A is repeated. This time it is the singer who is carrying the melody. The Orchestra is now just accompanying Alberto. So again, although it is the singer carrying the melody, you have already heard the melody before in this tune, so for this 34 sec section, you know what’s coming even if you’d never heard the tune before. Again we have a ‘pom pom’ at the end, but very quiet and gentle.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section B variation 1

This is a repeat of Section B but with Alberto Podestá carrying the previous refrain. The second phrase in this section does not sound as staccato as the instrumental version in Section A, but sounds a more regular ‘tic toc’ timing. This maybe simply that the previous sharp attack on the staccato notes would not have complimented the singers voice, because Alberto holds his notes as he sings. Finally there is a 4 note trill on the piano to signify the end of the section.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section A variation 2

In the final section, variant 2 of Section A, Alberto stops singing in the first phrase and we go back to a more staccato arrangement. Finally we have a much more obvious ‘pom pom’ at the end of the tune to signify the finish.

Listen again to the full tune with all the sections in the correct order and imagine how you might interpret this tune in your dance expression.

Carlos Di Sarli’s recorded output was mainly tango tunes, but he did record a few Milonga and Vals tunes so we will have a listen to one of each to see if the pattern of sections (ABABA) still holds for tunes with a different tempo.

Vals – Un Momento

Lets listen to the lovely romantic Vals called ‘Un Momento‘ written by Héctor Stamponi and recorded in 1952 with the singer Oscar Serpo. Here’s the whole tune before I break it down.

As you can hear, this is typical romantic Di Sarli at his best, and if you imagine your dance interpretation to this Vals, I doubt if you would use decoration or tango movement which was too staccato. You would want to keep this dance flowing elegantly to the music.

So does the ABABA pattern still hold true for a Vals? Well first thing to note is that this Vals is nearly 2 mins 57 seconds long so only a few seconds longer than the previous Di Sarli recording. So allowing for technical factors such as turntable speed variation etc. this is about the typical length of previous tango tunes we’ve looked at.

Now what follows are the different sections to listen to.

‘Un Momento’ Section A

The first section A contains two phrases which are slightly different. Not much change there. Again no ‘pom poms’ with this Di Sarli Vals to signify the end of the section, but a three note slow trill from high to low. This makes it pretty easy to detect the end of the section.

‘Un Momento’ Section B

Section B is a new melody but the Di Sarli arrangement keeps it flowing nicely from the previous section.

‘Un Momento’ Section A variation 1

In this repeat of section A with variation we have the singer Oscar Serpo taking over the melody and the Orchestra goes into accompaniment mode providing some extra emotion with trills and runs of the open chords they play.

‘Un Momento’ Section B variation 1

In this repeat section B with variation the singer is still carrying the tune and the Orchestras accompaniment goes into some fairly playful ‘punctuation’ elements. A dancer would be able to anticipate how this section is going to sound overall, because the singer Oscar is repeating the refrain from the earlier sections of the tune. However, this is the first time we hear this playful ‘punctuation’ element, so if a dancer hadn’t heard this tune before (or this arrangement) they may not be able to use this element first time out. On next hearing though, it is interesting enough that you would probably recognise the tune early enough to remember the playful elements before they start.

‘Un Momento’ Section A variation 2

In the final section we revert back to a repeat of section A but with a nice mix of the first phrase being instrumental and the second phrase reintroducing the singer Oscar Serpo to finish off the tune. Again we have no ‘pom pom’ to fish off, but we have a lovely change of tempo as the music and the singer’s voice slows down for the last long elongated note. This easily signals the end of the whole tune.

So from that we can say that (at least for these Di Sarli arrangements) this ABABA pattern broadly holds true whether for tango or vals. This is very helpful to the dancer.

Milonga – Zorzal

Finally lets listen to a milonga tune. Di Sarli didn’t seem to record too many milongas and this may have been because he seemed to like the romantic arrangement of tunes. Milongas are happy tunes but don’t lend themselves well to the ‘romantic’ type arrangement. However in 1941 Di Sarli recorded a milonga called ‘Zorzal‘ with the help of singer Roberto Rufino. It was written by Dorita Zárate.

