My main goal with Tango Musicology is to present detailed musical analysis of Argentine Tango music. I believe we should listen to music, not merely hear it. Helping readers become (more) attentive, active listeners is another goal. The site provides comprehensive educational resources about music, some terms and definitions and theory: musical elements and the interrelationships between them. These resources are mostly generic and apply to many music genres; some are more specific to tango.
Within the tango genre are three types or forms of music: tango, milonga, vals. While they have distinguishing musical qualities and characteristics, they share a common musical foundation. I explore what they share and what makes them different.
I write about the character of the music itself and more specifically how the great s of the first half of the 20th century played it. Actually, most of the time I’ll focus on a narrower range, the recordings of Golden Age bands. That is, the great music tango dancers dance to – in a large and increasing number of countries – recorded between 1930-1955, thereabouts. In those twenty-five years thousands of recordings were made. Many have not survived or have not been re-issued. That is sad; but what we have is a varied and rich music.
I also intend to write about more contemporary interpretations of the standards, and newer so-called “concert” tango music, from Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) to the present day. There is great beauty in this music.
Those are my intentions; a very big effort to do it right. The blog was started in May 2013, so I’ve barely begun down the road. There is so much I want to write about this music! I’ll get there over time. Please follow along.
The Musical Elements I Write About
My analysis aims to capture and describe the character of the music. I use the latest music notation tools and plenty of audio clips to explore this rich music in depth, in an informative and hopefully enjoyable format. There is a standardized methodology and approach. Each starts with a big picture view of the music then delves deeper and deeper into its essence. Generally, these are the elements I write about:
or Form; s, sub-phrases, at one and two levels below the primary phrase; : Question and Answer qualities, , ; , Melodic Shape, Melodic Rhythms, Counter Melodies; Harmonies, s, Modulation, ; Accompaniment, marking the , syncopation and rhythmic patterns, s and transitions between phrases; , .
Plus anything else I see and hear in the music. These elements are the foundation of music, its composition and performance.
Usually I write about a specific tango piece and how a single orquesta plays it. I try to capture the character and qualities of both the music and the interpretation – the things which define the orquesta’s style. Sometimes, if the music has been recorded by more than one ensemble, I’ll write about how some of them have interpreted it: the similarities and, more importantly, the differences. Again, identifying the things making each orquesta unique. Or I might compare several recordings from a single orquesta over their recorded history and track how they changed over time. Or I might focus on a specific decade and take a close look at several orquestas to identify common stylistic elements for the period. These are concepts at this point, which I intend to build on over time.
I am open to suggestions. I have many ideas but I’d like the site to be user-driven too. Drop me a line or leave a comment. Thanks.
An orquesta típica is an ensemble of musicians who play tango music. Typically, there is a string section, a bandoeon section, a piano, and sometimes a singer or two. There is no specific rhythm section – no drums or other percussion instruments. An orquesta típica is an expanded version of a sexteto tipico, which includes 2 bandoneons, 2 violins, double bass, and piano.
I call any band that plays tango, no matter what the instrumentation, an orquesta. Not entirely accurate but it simplifies things.
A short section of music with a clear start and end quality, with a consistent or complementary musical character. Generally, the character is different from what comes after or precedes it, anywhere from subtly to very obvious. more...
Phrasing is both how the phrase is constructed to accomplish the composer's objectives and how the music is played, that is, interpreted.
Depending on the context, when I write "phrasing" I may be referring to how the music is written in phrases, such as Question and Answer Phrasing, or how the orquesta interprets and shapes the music, or both. more...
Dynamics is the volume factor in music. There are two broad categories: a relative volume level which does not change until some marking specifies it does; and a volume that changes gradually or suddenly.
The way the notes are played and connected to one another: anywhere from gently played to heavily attacked; held for the full duration of the note value or clipped short; smoothly connected to the notes before and after, or continuously separated.
There are many technical terms for these differences, but for tango we mostly need to be aware of two broad kinds of articulation, the extreme ends of the spectrum: a connected legato, which often creates a lyrical quality, and an accented, clipped short marcato. Generally, the strings and singers have a legato articulation, while the bandoneons have a marcato one.
Melodies are a succession of notes moving through time, one at a time. Melody is the proper term for what some some call the "tune".
Melodic shape and melodic rhythm are two factors every melody uses in some way. Melodic shape is the general direction the melody moves in terms of pitch: up, down, sideways. Melodic rhythm is the rhythm(s) applied to the pitches.
Many other elements fall within these two categories. Some are: tessitura, interval spacing (the distance between two notes), the use of arpeggios, chord tones, scales, non-chord tones, syncopation, and many others.
The key specifies the first note in the scale and the interval, or distance, between successive notes. Keys are either major or minor and have strikingly different musical qualities. Major keys are "bright", "happy". Minor keys are "sad", "melancholic". (Very generally speaking!)
Keys are identified by the key signature, the sharps (#) or flats (b) (or lack of them in C major/a minor), that are positioned on the lines and spaces at the beginning of each staff, after the clef sign. The key signature alone tells us only which major or minor key the music is in. Not until we read or hear the music is it possible to know whether the music in a major or minor key, because every major key has a relative minor and vice versa. That is, relative keys - one always major, the other always minor - share a common key signature.
A cadence occurs when the music comes to a pause, a resting point, a complete stop, or resolution of tension. It is achieved by a few specific harmonic progressions. Often there is a rhythmic change which helps create the sense of pause or resolution.
More information about harmonies and cadences is available on the Harmony page.
Beat is the underlying and regularly spaced pulse of the music, measured in beats per minute. There are a fixed number of beats in a bar, indicated by the time signature. Tango (2/4, 4/8, 4/4) has 2 or 4 beats per bar, vals (3/4) has 3 and milonga (2/4) has 2.
(There may be a sense of 4 beats even though the time signature is 2/4. Tango very often subdivides the 2/4 beat, doubling the count from 2 to 4, effectively using a 4/8 time signature. Some tango music is explicitly written in 4/8, most are in 2/4. See Tango Time Signatures and the Beat).
A fill "fills in" the space between the end of a phrase and the start of a new one. A fill is short, usually less than a full bar.
The musical character is different than the previous phrase in terms of melodic shape, rhythm, instrumentation. Fills are often a melodic flourish and function to punctuate the phrases: phrases are made more apparent by the change in musical character of the fill.
Fills may be played by any instrument, most commonly the piano or bandoneons.
Sometimes fills are used to shift the musical character towards that of the music to come. In these cases fills may be called transitions.
Orchestration or instrumentation is how the instruments are used; which instruments are playing at any given time and what is their function, such as melodic, accompaniment, creating the pulse, linking phrases (fills).
Texture is the overall "size" or "weight" of the musical sound, using descriptive terms such as "large", "thick", "full", or "thin", "sparse" or "light".
Many musical elements contribute to texture, including: the way notes in the harmonies are spread out into different octaves and instruments; whether different instrumental sections (strings, bandoneons, piano, bass) are playing simultaneously or alone; whether the sections are playing in unison (the same notes) or in harmony (playing chords).
More information and audio examples are available, here.