Alphabetical Index

Below is the current list of terms and definitions used on the site. Summary definitions are available in popup windows in posts and pages, and below, on a mouseover. Many popup definitions have a link to additional information, sometimes those have music and audio examples. Detailed definitions are directly available by clicking the term. These are the definitions available under the Definitions menu and the ones the summaries link to.

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An arpeggio is a chord (a harmony) that is broken up into individual notes, that is, the notes are heard one at a time in succession, not simultaneously. Arpeggios are frequently heard in the melody and somewhat less in the accompaniment.

More information, music and audio examples are here.

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.

A bar or measure is a small segment of music containing all the number of beats as specified by the time signature.

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).

In terms of form, a bridge is a short section used to connect two other larger sections. Usually the musical character is different but complementary and may contain elements from the preceding section and/or the next one. It is literally a "bridge" between them.

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.

The most obvious cadences happen at the end of phrases and sections, and almost certainly at the very end, where the harmonies move from I-V(7)-I.

More information about harmonies and cadences is available on the Harmony page.

In terms of form, a coda (Italian for "tail") is a short section used to end a piece of music.

Crescendo means to get louder. See Dynamics for more information.

Decrescendo means to get softer, quieter. See Dynamics for more information.

The dominant is the fifth note, or scale degree, in the Western diatonic scale system, and is indicated by the Roman numeral V. It is next in importance to the tonic (I).

The dominant note creates instability and tension, and the harmony built upon it, a major (or major-minor 7th) chord, most often resolves by moving to the tonic.

Tango music usually ends phrases and/or sections by moving to the dominant harmony then resolving to the tonic.

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

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.

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.

How the music is organized, structured; the number of sections and the way they  are constructed, the number of bars and phrases in each, and the order they are performed. more...

Composers/arrangers make a very conscious decision regarding form. The order sections are heard greatly effects our sensations and responses as listeners and dancers.

The original habanera rhythm is a syncopated pattern, where the primary syncopation occurs on the off beat of beat 1, driving forward into beat 2.

When used as the pulse of the music in the bass line and accompanying instruments the full pattern will commonly be used. At other times often just the first two or three notes are used, and not necessarily on beat 1.

Habanera Variations describes the syncopation and relationship between a few habanera patterns.

A harmonic (or chord) progression is a sequence of two or more chord changes, identified by name and type.

Harmonies may change to any other harmony or type, although there are traditional guidelines in their selection based upon the scale and intended function. There are many commonly used progressions. One being tonic (i)- subdominant (iv) - dominant (V#) - tonic (i). In C minor, for example, the harmonies are: c minor - f minor - G major - c minor.

Cadences are standard chord progressions, such as the Perfect Cadence, in c minor: c minor (tonic, i) - G major (dominant major, V#) - c minor (tonic, i).

The harmonic progression largely determines which notes the melody uses and is a primary element in how the music sounds and effects us. Typically, to achieve a consonant sound, the melody primarily uses chord tones, ie. notes in the chord. Melodies which sound dissonant use more non-chord tones. Very generally speaking.

(The elements of harmony are complex. See Harmony for more detailed explanation with music and audio samples).

Harmonic rhythm is the rate harmonies, or chords, change.

Harmonies may change at a regular pace, for example on the first beat of every bar; that being a slow harmonic rhythm. Or there may be more than one harmony within the bar, a faster harmonic rhythm, or the harmony may last for more than one bar, a very slow harmonic rhythm.

When the harmonic rhythm is slow, changing only on beat one for example, the music feels regular and evenly flowing. When the harmonic rhythm is fast the musical character has more action and movement. Typically during more dramatic moments and at cadences the harmonic rhythm increases.

(The elements of harmony are complex. See Harmony for more detailed explanation with music and audio samples).

There are several definitions for "harmony". For my purposes I use this one: harmony is three or more different notes sounded together, also called a chord. When I write "the harmony" or "the underlying harmony" I am specifically referring to the notes in a chord.