Now we start to hear something a little interesting because the pattern has changed slightly. Before breaking this pattern down, please have a listen to the whole tune

If you listen carefully there seems to be three different basic repeating patterns not just two. The AB sections are there but this time repeated 3 times for the pair of sections in an ABABAB type pattern, but there is also something else in between the AB sections. There is a shorter intro, two interludes and an outro sections which are all basically the same melody, so the composer is playing with the ‘standard’ ABABA format to form something a little more musically complex.

Also those of you already familiar with the milonga style of music and dance will hear that we still have typical Di Sarli lyrical strings and a fairly smooth feel to this milonga tune. This might lend itself to perhaps less of a ‘traspie’ (stumble) interpretation and more of a ‘liso’ (smooth) interpretation.

‘Zorzal’ Intro

This Introductory phrase is just 11 seconds long but it introduces the dancer to the faster milonga rhythm immediately. Milongas tend to be quicker rhythms to dance to and are often a bit shorter duration than a tango tune, so you don’t want to waste the first 15 – 20 seconds trying to work out what the rhythm is! This intro gives you that information pretty much immediately. It is also repeated 3 more times in the tune.

‘Zorzal’ Part A

Then we hear the Part A section with two repeating phrases. Again a slightly faster pace and a shorter overall section, and it’s instrumental.

‘Zorzal’ Part B

With Part B we hear two different phrases just for added interest, and the overall Part B is a different melody to Part A. Still brisk, still instrumental but the first section is classic Di Sarli smooth strings.

‘Zorzal’ Interlude 1

Now the composer inserts an interlude which is basically a repeat of the intro. This acts as an anchor point for the dancer because they’ve heard it once already, plus the two sections immediately after. Now the dancer broadly knows what’s coming next (even with variations) and can better interpret the music.

‘Zorzal’ Part A variation 1

Now we have the voice of Roberto Rufino supplying the melody while the Orchestra plays accompaniment, but it’s basically the same as the previous Part A, so no great surprises here and the dancers should be able to start playing with their interpretaion of the tune.

‘Zorzal’ Part B variation 1

This Part B variation is pretty much the same as the first Part B but again Roberto Rufino carries the melody. Dancers can carry on playing with a now familiar refrain.

‘Zorzal’ Interlude 2

As the second variations come to an end, another anchor point is introduced with another familiar interlude. We’ve already heard it twice, so it tells the dancer that the second AB pair is over and another is about to begin.

‘Zorzal’ Part A variation 2

‘Zorzal’ Part B variation 2

With the final repetitions of Parts A and B, the singer continues singing, but the rhythm and melody stays the same as before. Again, no big surprises for the dancers, because if the composer threw in a dramatic change of pace, section duration, or mood of melody, the milonga is so fast that the dancers wouldn’t be able to cope with big changes quickly enough. The tune enhances the dance, by not ‘getting in the way’.

‘Zorzal’ Outro

The final outro is simply the melody of the intro and interludes repeated for a final time, but with our old friend the ‘pom pom’ stuck on the end to signify the end of the tune. Happy dancers! 🙂

So in this part of the series, we have seen that for some new tunes with a different orchestral arrangement, the ABABA pattern can still be present, but that some composers and arrangers can also play with that basic pattern by inserting interludes, intros and outros. Providing they don’t mess up the dancers rhythm too much and give the dancers chance to ‘learn’ the tune by the end of the first AB pair, then the dancers will remain happy 🙂

In Part 6 I will look at Juan D’Arienzo’s Orchestral arrangements, which are quite a different feel to Di Sarli. We will still be on the look out for the ABABA pattern but may (or may not 🙂 ) come across something different.

