Structure, Question and Answer Phrasing: An Overview

Structure
The bulk of tango music follows a common framework. Although there are many, many exceptions – even within the same piece of music – tango, milonga, and vals typically have the following :

There are two or three distinct s, call them A-B-C. Each section is usually 16 s long. (That is 32 “counts” at 2 per bar). Typically the sections have two distinct 8 bar primary s (16 counts). These primary phrases further divide into two 4 bar phrases (8 counts each). And these 4 bar phrases often have two 2 bar phrases (4 counts each). This is a generality, of course, a guideline not a rule.

Between the phrases there is a musical interrelationship which may be called Question and Answer (Q&A) phrasing. (Some describe it as Call and Response phrasing).

Question and Answer Phrasing
Before I describe Q&A phrasing, listen to the start of Carlos Di Sarli’s Bahia Blanca. (Bahia Blanca is a classic example of Q&A and I’ve taken a close look at the phrasing in Section A, here and here).

Section A, first 4 Bar Phrase

And here are the 4 Bar Phrase’s 2 Bar Question and 2 Bar Answer.
The Question
The Answer

The Question is bold, the Answer very restrained, with an echo-like quality. Two segments of music with different but complementary qualities, combining to create a coherent larger unit. That is the essence of Q&A phrasing.

As we just heard, Questions and Answers have different musical qualities, a different musical character and feeling. Generally, Questions are bolder, more emphatic; they make a statement, or ask a question. Answers are more restrained, more laid back, perhaps hesitant. The Answer complements or contrasts what came before in the Question. Sometimes the opposite is true: the Question is gentler than the Answer. Typically, that occurs at the ending of a section. Either way, there is an interplay and interrelationship between the Q&As, on multiple phrase levels.

The overall effect of Q&A phrasing creates a feeling of movement in waves. The music undulates back and forth between boldness and restraint, movement and pause. It creates the music’s cadence. (The Q&A ebb and flow is achieved in specific ways, including how the is constructed, , accompaniment, . More on that another time).

Q&A Charts
As mentioned, within the there is an interrelationship between the s, occurring on several levels simultaneously. A few charts should help clarify.

A section’s phrases are constructed like so:
Q&AHierarchy

(The chart should be self-explanatory. The next paragraph describes it from top to bottom – and may be skipped over.

Section A at the top of the chart has two 8 Bar Phrases. The first 8 Bar Phrase (on the left) functions as the Question in the section. The second 8 Bar Phrase (on the right) functions as the Answer in the section. Looking at The first 8 Bar Phrase, it has two 4 Bar Phrases. The first 4 Bar Phrase functions as the Question at the 8 Bar Phrase level. The second 4 Bar Phrase functions as the Answer at the 8 Bar Phrase level. Within the 4 Bar Phrase there are two 2 Bar Phrases. The first 2 Bar Phrase functions as the Question at the 4 Bar Phrase level. The second 2 Bar Phrase functions as the Answer at the 4 Bar Phrase level. And the same structure applies to the second 8 Bar Phrase).

Perhaps Q&A Phrasing is best conveyed in a flow chart or two. We hear and experience the music moving through time as pictured in the following pair of charts. Think of time moving from left to right.

The first 8 Bar Phrase:
Q&A Phrasing

The second chart carries on from the end of the first 8 Bar Phrase. Notice how the 8 Bar Phrases are themselves Question and Answer within the section. (Click or the image to expand it.)

The second 8 Bar Phrase:
Phrase Flow Chart, 2nd Phrase

A pair of consecutive Questions and Answers form a complete phrase at the next higher level.

With some attentive listening it becomes easy, and very fulfilling, to hear and feel Q&A ebb and flow in multiple time spans, simultaneously. Sometimes there is no clear Q&A, other elements dominate. When it’s there and one can hear and feel it, there is a deep connection with the music.

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.

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

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...

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.

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).

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).

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.

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...

Think of the music moving through time from left to right.Q&A Phrasing
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10 Responses to Structure, Question and Answer Phrasing: An Overview

  1. Jantango says:

    I will never hear Bahia Blanca in the same way after your explanation of question and answer. Thank you.

