What Make Golden Age Tango Music So Great for Dancing?
Published on: July 21, 2021

BPM.Some people have said, “you can dance Tango to any music,” and while that statement is somewhat true, there are good reasons why all music is not created equal when it comes to dancing Tango. I have often said that if not for the fabulous music of Tango’s Golden Age (1935 to 1955), we would likely not be dancing Tango at all today. But what is it about that music that makes it so great?

Let’s look at some of the basic characteristics of good, danceable Tango music.

The Tango Rhythm

First there is the basic rhythm. Tango’s Afro-Cuban roots embedded in the music the Habanera rhythm. This rhythm is a key element of Tango. Listen:

Habanera Rhythm

or in this famous music by Georges Bizet:

Carmen

Notated as:

This rhythm, which is quite explicit in the Milongas that are danced today, is really the basis for all Tangos; at least in the earliest days. You can hear the rhythm clearly in this example by Francisco Canaro’s orchestra from 1929.

“Oiga garcon” by Canaro

Later, this rhythm became less overt and more implicit in the music, but on some level, it is almost always there.

Then, by tying the second and third notes of the Habanera together a “3 + 3 + 2” rhythm became evident.

This rhythm is heard in some Golden Age Tangos. Here is an example: “Arrabal” by Pedro Laurenz (1937). This rhythm however becomes a signature element in the concert Tangos of Astor Piazzolla.

The Tempo of Tango

A next key element in Tango music is its tempo. Often called a “walking dance,” Tango moves along at a pace very close to the speed at which we walk. It’s about one stepping beat per second or half-note = 60 (beats per minute or BPM). Sometimes the music of more lyrical orchestras will be slightly slower; like Carlos Di Sarli’s “Bahia Blanca” (1957) which clocks in around 56 BPM. On the other hand, the music of some of the more rhythmic orchestras like Juan D’Arienzo can be quite a bit faster. Think of D’Arienzo’s “Pensalo Bien” (1938) at 68 BPM or “Tango Brujo” (1943) at 64 BPM.

But they all hover around that 60 beats-per-minute region that is a comfortable walk. The music of “milonga” is quite a bit faster ranging from slower songs like Francisco Canaro’s “Milonga Sentimental” (1933) which is 76 BPM to the much faster milongas that are 120 BPM and more.

 

Phrasing

Beyond these two essential elements, Tango music also generally has a predictable organization with regard to phrasing. Songs are often comprised of repeating sections of music in forms such as A,B,A,B,A though other combinations are prevalent as well. These sections (again generalizing) are more often in 16 bar phrases which gives dancers a predictable way to shape and structure their dance.

Since there is no basic step or repeating step pattern in Tango, everything is improvised, and the phrasing of the music gives both dancers (leader and follower) a sense of where to pause and how to express the music.

 

 

Accents and Syncopation

Accents and syncopations provide dancers with another way to express the music. The Habanera rhythm itself lends a structure for these syncopations.

But What about Alternative Music

Most of the complaints about Alternative Tango music or Nuevo music by some dancers are that much of what makes Golden Age music so good for dancing is lacking in alternative music. Complaints such as “there is just a relentless pulse” or “there are no phrases” or “the music is lacking rhythmic interest,” are all comments that can be heard.  But the DJ who understands the genius of Golden Age music and applies that understanding to alternative/nuevo music; those DJ’s can create great evenings of dancing to alternative music.

    • If a Habanera rhythm can be heard (or implied) in the music, it might be good for Tango.
    • If the tempos fall within the Golden Age tempos, it might be good for dancing; walking tempos for Tango and faster tempos for milongas. It is especially important for “milongas” that a strong implicit, or better yet, explicit Habanera rhythm is present.
    • Many alternative songs do organize into predictable phrases giving dancers a chance to pause and shape their dancing. Thus, this might make them good for Tango.

And so, taking cues from the Golden Age of Tango and its great music, the music of other eras and genres (alternative? nuevo?) offer the possibility for great dancing.

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Kwon Mi Chum

    Later, this rhythm became less overt and more implicit in the music, but on some level, it is almost always there. (not correct)

    During Guardia Nueva era, most Habanera rhythm in accompaniment has been changed into Marcato in 2 and/or 4 rhythm.

    Reply
    • Paul Lohman

      Dear Kwon Mi Chum, Thanks for the comment. You are not incorrect in saying that a strong 1 & 2 beat (in 2/4 time) is apparent in Tango. And just for clarification sake, Guardia Nueva spanned the years 1925-35. It’s just that the “dotted 16th” rhythm (2/4 time) is featured prominently in Tango music and is what makes the Habanera beat what it is.

      My comment was that the Habanera rhythm became less overt and more implicit in the music, but if one listens carefully, it can be heard or “overlaid” on most Tangos.

      That said, the Habanera rhythm can be heard clearly in the early Tangos of Canaro, Firpo, De Caro, Di Sarli and others. – those from the Guardia Nueva period.

      The double syncopa (last musical example) is found everywhere in Tango music and comes right out of the Habanera rhythm. The same goes for the “3 + 3 + 2” rhythm. Its basis is the Habanera though not overtly. Thanks again.

      Reply
  2. Doug DuSold

    Agree completely and well articulated.
    We would not be dancing tango today without the rich complexities that classic tango music offers.

    Reply
  3. Dorothy DuSold

    I totally agree. Very well articulated. I also like your note illustrations of the various rhythms. I’ll keep this in mind as I compose songs in the alt-tango genre. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply

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