The Habanera Rhythm

The Habanera and Its Variations
The habanera rhythm and a couple of closely related variations are quintessential tango s:

How the variations are musicaly derived from the original habanera, and where the syncopations occur in each form, is explained in Habanera Variations.

The habanera rhythm is central in tango music. The habanera, in some version or other, is used to create the pulse of the music, or as syncopated rhythmic accents in the accompaniment or melody. It is found in all tango forms: tango, milonga, and vals, but less so here and much disguised, having to do with the “3” count of the 3/4 .

Historical Context
A bit of historical context is in order. Milonga preceded tango, originating in the Río de la Plata area of Argentina and Uruguay in the last quarter of the 19th century. The music was heavily influenced by the Cuban Habanera dance, specifically its namesake rhythmic pattern, repeated over and over in the bass line and rhythmic accompaniment:

The habanera remained the dominant rhythm in milonga throughout the great period of tango composition during the first half of the 20th century. It is often the underlying pulse, the driving rhythm, in the accompaniment. And the first variation, the “syncopa” – the first three notes especially – is often the melodic rhythm and/or also the rhythm in the accompanying instruments, used to create moments of accented syncopation.

The habanera dominated early tango too, up to the late 1910s. In the piano sheet music from the day and the few recordings we have – from the early 1900s – it is prominently used as an accompaniment and it is the underlying rhythmic pulse. We can get a good idea how early tango sounded by looking at the music and listening to an early recording of El Choclo. The music on Tango Musicology’s site header is the start of El Choclo, with my handwritten notations. The full piano sheet music is here. Ángel Villoldo wrote the music in the late 1890s and it was premiered in 1903. The score clearly shows the habanera in the bass clef.

Here’s an early recording, by Juan Maglio “Pacho”. You can read about him at Todo Tango.

El Choclo, Maglio
Or, if you read music, here is a sync of the sheet music and Maglio’s recording. Close the “synchronized audio/video” window. The music can be adjusted to fit the frame by sliding the zoom control in the bottom right area. Select “Play From Start” under the “Play” menu item. Click anywhere on the music to stop the playback.

The recording quality isn’t great, but if you listen closely you’ll hear the habanera in the accompaniment. And the first variation of the habanera, the “syncopa”, is the prominent rhythm for the melody in section B, starting at :30. That’s bar 17 in the score. And for section C as well, around 1:00, bar 26, although here the “syncopa” is an elaborated version.

Tango’s era of the habanera as the rhythmic pulse was relatively short. By the late 1910s, although tango still used the habanera, the distinguishing rhythm became the second version, the “syncopa”, used as syncopated rhythmic accents in the accompaniment and melody. Other than tempo differences, the removal of the habanera from the underlying pulse makes tango tango and not milonga.

The 3-3-2
A third habanera version, the 3-3-2, is not as common in tango. It occurs now and then, more often in milonga. Notice how closely it resembles the original habanera, sharing the defining dotted 8th – 16th rhythm an its second 8th note. (The 3-3-2 is usually played more crisply than the habanera, hence the use of rests – silences – rather than dotted 8th – 16).

Please see Habanera Variations for an explanation of the in the habaneras and how they are rhythmically related. There are also some tango and milonga pieces using the habanera rhythms, which are pointed out.


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 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.

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...

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12 Responses to The Habanera Rhythm

  1. Jantango says:

    I heard things in this recording that I hadn’t heard before in El Choclo. Reading the score while listening made all the difference for me. What I heard as two 16th notes is really a triplet! I’ll never hear it this music as I did before. It’s richer than ever after seeing the score.

    What you’re doing on this blog is outstanding! I feel as though I’ve gone back to music school at the university to continue my studies. This time I’m majoring in tango.

  2. Chris says:

    [EDIT: The commentator used Jantango’s real name. I changed it to “Jantango”]

    Jantango wrote “I’ll never hear it this music as I did before.

    That’s sad Jantango, because you were right the first time. You say “What I heard as two 16th notes is really a triplet!” but no, it really is two 16th notes. If it looks like a triplet on the stave above, that’s only because of the way it is written – with the tails joined. This makes no difference to the music you hear. If you rewrite the notes with separate tails, the triplet illusion disappears, the music itself (i.e. the sound) is unchanged, and the two 16th notes are clear.

    • tangomonkey says:

      Um, not quite. But I get what you mean.

      It’s the “3” above the group of three 1/16th notes that make them triplets, not whether they are beamed (connected with a line on the stem bottoms) or not. Take away the “3” and there would be an extra 1/16th note in the bar – which isn’t possible – so one of them has to go. That does in fact leave two 1/16ths. But now the melody is changed. Which of the three notes is going to be dropped? The handling of the triplet – how it is interpreted and/or changed is readily heard in the four recordings I’ve syncd.

      The oldest recording is Maglio’s from the mid 1910s. He plays the triplet 1/16ths.