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).

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.

more...

The leading tone is the seventh note, or scale degree in the Western diatonic scale system. It is indicated by the Roman Numeral VII.

The leading tone usually "leads" to the tonic (I) note and the harmony built on it, a diminshed chord, frequently functions as a dominant (V) harmony, creating tension and resolving to the tonic (I)

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

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.

Music that is smooth and connected, with a flowing character, often with a broad sweeping melody and gentle accompaniment.

The word lyricism is used to describe the quality and character of music which is predominantly lyrical in character. That is, music with a smooth, and connected, effortless flowing character, often with broad sweeping melodies and gentle accompaniment.

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.

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.

A short melodic and/or rhythmic figure having distinct musical character and qualities. A motif is often a component of the larger melody.

An example, Carlos Di Sarli's Bahia Blanca:
The first 2 bars

Notice how the last few notes, the melodic shape and rhythm, are used to create the echo-sighing effect in the next couple of bars. Those notes are a motif.
Bars 3-4

A note is a sound or tone having two aspects:
1) The primary, auditory one, is pitch. Each note has a unique pitch, with a sound wave frequency measurable in hertz. In many parts of the world instruments are tuned to A at 440Hz.

2) The secondary, temporal one, is duration, called "time value" or "note value". When written or played each note has a specific duration, how long it lasts relative to the beat.

When pitch and duration are combined we get melodic shape and rhythm. Pitch creates melody and gives it direction, the melodic shape; duration provides the melodic rhythm.

The word octave describes two things: most importantly, an octave is the same note 8 notes above or below a given note; "octave" may also be used to measure the range in a group or series of notes, as in "the melody's range is an octave"; meaning the distance between the lowest and highest notes is an octave, 8 notes apart.

Because octaves are the same note they have the same letter name. They are the same note in a different register and should be heard as "higher" or "lower", but not "different".

C in four octaves.


More information and the science behind why we hear octaves as the same note is here.

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).

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...

Rhythm is the ordering of sounds and silences on and between a continuous and evenly spaced unit of time, called the beat.

Sounds may or may not have pitch. Many percussion instruments do not have pitch yet function as the rhythm section in most popular forms of music: they create and maintain the beat. (Tango is quite unique in not having a dedicated rhythm section). Musicians call sounds with pitch, notes and silences, rests. A note has both pitch and duration; a rest only duration.

When notes, and possibly rests, of (usually) different duration are combined there is rhythm.

There are usually two layers of rhythm in tango: melodic and accompaniment. More...

Rubato is Italian for stolen or robbed and refers to timing the notes, specifically not hitting the beats in strict time. Rubato is playing around the beat: sometimes coming a little before it, or a bit late, or slightly speeding up or slowing down a few beats. The purpose is to make the music more expressive.

Most often rubato is used in lyrical sections of the melody by the singer, while strict time is maintained by the instrumental, accompaniment, musicians. When done tastefully rubato adds a nice touch. When overdone there is a danger of the melody losing all sense of the beat. Some singers use it more effectively than others.

When a melody or segment of music moves mostly in step-wise fashion using notes of the underlying scale. A scalar melody uses both chord and non-chord tones, compared to an arpeggio which uses only chord tones.

Scalar and arpeggiated melodies have distinctly different sound qualities. Composers blend the two together to create melodies of vastly different and varying character.

Music examples are here.

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.

When a melodic pattern is repeated, starting on different notes each time. Each repetition has the same melodic shape and melodic rhythm as the original statement.

The starting notes may be in an ascending or descending direction, based on notes in the underlying scale or an arpeggio on the underlying harmony; or some other interval. Typically the pattern is played three times.

