What to listen for in tango

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  ~Oryctes~

Knowing what to listen for can greatly improve how much you appreciate music. I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Ignacio Varchausky on listening to tango music. It was very interesting, and it turned out that it corresponded with a post I was planning to write as soon as I got back to my copy of Aaron Copland’s  What to listen for in music. Copland takes all his examples from classical music, while Ignacio used all tango examples.

Tango examples are of course much better when we are discussing tango music. For the most case I have come up with my own examples, as I don’t remember exactly what he played and don’t have all he played in my library.

The main topic was the four basic elements of music. These elements are:

  1. Rhythm

  2. Melody

  3. Harmony

  4. Tone color/Timbre


Whenever we break up a monotonous tone or sound with pauses, we get a rhythm. It can be simple or complex, and in a sense it is the most fundamental of the elements of music.

An interesting thing about tango, is that in contrast with other popular music, danceable music, like salsa, swing and others, the tango orchestra has no percussion instruments. No drums. It is peculiar for a form of rhytmical music to have no rhythm instruments, and the implication of this is that the other instruments have to make up for the lack of a rhythm section. This, in turn, influences the way the musicians have to play these instruments. In general, this role falls on the double bass and the piano.

Also, tango music uses several different rhythms (in contrast with other popular, danceable music, that generally keep the same beat through the entire tune. Sometimes the rhythm will change from bar to bar, sometimes there will be several rhythmical patterns at the same time. The main rhythms of tango are:

The Habanera, the marcato, various forms of syncopation and the 3-3-2.

The Habanera

The basic tango/milonga rhythm, familiar to opera lovers from Bizet’s opera Carmen. The habanera goes like this: Bamm-ba-ram-pam, or  in musical notation:


In early tangos you will invariably hear this rhythm clearly in the background, often played by the guitar in orchestras preceding the establishment of the orchesta típica. Listen to this example by Juan Félix Maglio, and notice how the guitar plays the habanera rhythm in the background more or less all the time.

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Juan-Félix-Maglio-Un-copetín.mp3" dl=“0”]

The Marcato

Around 1920, the marcato was introduced in tango, and has been an integrated part of most tangos ever since. It was first introduced by the Orquesta Típica Select, where important figures in tango Osvaldo Fresedo, Enrique Delfino and David ‘Tito’ Roccatagliata were part.

The marcato means each of the four beats is played staccatto, either with each beat stressed, later developed into accentuating beats one and three. I use the time signature 24 because tango is often known as El 2x4, even if many tangos are in fact written as 44. In musical notation it would be something like this:

Marcato I

Accentuating beats one and three would look something like this:

Marcato II

Listen to this example by the Orquesta Típica Select:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Orquesta-Típica-Select-Sábado-inglés.mp3" dl=“0”]

This is very typical for basically all traditional tango music since then, listen for instance to an example by Enrique Rodríguez:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Enrique-Rodríguez-Adiós-para-siempre-Armando-Moreno.mp3" dl=“0”]

With Pugliese, it is often exaggerated with his signature onomatopoeia yumba (yum-ba corresponds to one-two/three-four), here in the tango La yumba:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Osvaldo-Pugliese-La-Yumba.mp3" dl=“0”]


In tango, you will find several syncopations, where the accent is off the normal beat, playing on the listeners anticipation on the timing of the next beat. Maybe the most famous syncopation in tango, the arrastre, is when the accent is anticipating the first beat, playing it a bit too early (BaRhamm).


[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Osvaldo-Pugliese-Mala-junta.mp3" dl=“0”]

A variation of this syncopation is using only the anticipation and having a pause where the normal accented beat would be (Ba —). This can be found a lot in Horacio Salgán’s works, listen to his version of Mala Junta:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Horacio-Salgán-Mala-junta.mp3" dl=“0”]

Other dance music usually emphasize the second and fourth beat, while tango uses the first and third. Sometimes, the orchestra will skip the first or the third beat and emphasize the second or fourth, and this is also a syncopation. This is perhaps best known from the orchestra of Biagi, but wasn’t mentioned by Ignacio. Listen right at the end of the first melodic line. (fourth measure)

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Rodolfo-Biagi-Humillación-Jorge-Ortiz.mp3" dl=“0”]

Ignacio, being a double bass player himself, also introduced the audience to a subtle difference in marking the rhythm with the bass. The four beats played very marcato, staccatto, short bursts was the traditional way. With the orchestra of Aníbal Troilo, a more legato bass line was introduced, which gives a more singing quality to the bass line. Subtle, but distinct difference. According to Ignacio, this is drawing a line between the traditionalists (e.g. D’Arienzo, Rodriguez, De Angelis) and the evolutionists (Troilo, De Caro, Gobbi, Pugliese).

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Aníbal-Troilo-Garúa-Francisco-Fiorentino.mp3" dl=“0”]

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Pedro-Laurenz-Garúa-Alberto-Podestá.mp3" dl=“0”]


The 3-3-2 simply means that over one or two measures, instead of spreading the accents evenly like in the marcato, they are followed by three, then three, then two time units. For instance, if the timing is 24, we have eight sixteenth notes in one measure, we group them three (=3) then three (=6), then two (=8). Playing only three notes with these durations would look something like this:


What matters is the accentuation of the notes, not the amount of notes, so with eight sixteenths in one bar, they may be grouped literally 3-3-2 like this:


The 3-3-2 rhythmic pattern is an ancient rhythmic pattern, but is often associated with Astor Piazzolla in tango music, as he often used it in his compositions. However, it was present in tango music before Piazzolla, but it is not generally applied that much in traditional tango music. It can be seen as a variation of the habanera rhythm, if you stick the two middle notes of the habanera together in one, you get the 3-3-2.