      Firpo (1940) plays three notes but not triplets. They are grace notes – an ornamental melodic flourish around the main note of the triplet group – the one which is written twice, the first and third. They are faster than the triplets, which are three evenly spaced 1/16th notes in the time value of two 1/16ths. The three grace notes (or ornaments) have only a 1/16th time value, compared to the two 1/16ths of the triplet. Because they are faster than the triplets there is a 1/16th hold before the next note – the one following the triplets in the score – is played. So there is a fast flourish on a 1/16th then a hold or rest for a 1/16th. That totals an 1/8th of a beat. There are not two 1/16ths, just three fast notes and a pause or hold for a 1/16th beat.

      Di Sarli (1954) mixes it up. He starts the same as Firpo, fast grace notes, but does a few different things depending on the phrasing. Including playing triplets and just the first note. When just the first note is played it is an 1/8th (not a 1/16th or two 1/16ths).

      D’Arienzo (1954) simply plays just the first note of the triplet and holds it (or inserts a rest). So, again, the note is an 1/8th (not two 1/16ths). For the initial few occurrences anyway. He does a few different things afterwards.

  3. moshe says:

    everyone sais: Habanera influenced the milonga. Who can tell me what influenced Habanera? when did it come to live? earlier than 1870? And how Cuban influence came to Argentina?

    • tangomonkey says:

      Hi moshe

      Well those are questions which can’t be adequately answered in a few sentences in a comment, but a few points might help.

      Carlos Vega found the earliest appearances of the habanera rhythm in rabbinical collections from late medieval Spain. Gilbert Chase says the habanera rhythm also appears in the 15th century Spanish court song collection, Cancionero de Palacio. So the rhythm has been known to musicans for a very long time. But obviously not called “habanera” prior to popularization in Cuba (Havana, specifically).

      The rhythm likely came from Spain to the Americas. Vega says by 1850 there were several popular song types using the rhythm and it was common to all Hispanic American music. In Cuba the rhythm eventually was used to create the driving pulse of the Cuban Habanera dance. The rhythm was played repetitively in the rhythm instruments, and that was new.

      The Cuban Habanera dance became very popular and naturally so did the music. Sheet music was available, published in Cuba. Thompson says sailors from Cuba brought the habanera dance and its music to Montevideo in the 1850s.

      • Laurie says:

        Hi, TM. Great to discover your site! The Habanera origin in Argentina is not clear. Thompson says that the Habanera dance came to BA in 1850. Who brought it? The Spaniards? He then states that “black sailors arriving in Montevideo from Cuba were later messengers of habanera.” and inspired black named cumparsa societies in Montevideo. This implies music. See page 114 of his book.

  4. Chris says:

    TangoMonkey wrote: “The habanera rhythm is central in tango music. … It is found in all tango forms: tango, milonga, and vals, but less so here, having to do with the “3″ count of the 3/4 time signature.

    TM, I don’t believe I have ever encountered habanera rhythm in vals, so I’d be interested to see any examples you can provide.

    • tangomonkey says:

      Well, Chris, you posted a comment on the home page that I am wrong to put tango, milonga and vals in the same genre, and made some very disparaging comments under the Scales post, claiming (obviously incorrectly) I make up my own musical definitions. That from someone who so vehemently claimed I was in error saying there are only 12 different notes. Not to mention of course your prior comment on this post where you display a lack of understanding regarding triplet notation, yet again make bold statements. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t interpret your request all that favourably. Do you really want to know – or just looking for an argument.

      No I won’t provide a list of vals music using the habanera. I’ll do something better. I’ll explain some vals syncopations so you can listen for them yourself. The rest of the comment is basically copied and pasted from a post I’m working on, titled “Vals and the Habanera”.

      Over top and often in alternation with the “boom-chuck-chuck” pulse – marking the “3” count – is an overlay of syncopated melody and/or accompaniment. Typically beat two is accented or there is a pickup to beat two and some continuous 8th notes for the rest of the bar. Or there are more notes on beat 2, making it more prominent. Or the first 8th note of beat 1 is a rest with an 8th note on the second half of beat one leading into beat 2. Often the melody or accompaniment has notes on beats 1 and 2, not beat 3. Or beat 1 and 3, not 2. And often following notes on beat 1 and 3 there will be a rest for the next beat 1, or part of it. Or there will be a dotted quarter on beat 1 followed by 3 8ths (3 beats with syncopation on the 1st 8th note). These syncopations come from the habanaera (in its various patterns), once we recalculate from 2/4 (or subdivided to 4/8) to 3/4.

      Vals died out in Argentina before 1920. During its brief run of popularity it appeared in upper class venues. (So the story goes). It resurfaced in the 1940s and joined tango and milonga in the dance halls. It should come as no surprise that tango musicians, composers, and arrangers steeped in the rhythms and syncopation of tango and milonga adapted those rhythms to the vals. Those syncopations are based on the habanera. Vals being the only one in “3” necessarily adapts the “2” or “4” based rhythm and it may take a trained ear and some study to recognize the various ways it shows up in vals.

      Exactly how and where is the topic for a later post, currently in draft mode.

  5. Lois says:

    Any thoughts on why ballroom tango still has such a heavy habanera beat?

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