Dealing with Limitations

The Historical Record

A musicologist is faced with some challenges studying tango music, and its history. There were hundreds of tango bands, s, during the prime decades of Argentine Tango music composition – the first half of the 20th century, roughly. Of  the tens of thousands of recordings, relatively few have survived or been re-issued. And only the most popular orquestas made recordings in the first place. Regarding the printed music, all we have is piano arrangements that were simplified and published mainly for amateurs to play at home. Talk about survivor-ship bias! (There’s some interesting history about tango music publishing at Todo Tango).

Piano Sheet Music

The piano music is a simplification. It is not a score. A true score includes all the instrumental and vocal parts. In our case, typically: bandoneons, strings, piano, sometimes voice. There may very well be original scores of D’Arienzo’s, Di Sarli’s arrangements somewhere – in private collections, museums, archives, attics. But I have never seen one.  I wish there were some available. My hobby as a tango analyst would be far, far easier. I work with what we have, while acknowledging the limitations.

It could be worse. In some styles of music a lead sheet is all that is used. In jazz for example there might only be the time signature, the key signature, the melody, and the chord symbols (A7, C9, C7#9… not the actual notes of the chord or the rhythms). The elements are there but reduced to a minimum. There are tango lead sheets and tango “Fake Books” are available. A Fake Book is the actual name for a collection of lead sheets. The playing and interpretation is up to the musicians – and each musician is necessarily thoroughly familiar with the lead sheet, the template. Playing from a lead sheet is for small ensembles. A full orquesta would have a skillfully crafted arrangement with individual parts written out. Not that there couldn’t have been some improvisation. The piano fills connecting the phrases, or the virtuosic bandoneon solos, called variaciónes, that so often end the music could have been made up on the spot. (When they are played by a single bandoneon, not the entire section). I’m not sure they were though – just thinking out loud.

The piano music has more information than a lead sheet. It contains all of the important features unique to the individual piece of music, excluding the of course. Specifically: the and each individual ; the ; the key signature; s at multiple levels; melodies, including the shape and its rhythms; harmonies (chords) and . What is usually missing are detailed accompaniments and fills between the phrases. They are on the page and are approximately right. Every orquesta will do something unique with them and the accompaniment will be much more complicated than what’s in the sheet music. (Here’s an interesting auditory comparison of the piano sheet music and Di Sarli’s playing of Bahia Blanca. The sheet music is very accurate, in this case.)

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).

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.

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.

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...

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).

Leave a Reply