By the way: For those of you beginning to think

‘Well of course all these tunes are exhibiting a common pattern, Steve, because you’re selecting the tunes that fit the pattern to prove your point. What about the thousands of other tunes out there?’,

it is true that I am currently illustrating a point, but there are plenty of Argentine Tango tunes, by plenty of different orchestras, out there on music and video websites, so get listening and see if I’m basically right or not 🙂

Previous – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part 4

Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Four

Mimosa FlowersIn the third part of this series we looked at the Orchesta Tipica, the instruments and how they express different elements of the music. Now we can look at the structure of a tango tune in more detail.

I will look at one popular tune ‘Mimosa’ recorded by the Francisco Canaro Orchestra in 1929, hence the lovely picture above… but maybe the tune was named after the orange and champagne drink? 🙂 I will show how the structure breaks down into musical phrases, sections, and other components, and how these components often repeat (with variation). This means that even if a dancer is not familiar with a tune, they can predict (guess?) what the music is likely to sound like once they’ve heard the first couple of sections, and so better interpret the second half of a tune with their dancing.

OK so we are going to listen to ‘Mimosa’, and the different sections of that tune, so we can compare the different parts, but first I’d like to show you a pictorial representation of the tune so you can more easily visualise the elements of a tune.Mimosa by Francisco Canaro, showing the different repeating sections to the musicThe first thing to notice is that this tune has 5 sections of approx 34 seconds each, resulting in an overall tune length of 2:50 minutes.

I’ve labelled each section and you’ll notice that there are only really 2 sections of differing melody, A and B, but in the sections labelled A+ and B+ there are some variations. The middle section A+looks different from the other Section A’s but that’s really only because the overall volume of that section is reduced. The waveform shapes are still similar.

The overall melody within two similar sections stays the same, but often different instruments play the melody in different sections. Sometimes (but not in Mimosa) there is a key change when a section is repeated. These variation to make it less boring to listen to.

Here is the entire tune to listen to first. See if you can pick out the repetition.

Now what follows are the different sections to listen to.

‘Mimosa’ Section A

You’ll notice in the diagram, Section A has one phrase repeated. Each phrase also contains a repeated refrain. Also listen out for the ‘pom pom’ at the end of the section. It tells a dancer that the section has finished and a different melody is about to start.

‘Mimosa’ Section B

In Section B we have two different phrases with each phrase containing a different repeated refrain and the whole Section B being a different melody to Section A. Also we have the ‘pom pom’ at the end of the section.

‘Mimosa’ Section A variation 1

In Section A var 1, it sounds like you have a new melody (the guitar) and this is true, but if you listen to the background the guitar is over-layed onto the melody from Section A, so you still have that ‘anchor’ to something you’ve already heard. Again we have the ‘pom pom’ at the end.

‘Mimosa’ Section B variation 1

In Section B variant 1 the ‘Phrase 1’ of the variation has the Bandoneon playing a slightly different refrain from the original Section B, but ‘Phrase 2’ is pretty much identical as played in the first Section B. Again we have the ‘pom pom’ at the end.

‘Mimosa’ Section A variation 2

In the final section variant 2 of Section A, we now have a new melody played by violins, but again listening to the background, the refrain is Section A again. Finally we have a more dramatic ‘pom pom’ at the end of the tune.

Listen again to the full tune with all the sections in the correct order and imagine how you might interpret this tune in your dance expression.

Is this the standard for writing tango tunes?

If you’ve ever wondered why so many tango tunes seem to be between 2:30 to 3:00 minutes long, the reason is that composers would create a walking beat of approximately 64 per minute (or 32 bars of music per min in 4/4 time). This would be 2 of the sections shown.

If a composer sticks to the ‘5 section’ tango format then the length of a tango will be about 2:30 min. This would be 80 bars of music and a total of 320 music beats.

For a fast tango at a tempo of 160 musical beats per minute, the 80 bars of music are finished in 2 mins. For a slow tango at a tempo of 110 musical beats per minute the 80 bars of music lasts 2:54 mins. It’s basically just maths 🙂

So, it look like we have a standard tango tune format?