This rhythm creates a strong drive if played fast, as in for instance Piazzolla’s Libertango:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Ástor-Piazzolla-Libertango.mp3" dl=“0”]

It is maybe even easier to hear in Hugo Diaz’ rendition of Milonga triste

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Hugo-Díaz-Milonga-Triste.mp3" dl=“0”]

Another famous example of the 3-3-2 in tango is Negracha by the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese, together with Julio De Caro a great inspiration for Piazzolla:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Osvaldo-Pugliese-Negracha.mp3" dl=“0”]


When you arrange different notes with various durations in a sequence, you get a melody. A melody often consists phrases or motifs that can be repeated  throughout the composition, hopefully in an interesting manner.

Some melodies are stronger than others,  some more elaborated than others, and in a way ‘more interesting’. The orchestra may also choose to emphasize or deemphasize the melody, thus giving their interpretation a stronger or weaker  ’melodic’ quality. In some arrangements, only hints of the original melody is left in between all the ornamentation and rhythmic play.

Some melodies have more repetition of shorter motifs, such as Don Juan, perhaps best known as played by the orchestra of Carlos Di Sarli, others go on and on without repeating, flowing along, taking ever new directions. The music can create very different feelings in the listener in these cases. As an example of a long melody, Ignacio suggested Recuerdos de bohemia, in the following example played by the orchestra of Osvaldo Fresedo.

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Carlos-Di-Sarli-Don-Juan.mp3" dl=“0”]

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Osvaldo-Fresedo-Recuerdos-de-bohemia-Roberto-Ray.mp3" dl=“0”]


Harmony may seem a little abstract, maybe, but it is simply about how you put different tones together at the same time. Some natural harmonies are ‘easy’ on the ear, other (dis)harmonies create tension, different scales associated with different musical traditions

Using different harmonies, the same melody, played in the same rhythm, can evoke very different emotions in the listener.

Ignacio used some (somewhat jazzy) piano solo versions of Milonguero Viejo to illustrate how different harmonies influence the musical experience. I will use a couple of recordings of the classic La cumparsita:

Listen first to the ‘standard’ version by the orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Juan-DArienzo-La-cumparsita.mp3" dl=“0”]

We use this as a reference. Now listen to the sadder version by Ciriaco Ortiz:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Ciriaco-Ortiz-La-Cumparsita.mp3" dl=“0”]

The version by Quique Lannoo has a more contemporary feel with its a bit more difficult harmonies.

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Quique-Lannoo-La-Cumparsita.mp3" dl=“0”]

Yet another example by Pedro Laurenz:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Pedro-Laurenz-La-cumparsita.mp3" dl=“0”]

Just as the listener anticipates certain rhythmic and melodic developments, we often anticipate certain harmonic progressions. Always sticking with the most obvious development may feel boring to some, so when the composer/musician deviates from our expectations, it may make the music more interesting if done well. If not, it will just sound ‘strange’ or not ‘logical’.

Tone color/Timbre

This may seem even more abstract, but it is not complicated; when the exact same tones are played by different instruments, they will sound different. Ignacio compared it with different qualities of sound from human voices. The arranger of a tango musical piece has to make lots of decisions, including which instrument(s) will play what at each moment in time, which can change how the music feels for the listener.

Just imagine how a single piece would sound if played by a Solo->Duo->Trio ->Quartet->Quintet->Sextet->Típica->Full orchestra. Of course, they make very different impressions on the listener. In practice not all instruments can play all tunes, but there is usually many options available for each part.

First, listen to La cumparsita played on the guitar:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Juanjo-Domínguez-La-cumparsita.mp3" dl=“0”]

Contrast this with another ‘standard’ arrangement, this by Alfredo De Angelis:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Alfredo-De-Angelis-La-Cumparsita1.mp3" dl=“0”]

The orchestra of Donato Racciatti puts the melody line strictly with the bandoneons:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Donato-Racciatti-La-cumparsita.mp3" dl=“0”]

Finally, what would tango sound like if it was not for the standard line-up of the típica, but rather the brass band of roughly the same time in North America:

[wpaudio url=“http://simbatango.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Various-Artists-La-cumparsita.mp3" dl=“0”]

Rounding off

As the final part of his workshop, Ignacio did some listening exercises, where he broke down the different voices playing at the same time, playing all at once (the original) or versions with one or a couple of voices at the same time to make it easier to hear what was going on.

He said that in tango there is always at least two, generally three and sometimes four things going on at once.

If you have the opportunity to take this workshop, you should, it was brilliant, and this is in no way a proper substitute. Ignacio would sing, clap or hum along to make his point clear in the piece of music under discussion. A blast.

I believe, as do Ignacio Varchausky and Aaron Copland, that knowing a bit more about how music is put together can increase your appreciation of this art form. And as a consequence, your dancing may improve, too.

As always, comments, additions and corrections are most welcome. While this post is inspired by Ignacio Varchausky’s talk, all errors in the above are of course my responsibility.

Further reading

In addition to Copland’s book, If you read Spanish, the following two pages are recommended reading:

If you think the musical notation can be useful, the lilypond script as well as the pdf output is available for download.

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