Syncopation is a distinguishing feature of tango music, and as listeners and dancers we need to have a good understanding about what it is, especially what it sounds like. An elaborate musicological definition isn’t required; a simple one as it applies to tango will do.
In music with four s per bar (most tango), the first beat is normally the strongest beat, and the third beat is strong as well. Beats 2 and 4 are normally weak beats. Milonga is “in 2″: beat 1 is strong, 2 is normally weaker. Vals is “in 3″: beat 1 is strong, beats 2 and 3 are weak. Syncopation places a rhythmic emphasis were there normally would not be one, such as making a normally weak beat strong. Syncopation is also playing s between the beats, called the off-beat, ie. not on the beat. Tango syncopation is mostly that type: the playing of notes between the beat, and most likely with an emphasis or accent.
Syncopated Rhythms: The Habanera and its Variations
Tango almost always uses syncopation as part of a ic pattern, and as said above, these patterns are off-beat syncopations. There are three common syncopated rhythmic patterns in tango, the habanera and two derivatives of it. There is great variety in the way the patterns are used. Often just part of them, the most syncopated bit, will be played. That’s true for the first two; the 3-3-2 will be played as notated below, partly due to the relative sparsity of notes, but mainly because of the strong syncopation created on both the second and third notes.
These rhythms are used by the accompanying instruments to syncopate the beat. And they very frequently appear in the melody. Sometimes the melodic and accompaniment instruments combine, both playing one of these rhythms, creating a wall of syncopated sound.
Here’s what the rhythms look and sound like:
(Habanera Variations describes the syncopation and relationship between these patterns and some others).
Non-Syncopated Rhythms and Articulation
Tango also uses non-syncopated rhythms, of course. These are usually played by the accompaniment instruments to make the beat obvious. Tango musicians call this way of playing “marcado”, which is Spanish for “marked”. Marcado rhythm is a characteristic and fundamental tango rhythmic style, and is simply the playing of notes on the beat, in time, without syncopation. “Marking” it, in other words.
Marcado should not be confused with the Italian music term , also meaning “marked”. The Italian term marcato is an , a way to play the notes, in an accented, and sometimes clipped short () manner. Marcado rhythms often use marcato articulation to create the alternating strong/weak beat feeling. Let me explain.
When there are four marked beats per bar the rhythm is called “marcado in four”. Usually beats 1 and 3 are emphasized more than the others, using marcato articulation, making them the strong beats. Sometimes there will be a on these beats, an emphasis and increase in volume (crescendo). When only two of the four beats, beats 1 and 3, are played, the rhythm is called “marcado in two”. Usually these beats are played marcato or “swelled”. Beats 2 and 4 are not marked – there is silence.
(The syncopated habanera rhythms are usually played marcato too, especially on the syncopated notes to emphasize the off-beat character).
A Demonstration of Some Tango Rhythms
The YouTube example below does not contain the original habanera rhythm, which although often heard in tango, is much more frequent in milonga, and is one of that form’s defining rhythms. Nor is there “marcado in two”.
The clip begins with marcado in four. Notice how the beats are articulated. Around 1:20 the musicians play the second habanera rhythm, called the “” by tango musicians. Listen carefully and you will hear sometimes the bandoneon does not play the syncopa’s 3rd note, often not the 5th note, and sometimes neither the 3rd or 5th notes. Each has a different effect. These are common ways in which the syncopa is altered. Also notice the most syncopated note, the 2nd one, is never skipped. If it were, the pattern would no longer be the syncopa, it would either be the habanera or a modified 3-3-2. Around 2:40 the musicians demonstrate the third habanera rhythm, the 3-3-2, which they always play in strict rhythm without change to the pattern.
The rhythms discussed in this post and the way in which individual notes are articulated largely create the quintessential tango rhythmic “feel”.
Once again, if you are interested in learning how the three syncopated habanera rhythms are related – and why the 3-3-2 is called the 3-3-2 – read Habanera Variations. There are several music and audio clips and some tango and milonga recordings.
(Note the musicians are counting in “4” (4/8 or 4/4) not “2” (2/4). There is a great deal of confusion regarding tango time signatures. I address that in Tango Time Signatures and The Beat.)
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).
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
The syncopa is a variation of the habanera rhythm. Like the habanera it is a syncopated pattern, now with the primary syncopation happening on the second and third notes.
Habanera Variations describes the syncopation and relationship between a few habanera patterns.