Well yes and no. Many composers and orchestra arrangers did indeed stick to the ‘5 section’ tango format over many years, but we are discussing music, an art form, so there are other variations to this ‘standard’. Indeed Francisco Canaro later in his career introduced the prelude, interlude, and longer endings into his music. However hidden inside all the ‘extras’ you will find enough repetition of sections and phrases to make it easier for you to interpret tunes for your dancing.

In the next section of this series I will begin to examine different popular orchestras so we can understand that different tunes perhaps need different dance interpretation.

Previous – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part 3

Next – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part 5

Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Three

An early 1900's picture of the band members of Orquest Tipica Julio De CaroIn the second part of this series we looked at which elements of a tango tune could be expressed in your dance, and in order to look at those elements in more detail we need to first have a quick look at the orchestra, the instruments and how they express different elements of the music before looking at tango tunes in detail.

The Structure of a Tango Orchestra

A tango orchestra rarely uses drums to identify the beat. The typical instruments used for tango are: violins, contrabass, bandoneon, and piano. A quartet will have one of each instrument. An ‘Orqesta Tipica’ is a usually a sextet or octet where the numbers of violins and bandoneons are increased. A large tango orchestra may have four or more violins and bandoneons to really boost that typical tango sound.

Some Golden Age orchestras also included clarinets, horns, guitars and other more orchestral instruments to fill out the sound and also to create their own unique identity, for example Jose Garcia introduced brass into some of his arrangements, Osvaldo Fresedo often used reverberating bell sounds, Enrique Rodriguez, Francisco Canaro and Francisco Lomuto used woodwind. With some orchestras the characteristic sound came from the singer, such as the partnership of the Lucio Demare orchestra with the singer Raul Beron. For others such as Juan D’Arienzo, the characteristic sound came just from having more! More bandoneons, more violins, and a distinctive way the musicians played them.

Which instrument carries the beat?

Well, all instruments may take part in expressing the beat, but not necessarily at the same time. The beat is often transferred from one instrument to another as a tune progresses, but even if it seems difficult to hear it, the beat is always there (even if only in the minds of the musicians, such as in Astor Piazollas ‘Oblivion’!).

If you listen to tunes arranged by Juan D’Arienzo (known as the King of the Beat) or Enrique Rodriguez, you will hear them use the violins and bandoneons to define the beat. It sounds choppy or zingy as they emphasise beat 1 of each bar.

Other orchestra leaders arranged for the bass register of the piano or bandoneon to carry the beat. In some orchestras such as Di Sarli where the arrangements are more lyrical and romantic, some sections of the music seem hardly to have any definite beat, but the music always comes back to a section in which the beat is obvious, helping dancers to ‘anchor’ themselves to the music.

So to give you a hints about listening and practices regimes, I repeat that beginners should concentrate on making sure they can hear and dance to the walking beat, and identify the repeating sections of a tune (more on that later in the series).

An improver/intermediate would do well not only to master the walking beat but to listen out for the intermediate beats and half beats, and to practise syncopation steps and decorations such as toe taps, piquets as well as rebote/traspie steps.

The more advanced dancers will want to listen not only to the melodic twiddly bits of a tune, but also to the emotional elements in the strings, the singers voice, the bandoneon and so on. Then try to interpret them with a change in the mood and speed of the dance to match the melody and emotion.

Each leader and follower will have to practice being receptive to what their partner is trying to interpret at any point in a tune. There is nothing more annoying for either dancer than to hear a way of expressing a tune which for example might require a slowing down of the dance, which the other party just wants to hustle through as quick as possible. For this higher level of musical interpretation, patience, sensitivity and the willingness to slow down are all important.

Tango is very rewarding when you can finally master (do we ever? 🙂 ) the intricacies of musicality.

