Habanera Variations

There are two parts to this post. The first explains the relationship between the habanera rhythms, the second provides a few examples of them as used in the tango repertoire.

 

Habanera Variations & Syncopation
The habanera rhythm has several flavours and tango uses them to create the pulse and/or add syncopated rhythmic accents. I’ll show how some common variations are based on the original habanera and where the syncopations occur in each of the rhythms.

(You can change the tempo of these examples. Clicking on “noteflight” in the top right corner will take you to my Noteflight hosting site. Once there, in the bottom left area there is a slider with a “-” and a “+”. Slide to change the speed of the playback. Speed up to hear the rhythms in a milonga tempo).

I added the , so the syncopation – sounding on the off beats – will be easily heard.

One way to see and hear how these rhythms are related is to sub-divide each of the two beats in the 2/4 into four. That is, hear four clicks on every beat. Those clicks are 16th notes. Playing on different 16th note sub-divisions is what differentiates the syncopations.


I wouldn’t want to listen to that very often…but it serves a purpose. It is easy to see where the notes line up in terms of the sub-divided beat, the continuous 16ths in the lower stave. Lets take a closer look.

Habanera 1. The syncopation falls after the dotted 8th note (the very first note), on the 16th, the last of the group of four 16th notes on beat one. This gives a sense of drive, of moving forward. That’s one reason why syncopation is used.

Habanera 2, “syncopa”. Here there’s an additional syncopation, playing on the second 16th, in addition to the fourth like the habanera.

Habanera 3, 3-3-2. It looks very different from both of the others but that is because I used rests rather than notes with full values. It is very closely related to the habanera. It sounds on the first and fourth 16th notes of beat 1, like the habanera. Then on the third 16th note of beat two, same as the last note in the habanera. You can see how it gets its name: there are 3 16th notes between the first and second notes, and 3 16th notes between the second and third notes. There are only 2 16ths between the third note and the end of the bar. Therefore 3-3-2.

The first two habanera examples are the most common in tango. The 3-3-2 less so, but common in Troilo tangos. It is used primarily in milonga, because it is so closely related to the original habanera rhythm, using its characteristic dotted 8th – 16th and the second 8th note.

There are other syncopated rhythms. Here are three more.


One could make a case – a strained one – for the first two being derived from the habanera. Example 1 has the flavour of habanera 2, in that there are notes on the first and second of the group of four 16th notes. It also sounds on the third 16th note, which is held over on the fourth of the 16th note group. The second example is loosely based on the habanera. It adds a note on the third 16th of the four 16th note groupings. The third example is simply a note played on the off beat, the time between the primary beats. In this case it is half the value of the beat, an 8th note; splitting the beat in two, not four.

All the samples sound very dry and lifeless. The notes all have the same sound quality. In actual use the rhythms are played as notated above and are sliced and diced (yes, that’s a musicology term…), taken apart and put together in an astounding number of ways. In performance the syncopation is alive, because of that and . Time to listen to some recordings.

 

Music Examples

Fast tempo, hard driving syncopation is the distinguishing character in milonga. Tango can be hard driving too, but often it is more subtle. A couple examples will help.

La Trampera
One of the most syncopated pieces I’ve heard is Aníbal Troilo’s milonga, La Trampera. He made a few recordings of it, this is his first from 1951. There is so much syncopation I don’t know where to start in pointing it out, so I’ll leave it up to your ears. I might enter the notes into Noteflight and link the recording in the future. The piano sheet music can be found at Todo Tango.

La Trampera.

Bahia Blanca
In contrast is Di Sarli’s Bahia Blanca. Here the habanera syncopation is restrained, held back. But it’s there all the same, right in the very first bar. Habanera 2 has a prominent role. The first bar’s melodic shape and rhythm start all but the last of the four bar phrases in Section A. Syncopation is bolder in Section B, from bar 17. It opens with a bandoneon melody. Both habanera and the 1st variation (habanera 2) are part of it. The syncopation is subtle and beautifully placed in the melodic line. Notice the use of habanera 2 in the accompaniment in bar 22-23, played . And how leaving the first note off of habanera 2 in the melody during bars 29-31 adds a special emphasis, increasing the syncopation effect. (Bahia Blanca is in 4/8, not 2/4. The rhythms sound and look the same. That is why composers use 4/8 and not 4/4. It is how the notes are played, interpreted, that matters. Some other time I’ll talk about time signatures. [DONE, Tango Time Signatures and The Beat])

Listen to the recording only.

Or follow the sheet music. Close the “synchronized audio/video” window. Hover over a bar and the bar numbers will pop-up. Move the cursor towards the bar number and a play icon will appear. Click it to begin playback from that bar. Click any bar to stop.

3-3-2 Examples
Milonga de mis amores
Pedro Laurenz wrote the music in 1937. The 3-3-2 pattern is prominently played in the third , first heard around the 1:00 mark and again around 1:50. The rhythmic character is emphatically and dramatically changed as soon as the 3-3-2 begins.

La milonga y yo
And here is another, very late (1969), Troilo milonga with some 3-3-2, La milonga y yo. (Obviously having Astor Piazzolla in his orquesta in the 1940s rubbed off. Piazzolla played bandoneon for Troilo and arranged the scores. Until they started becoming more concert than dance music that is. Piazzolla often uses the 3-3-2 in his compositions.)

3-3-2 is played by the piano starting at :04 and comes back frequently between the main phrases, changing the character quite noticeably. Haven’t been able to locate the sheet music.

La milonga y yo.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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7 Responses to Habanera Variations

  1. jose eidelman says:

    muy muchas gracias esto es realmente un tesoro para todos los que aman el tango.

  2. Denise says:

    Very precious! Indeed a great and invaluable source. Thank you.

  3. Chris says:

    Thanks for another clear article. Am I right in thinking Habanera 3 is exactly the same rhythm as the first bar of a son clave pattern?

  4. Thank you and all the best from Austria :-)

  5. David Cullen says:

    wonderful – writing a tango for a show and this is a great help in understanding some of the underlying rhythmic theory – and perhaps more importantly, the feeling.

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