    • tangomonkey says:

      Thanks! You are very welcome.

      I seem to be unable to play the examples. Did they work for you? Anyone else have a problem…..?

  2. Jantango says:

    No, they didn’t work for me either.

    • tangomonkey says:

      I made a couple software changes today and tried Chrome, IE and Safari – audio worked in all of them. So it should be taken care of…

  3. erico says:

    I know when I took my first exam in music i was tasked with writing a 5 minute piece of music “out of my head”. I succeeded with some praise from my teacher. I didnt ever think about writing in phrases but looking back over the score it seems to have at least some cadence! The above explanation is very very “computerlike” in structure. That doesnt surprise me when one considers the binary relationship of music. for example middle C has a frequency of 256, the next “C” an octave above 512, and then 1024, 2048, 4096. When I first discovered this ( being at the beginning of the computer revolution in the 60’s) I was taken aback.
    Anyway my Q is do you feel perhaps musicians just “naturally” write in this very methodical fashion without being tutored? It isnt so important for the layman musically but it gives me room for thought in just how the whole Universe is structured. Way off the track I know but interested in your ideas.
    I am following BAhia Blanca as suggested. Thanks a million

    • tangomonkey says:

      I’m not sure about computer-like structure. Yes pitch frequencies double with every octave above, and middle C is around 256hz, (In equal-tempered tuning A is usually 440hz and middle C is 261.63hz), but I only see co-incidence between the physics of octave frequencies and 8 bit bytes. Maybe I’m lacking something…

      What I am sure about is the Classical nature of Q&A phrasing. Classical has many connotations, originating in Ancient (Classical) Greece about ideals of what constitutes beauty: form, order, symmetry, balance, proportion, restraint. Music in the Classical tradition (Haydn, Mozart, early-middle Beethoven) has all these qualities, and Q&A phrasing is very common. Q&A is also common in most popular music styles. There is something we innately find beautiful and appealing in the balanced, symmetrical structure. The Greeks were onto something.

      Just for fun, here’s the first movement form Mozart’s 40th symphony, in g minor. A perfect example of Classicism, with beautiful Q&A phrasing exactly as I’ve described it in the post.

      • erico says:

        Wonderful. As we all know only word to decribe the man. Genius. One of our foremost musician/critics made a TV program re who was the best Mozart or Beethoven? tough question
        He came down on the side of mozart finally becuase of one particular trait he had. He tended to write his scores down in one fell swoop. For every instrument! And with hardly an alteration when he heard it. Whereas Beethoven sat at his Piano to compose. Thanks for posting. I have done a lot of reading this week of both your blog and Joaquin Amenabars “lets Dance to the music”

        • tangomonkey says:

          Well, there is no best, just one’s personal preferences. True enough, Mozart appears to have created masterpieces fully formed in his head before putting them down on paper, while Beethoven’s sketchbooks are a mess of corrections and scratched out sections. One appears to have composed with ease, the other struggled. The end result is all that matters and both wrote music of intellectual and artistic genius. Their music is different but neither’s is better than the other’s, no more than Di Sarli’s is better than Canaro’s.

          Now I have to get back to finishing up a post I’m planning to get out today….

          Thanks for reading, erico.

  4. Juan Tango says:

    I am really enjoying your question and answer explanation. A beautiful tango that I have always got the Q & A feeling from is Recuerdo by Pugliese. The music gives me a distinct impression of a very emotional conversation between lovers. I watched a live performance by Horacio Salgán and Orchestra Quinteto Real a few years ago online and saw the way the bandoneón player Carlos Corrales was interacting with the violin player Julio Peressini with their instruments and saw the Q & A process in action.

    • tangomonkey says:

      Speaking musically, not in terms of dancing…I always prefer live performances to recorded ones. As you noticed, there are visual aspects like the physical and emotional connection and interplay between the musicians, which is nice to see and makes me feel and enjoy the music more.

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