The last 4 Bar Phrase in Section B (bars 29-32) of Di Sarli's Bahia Blanca is a sequence. The same one bar melody is played three times, the second and third time a scale step lower that the preceding one. A sequence doesn't have to be the melody. In this example the piano also plays a sequence in a counter-melody like relationship with the melody. The sequence is a bar of four bass notes in an ascending arpeggio, repeated from different starting notes.

The melodic pattern is played three times.

The notes are to be played clipped or cut shorter than the note value as written. There is no accent or emphasis on them.  Compare with marcato.

How the music is organized, structured; the number of sections and the way they  are constructed, the number of bars and phrases in each, and the order they are performed. more...

A swell is an increase (crescendo) in the volume level then decrease in volume (decrescendo), of a single note. It is an articulation, a way to play a note.

There are several ways tango musicians interpret a swell. Often there is a heavy initial emphasis on the note with increasing volume and then a sudden stop without a decrescendo. This articulation technique is most commonly used by the accompanying instruments when marking the strong beats, beats 1 and 3.

An example is the accompaniment during the fourth 4 Bar Phrase in Section A of Bahia Blanca (bars 13-16). Swells are used very effectively in this "marcado in four" playing.
Fourth 4 Bar Phrase, bars 13-16.

Beats 1 and 3 are marked with a very accented swell during the first 2 bars. A similar emphasis happens on beat 1 in the next bar.

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...

The syncopa is the most commonly used in tango music, in both the melody and the accompaniment. It is derived from the habanera and looks and sounds like this:

The entire rhythm is usually not played in full. Often just the first two or three notes - the most syncopated ones - will be heard.

See Habanera Variations for more information.

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...

Tessitura is a term used to describe two things, both concerning pitches in a melody or portion of music. One aspect specifically describes the pitch range, for example from the lowest to highest note in a melody. The other aspect is the music's overall pitch level, its register, such as mostly low sounding notes or mostly high sounding notes.

For more information and audio examples, click here.

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.

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.

The tonic is the first note, or scale degree, in the Western diatonic scale system, and is indicated by the Roman numeral I. It is the primary and foundational note in the scale.

Tango music most often begins on and ends phrases and/or sections on the tonic harmony; the chord built on the first note in the scale, which is a major chord in a major key and a minor chord in a minor key.

See Scales, Keys, and Key Signatures and Harmony for more information about scale degrees and their function.

4 Responses to Alphabetical Index

  1. Ned says:

    I have read about a musical term called a Part. Is that synonymous with your Section?

    • tangomonkey says:

      Hi Ned

      Many musical terms have more than one meaning. When I talk about “section” I almost always mean it as I’ve defined it: a top level component of the form, having a unique character and musical quality compared to the other section(s). (That is a standard definition; I didn’t create it.) In tango a section is usually 16 bars long and takes about 30-45 seconds to play.

      When I write about how the music is performed I may use section in its other meaning, referring to specific instrumental groups in the orquesta. Section in this case refers to a group of identical or similar instruments. For example, identical would be bandoneons, different would be strings, because there may be more than one type – violins, viola, cello, bass. This meaning has nothing to do with section as an element of form.

      It’s easiest to think of a “part” as the music a specific instrument or instrumental section plays, or singer, sings. There are nuances, but that’s accurate enough.

  2. David P says:

    Do you suppose that at some point you might include audio snippets with your terminology index, to illustrate a term aurally.

    • tangomonkey says:

      Hi David

      Absolutely. That’s been my stated intention since I began adding definitions when I wrote in the Definitions/Overview page:
      “Eventually there will more content in the definitions; some music and audio to get the concepts across better. Music needs to be heard to be understood. No amount of talking or writing about it is really good enough.”

      It’s a matter of time, and something I should get to doing, especially after today’s post on listening, rather than hearing.

      Some of the more recent ones – Tessitura, Texture, Sequence – use Bahia Blanca audio examples. Those terms and some others are worthy of an entire post, with many examples from the commonly heard tango repertoire.

      (EDIT, November 20, 2013: Arpeggio and Scalar now have music and audio examples)

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