In the next part of this series I will begin dissecting the structure of a typical tango tune so we can not only dance well to very familiar tunes but also dance reasonably well to tunes we’ve never heard before. It’s all about repetition and prediction…

Previous – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Two

Next – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Four

Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Two

A typical Bandoneon instrumentThe Argentine Tango music which tends to be played at the majority of social dances is traditional music from the period between the 1930’s to mid 1950’s (often called Golden Age music). While it is possible to dance the tango to more modern music (known as Nuevo from the 1960’s onward, and ‘Alternative’ which is mainly non-tango music), the traditional tango music often contains more rhythmical and melodic choice on how to interpret the music in your dance. However we should also remember that this traditional music was the ‘pop’ music of that age, so maybe we shouldn’t get too precious about it 🙂

The dance and the music both developed together during the Golden Age, and each promoted and complimented the other. If you want to improve your musical interpretation of Argentine Tango, you need to listen to a lot of Golden Age music, and practice your tango dancing to such music.

When you listen to Tango music you should listen for three elements against which you can dance:

The walking or stepping beat

This is not necessarily the same as trying to step on every musical beat. In all tango music of any tempo, the first beat in each bar of music tends to be emphasised (a raising of volume or ‘zingyness’ to a note) and will be a stepping beat (beat 1).

A tango is often written in musical 4/4 time (4 musical beats to a bar of music), but we tend to step on beats 1 and 3 unless the tango is very slow in which case we can step on all 4 beats. Many older tango tunes, were written in 2/4 time, so for these we could step on both beats. For many tangos the stepping tempo is roughly 60 per minute (55- 65 pm), so if you are unfamiliar with a tune you can start your tango walk at this speed until you can identify the true walking beat.

In Milonga which is written in 2/4 time we could also step on both beats (but it’s usually faster than tango so you have to have quick feet :-)). In Vals, which is written in 3/4 time, we tend to step on beat 1.

All tango dancers of any level should aim for this basic level of musicality – to be able to step precisely in time with the walking beat.

The contra beat or syncopation

This would be any beat which would not normally be regarded as a walking beat, so in tango written in 4/4 time it would be musical beats 2 and 4. In vals it could be beats 2 and 3, but in milonga or older tango tunes it could be the ‘&’ half beat (i.e. the space between walking beats, as in ‘1 & 2’ where you are taking 3 steps in 2 beats).

This is the next level of musicality where you can use double-time walking, rebote (rebound) and traspie (‘stumble’) movements to syncopate. Most tango dancers should be able to use syncopation after some practice, and this level of musicality may be enough to take you through your social dancing lifetime as a reasonably good dancer, but…

The very best tango dancers learn to dance to the melody

So here we are not just interpreting the walking beats and performing syncopation, but we are also dancing to melodic elements in the tune, or to particular instruments, or to the voice of a singer. This also includes being attuned to the emotional emphasis expressed by the musicians and the singers.

Sometimes both dancers will interpret different elements of the melody, and so will look like they’re not quite in sync with each other. However even an asynchronous interpretation will look and feel good if the musical interpretation of each dancer is precise. Occasionally you will dance with a partner who hears the tune exactly the way you do, and interprets in a very similar way. Then you look to be in perfect sync.

Now you know what to aim for at each stage of your tango musical education

It’s important to try master each of these musical elements at the appropriate stage. Beginners/improvers need to master hearing and walking to the beat. Improvers/intermediates will need to hear the opportunities for syncopation and master their use. Finally advanced dancers will need to begin to know tunes so well that they can express the melody and emotion of a tune in their dance.

Like all tango training, musicality needs to be actively worked on. Just dancing and hoping that musicality will some day magically appear in your dance is going to take a long, long time. Actively listening to tango tunes will help you better identify the musical elements introduced above. Then you can practice to popular tunes until you dance better!

Violin and piano keyboardIf you have not had any formal music training and you are unsure about music beats, time signatures, bars etc. please read the previous article about musical terminology for a brief but hopefully useful run-down on the main terms you need to know.

In the next part of this series I will look at the structure of a typical tango orchestra, and how the beat is expressed in a traditional orchestra which very rarely uses drums!

Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part One

In this series of articles about the important subject of musicality I will look at elements of music and some basic terminology (this article), followed by articles on Orchestra instruments, the structure of tango music, and then I’ll take a look at some famous Tango Orchestras and tunes and how the arrangers changed a tune to match their Orchestras sound. All the while I will be attempting to relate the information to interpretation of the music with your tango dancing.

