My Process

My objective is to analyze both the music and the performances to get the deepest appreciation and understanding of the music I can. Here’s how I do it.

The sheet music is a resource, despite it’s inherent weaknesses, which greatly helps in the analysis. I start by printing it out. I check the key and then listen with my inner ear as I read through the music. I mark the s and label the individual s. Then I go bar by bar writing down the harmonies and making notes about the melody:  its shape – does it rise or fall or go sideways and how wide is the range; its rhythms – are there repeating patterns and is there . Melodic shape, range, and rhythm are essential in creating the character of the music. I spend quite a bit of time describing them in the analysis. I note the accompaniment but don’t pay too much attention to it at this point – all recordings will be very different. I’ve likely heard the music played many times before I printed it out and did the basic analysis, so the entire first pass takes about ten minutes.

Then I listen to a recording, or if there are multiple versions by different s I eventually play them all. I mark on the sheet music how the music is performed; primarily what’s different from the printed music, and the – which instruments are playing the melody or the accompaniment and which are functioning as the “rhythm section”. And in what articulation (, ) and what rhythmic pattern. And I note the order the sections are played – which ones are repeated for example.

Knowing the sheet music greatly assists in identifying the ways the orquesta’s arrangement elaborates and develops the basic sheet music. And knowing the sheet music is especially helpful when there are multiple recordings by several orquestas. Upon further study, comparing them to the sheet music, their unique style becomes readily apparent. Anyone having gone through this process should have a very deep understanding of the music and the orquesta(s).

When there is no sheet music I follow more or less the same process, with multiple listenings to the recording. I listen for the phrases and sections, the melodic features, the rhythms, and the accompaniment. It’s not a linear process; I make lots of notes and write down what I hear as I hear it. It is not casual listening, it is very attentive. I’m trying to hear everything going on, in real time.

Either way, eventually I hope to know the music extremely well, recognize and appreciate everything happening in the performance; when the character and qualities and emotional changes happen, and how that is accomplished. Using the sheet music is a quicker route to that goal for me than listening alone.

Then on the milonga floor one can pick and choose the elements – the melody, the underlying rhythm, the accents, the lyrical solo violin counter melody, etc. – and dance to them as the mood moves you. That’s why I do the study.


The two numbers, one above the other, written near the beginning of the first staff line (or whenever it changes), specifying the number of beats in a measure and the type of note that gets one beat.

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...

Sections are the top level element of music's form. They are the the large building blocks of tango music, typically lasting around thirty seconds or so. Each section is a unique segment of music, having a distinct musical character.

Tango music has two, occasionally three, primary sections, which we may label  “A”, “B”, “C”. Sometimes there is an "Introduction", "Bridge", a short section between two larger ones, or "Coda", a short concluding section.

Usually each section will be played consecutively in order (A then B then C), followed by various other orderings. Typically in tango songs each section is played instrumentally then each is sung, then section A is played instrumentally: A-B-A (vocal)-B (vocal)-A. But there are many exceptions and other possibilities.

Phrases exist within a section.

Notes between the primary beats or emphasizing normally weak beats. In tango almost always as part of a rhythmic pattern, most frequently the habanera or its variations. Often the syncopated notes are emphasized or accented in a marcato style, but not necessarily so.  more...

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.

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).

Marcato is Italian for marked, meaning the notes are to be accented and emphasized. In tango the notes are also played clipped or cut shorter than the note value as written. That is called staccato. The performance style, the articulation, combines marcato and staccato. And that gives the music a crisp and bold character. When I use the term marcato those are the qualities I mean.

Tango uses marcato style playing very often, especially in the accompanying instruments, frequently the bandoneons but others as well.

Legato is Italian for tied together, meaning the notes are played in a connected way; there is no separation or space between them. Legato playing is part of the quality of lyricism, that is lyrical music.

2 Responses to My Process

  1. Juan Tango says:

    Just found your site and it’s exactly what I was hoping to find. I probably should read through all of your posts before commenting, but I’m impatient. Have you already written about or plan to write about how the singer’s voice fits into the musical equation in tango? I’ve read that Pichuco used instruments like voices and voices like instruments.

    I interviewed a well know tango history author named Oscar del Priore and when I told him that I was interested in talking about the Golden Age of tango, he asked me what I considered the Golden Age of tango to be. I said the 1940s, and he said that he considered the Golden Age to be earlier, in the days of Gardel. Later I interviewed the creator of Ricardo García Blaya and he clarified the reasoning for the earlier period being the Golden Age of tango. He said that during the1920s and early 1930s tango was an international phenomenon, in the late 1930s into the early 1950s tango was localized in Argentina.

    • tangomonkey says:

      There are some tango songs on the site. This one looks at the contrasting melodies alternating between the singer and instruments.

      The usual format in songs is to have the instruments play the sections, usually all of them or at least the first one, then the sections are repeated with the vocalist singing the same melodies heard played instrumentally. The difference between the instrumental and vocal performance of the melodies is in the interpretation. The melodic rhythms are played in strict time by the instruments and, since the vocalist is conveying the emotion behind the lyrics, very often rubato is used. The melodic rhythms may not be sung in strict time.

      “Golden Age” to dancers is not Gardel. His music isn’t danced. The period of tango resurgence in Buenos Aires during the 30s-50s is what dancers today consider the golden age of tango music.

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