Why we never tire of tango music

2008 November 30

MY FAVOURITE MUSIC... by nadworks, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by  nadworks

Tango music for the non-argentine 21st century tango lover is often something of an acquired taste. At least for tango dancers. The recordings are old, the music sounds strange, we don’t understand the lyrics — but we love the dance…

After some time, we get more into the music, it all changes, and we become total fanáticos de tango, we can never get enough of the classics of tango music. Why do we never get tired of listening to these old recordings, often transferred from old, scratchy 78s, since the masters were burnt.

You will often hear tango lovers rave about the complexity and richness of tango music. So let us investigate a bit further what is the source of this richness. The title of the first record by the orchestra Escuela de tango, De contrapunto gives us the first clue.

One way to categorize music is by the musical textures, and the three main categories are:

  1. Monopohonic
  2. Homophonic
  3. Polyphonic

Monophonic music consists of a single melody line, and is the simplest form of musical texture. Perhaps the best known example in western music is the Gregorian chant. The monophonic music is also the easiest to understand or interpret.

Homophonic music is slightly more complex, as it consists of a principal melody line accompanied by a chordal accompaniment. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, it is the most recent “invention”, as it basically did not occur in music created earlier than the end of the 16th century. It was used in a lot of romantic music for increased clarity and thus emotional impact, in contrast with the most complex form, polyphony.

Polyphonic music is the kind that is the most demanding of the listener. Several melodic lines, or “voices”, are present at the same time, forming harmonies as they go. To appreciate this, you may have to disregard some parts of the music, and the melodic line (horizontal) will become apparent. This gives a different listening experience than “just listening” to all the sounds present at the same time (vertical). Depending on which lines you choose, the same piece may be experienced somewhat differently each time. And this is what is actually meant when dancers talk about dancing to different instruments. All voices need not be present at the same time, of course, and some melodic lines will move from instrument to instrument, so dancing different voices would be a more precise definition of what you are actually doing. (The clue from de contrapunto is that counterpoint is one special case of polyphonic music)

To quote Aaron Copland in the book What to listen for in music (on which this post leans heavily),  “…repeated hearings keep up your interest better than music of homophonic texture. Even supposing that you do not hear all the separate voices equally well, there is every likelihood that when you return to it again, there will be something different for you to listen to. You can always hear it from a different angle.”

Pop music springs out from the homophonic tradition from the romantic music. While being popular music, tango from the golden age has a certain quality that you will not generally find in today’s popular music, the polyphony. And that also explains why it is much less interesting to dance to pop music than the real stuff. It is simply not enough to throw in some bandoneón samples or having more or less the right rhythm. More on that in a later post.

The polyphonic nature of most tango music means there are a lot of ways to listen to the same tune, you can discover something new time after time. And it makes the music sound fresh every time. And thus the dance stays fresh as well.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2013 May 27
    Gonzalo permalink

    Nice post

  2. 2013 October 30

    True, tango lovers do seem to appreciate “the complexity and richness” of the music. According to common musicological usages of the term, however, most tango music, in my opinion, would be classified as “homophonic” in texture. (As for the history of homophony, it was not invented in recent times as the writer states, but has been an option for musicians since the beginnings of music–you could always sing a melody and strum a drone or chords as accompaniment–the same is true of polyphony, and monophony). I do agree that there are polyphonic elements in tango which add to its complexity and richness, but these emerge from a number of factors — the sophisticated approach to timbre, harmony, rhythm, and the very professional construction of melody–to name a few, and not even to mention the lyrics.

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