You do not need to be able to read music to dance, but in order to hear the music and improve our musical interpretation of the Argentine Tango tunes we all love to dance to we must first understand a little bit about music and it’s components. I first present little music theory and terminology might be in order, so that when you attend musicality classes you begin to understand what tempo, rhythm, melody, music beat, etc. are all about and how they relate to tango and other music.

Music Terminology

Written music is represented by a notation consisting of a series of horizontal lines (stave) upon which musical notes are represented in both pitch (where they are positioned on the stave) and duration (the particular symbol used to represent one note).

We can use two staves printed one above the other to represent the treble notes (high pitch) and bass notes (low pitch) and we use symbols (treble or bass clef) at the beginning of a stave to show which range the notes are in.Musical notes on treble and bass staves with elements annotatedSo as notes are placed higher on the stave, they increase in pitch, and lower on the stave they decrease in pitch. You’ll also notice there is a repeating pattern where the note sequence starts again but at a higher pitch. This is called an octave. For example, when the middle C string on a piano is struck it vibrates at 261.6 Hz (Hertz or cycles per second), and the next C above vibrates at a frequency of 523.2 Hz. In other words for each octave a note will vibrate twice as fast for the octave higher, and half as fast for the octave lower. This is why, for example, all C notes sound similar but are a different pitch (frequency) to each other.

We now know how to represent the pitch or frequency of a note, by it’s position of a treble or bass stave, but how about duration? The duration of a note is defined as a set of note symbols which represent relative duration to each other, and are as follows

A list of note values
One whole note (semibreve) = 2 half notes (minims), one minim = 2 quarter notes (crotchets), and so on. In terms of duration then, two minim notes and four crotchets take exactly the same duration to play, as do one semibreve and eight quavers. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the tails are pointing up or down. The usual convention is to keep the tail inside the related stave as much as possible

Hang on a minute (a minuet?) though! If note duration are played relative to each other, how do we know how fast to play the whole piece of music? This is entirely down to either the composer or the musician, but there are clues in the notation.

For example the composer could annotate a ‘metronome mark’ which indicates how many beats per minute the tempo should be. They look like this and are written just above the top stave on the left of the page.

A typical metronome markThis means ‘play at 120 beats per minute’. The note symbol is a crotchet so it also means ‘play at 120 crotchets per minute’. A metronome marks with a ‘c’ in front of the number mean ‘approximately’ (circa).

Other ways of indicating the tempo may consist of a few words at the top of the page, often in Italian but not exclusively so.

Allegro (fast)
Adagio (slow)
Andante (at walking pace)
Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast)

and so on. This form of notation is less specific and it’s left to the musician to decide what ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ means.

Time signatures

Previously we’ve considered the pitch of notes relative to each other, and relative to a treble or bass stave, the tempo of a piece, and a vague reference to how we can locate one of the notes (middle C) on a Piano (it’s in the middle of the keyboard 🙂 ) to anchor an entire piece of music into the correct set of octaves.

Now we can consider how to express an accented beat, which means placing an emphasis on one of a group of notes. We can do this with ‘bars’ and time signatures.

If you imagine a simple clock ticking, the regular tick represents the clocks rhythm or beat, but it has no accent. Each tick sounds exactly like the previous tick. Imagine now, if you had a clock ticking away, but on every fourth tick, the tick sounded louder, then the volume dropped back to normal for the next three ticks. This louder tick would represent an accentuated beat.

A time signature basically describes the underlying pattern of beats and the accentuation, so in our clock example, a time signature might describe the group of 4 ticks but with the first tick of each group of four being accentuated.

So in the following example of music you will notice that the notes are grouped into sections (or bars) indicated by the vertical lines on the stave. Each vertical line shows where the accentuated beat of the next bar occurs – the note immediately after the vertical line.The musical notation of the first part of Romance de Barrio, written by Anibal TroiloThe other squiggly bits and lines on the stave between notes represent rests (silence) of different durations, or marks representing expression. Silence or pauses, are also useful in interpreting your tango dance.

Unfortunately we are still left with a choice of which duration of note (crotchets, minims, quavers etc.) should represent the beats in a bar, so we still don’t quite know exactly how long the duration of a bar should be… until we specify the time signature. Here are some examples used in tango music.Typical time signatures for different types of Tango musicThe number on the bottom represents what note value each beat has. ‘2’ represents a minim per beat, ‘4’ represents a crotchet per beat, and ‘8’ represents a quaver per beat, so in the three examples above, the beat is represented by a crotchet. The top number then tells you how many beats there are in one bar, so

  • 4/4 says each beat is represented by the duration of a crotchet, and there are 4 beats (or crotchets) to a bar.
  • 3/4 says each beat is represented by the duration of a crotchet, and there are 3 beats (or crotchets) to a bar. This is waltz timing.
  • 2/4 says each beat is represented by the duration of a crotchet, and there are 2 beats (or crotchets) to a bar.

So is 3/4 time the same as 6/8 time? Well not quite, cos it’s not maths 🙂

If we go back to our ticking clock example with a 3/4 time signature, the clock tick would be

T t t T t t T t t with ‘T’ being the emphasised beat 1.

The 6/8 time signature would have a beat pattern of

T t t t t t T t t t t t T t t t t t

twice as many beats but each beat duration on half as long (a quaver not a crotchet), but the emphasised beat 1 is only half the duration as in 3/4 time. The rhythm sounds similar but not identical.

So why are some tangos written in 2/4 time instead of 4/4 time? Well rhythmically it wouldn’t make much difference to the dancer if they were stepping on both beats (in 2/4 time) or stepping on beat 1 & 3 (in 4/4 time) for their basic tango walk. Beat one would still be the emphasised beat, and using notes of different durations would still allow the composer to express melody and accompaniment in either time signature. It could be simply down to the composer to choose. For example, early tango pieces such as El Chocolo (A.G. Villoldo) were often written in 2/4 time whereas later works such as Libertango (Astor Piazolla) was written in 4/4 time. Libertango might be considered as more of a concert piece. Perhaps a ‘proper’ musician could tell us if there any advantages one way or another?

So what have we learned about music?

  1. It’s a bit complex, but then little kids can learn it by practising a lot, so no excuses… 🙂
  2. There are many elements of notation which can be used to express a tune onto paper. Some of the terminology is a little obscure to a non-Italian speaking non-musician, but once the notation has been learned it is possible to get into the structure, tempo, and musical expression in a tune, as performed by the musicians.
  3. For all the variety of notation elements for beats, notes, expression, silence etc., there is still a certain amount of interpretation by both the composer and the musician in what the notation exactly means. Musicians sometimes still have to hear a piece of music played before they can ‘read off the sheet’.

As a dancer it helps to be familiar with a particular tune in order to maximally interpret it, but as you will see in the following parts of this series, there is a structure to music and often a repetitious nature to elements of a tune. Once you’ve heard just one section of a tango tune, it is possible to anticipate what the tune will sound like later on, and therefore better interpret the music with your dance.

Although I have given a brief overview of the main aspects of written music, you do not need to be able to read music to dance to it. However in the next few posts when I look at how music can be interpreted in dance I will use this terminology, so refer back to this page if you need to.

Please note I am not a professional musician. Much of this material I’ve learned through study, my amateur attempts to play instruments (badly 🙂 ) and to write bits of music (equally badly, but one day… 🙂 ) and dancing to tango music (Hmmm… beginning to get there 🙂 ).

I used the first few chapters of the following book to write this little overview and can recommend it for any non-musician. The book is called called ‘Learning to Read Music by Peter Nickol’ if you want to delve into reading music in a more thorough way. Its a good introduction and pretty much tells you what you need to know to start reading music (and his explanations are a bit more thorough than mine).

In the next part of this series, I will examine the elements of a tune which a tango dancer could learn to interpret.