In this article we will learn about the basic structure of Argentine Tango. In very simple terms, most tangos consist of the following elements:
- A typical tango consists of 5 sections
- Each section consists of 4 phrases
- Each phrase consists of 4 measures
- Each measure (in 4/4 time) consists of 4 beats (2 "strong" downbeats and 2 "weak" beats).
The Basic Structure
The basic structure of a simple Argentine Tango consists of 5 sections. Some people like to describe this structure as ABAB and others say that it is ABABC, meaning that often the last section often has a little different structure than the previous A sections. Often, in this final section there will be some sort of instrumental solo. But there is nothing guaranteed. Sometimes sections are longer or shorter or have little intros to the sections. This is just a general structure to listen for and the really important thing for dancers is to hear wihen these sections are coming to an end and when a new one begins.
A Sections (or Verses)
I like to think of the A sections as verses. In popular music, this would correspond to the lyric of the song and a singer would sing all three verses. In tango, the first verse is almost always an instrumental. The second verse, is either an instrumental or sung depending on the orchestras use of a singer. The third verse, is often an instrumental with a solo, but it is occasionally sung.
In tango, the verses are usually musically similar. So, if you pay attention to the first verse, it is likely that the next verses will follow a similar pattern. Also, verses are usually more melodic in nature.
B Sections (or Chorus / Refrain)
The B section is usually repeated twice and will be the same both musically and lyrically. Once again, the first chorus is not sung in most tangos, for dancing. If the song is not an instrumental, the second chorus is almost always sung, but of course there are variations. The chorus usually has a more upbeat and more rhythmic feel than verse, but not always.
Dancer's Note: This structure helps us as dancers, if we pay attention to the first verse and the first chorus, then we will know, within reason, what to expect for the rest of the song.
Exercise: Let's listen to Carlos Di Sarli's "El Jagüel" from 1956. If you listen closely, you will clearly hear the end of each section. Di Sarli ends each section with a single ping of the piano. If you listen a few times, you will hear the music build up to the end of each section.
Now let's listen to two famous tangos, "Bahía Blanca" by Carlos Di Sarli from 1957 and "Pensalo Bien" by Juan D'Arienzo with Alberto Echagüe singing from 1938, and see if we can hear this structure.
"Bahía Blanca" is an homage to Carlos Di Sarli's hometown, which is located in the south-west province of Buenos Aires. It is a great example of an elegant, sophisticated tango.
First, let's listen to the whole song:
Bahía Blanca (The Whole Song)
Next, let's listen to the 5 sections independently of each other.
Bahía Blanca (A 1)
Bahia Blanca: A 1
Bahía Blanca (B 1)
Bahia Blanca: B 1
Bahía Blanca (A 2)
Bahia Blanca: A 2
Bahía Blanca (B 2)
Bahia Blanca: B 2
Bahía Blanca (A 3)
Bahia Blanca: A 3
Now, go back and listen to A 1, A 2 and A 3 and notice the similarity. You will notice small differences in the instrumentation, but the overall structure is very similar. Then go back and listen to B 1 and B 2. You should find them very similar as well.
Now let's examine "Pensalo Bien" in the same fashion. First, let's listen to the whole song:
Pensalo Bien (The Whole Song)
Next, let's listen to the 5 sections independently of each other:
Pensalo Bien (A 1)
Pensalo Bien: Verse 1
Pensalo Bien (B 1)
Pensalo Bien: Chorus 1
Pensalo Bien (A 2)
Pensalo Bien: A 2
Pensalo Bien (B 2)
Pensalo Bien: B 2
Pensalo Bien (A 3)
Pensalo Bien: A 3
The first difference that we might notice is small, but each verse begins with a slight 2 second intro played only by the bandoneon. Another noticeable difference here is that Alberto Echagüe sings the second chorus. Echagüe is playing the common role of the tango singer as an "estribillista" or chorus singer.
In the vast majority of tango songs, played for dancing, the singer will only sing a small portion of the lyric. Usually they will only begin singing during the second verse and/or the second chorus. This helps us as dancer's, because we get to hear a whole verse and chorus without singing, so that we can hear the musical structure before the singing starts. For more on the singer's role in the tango orchestra read my article: The Role of the Tango Orchestra Singer.
One difference to notice between these two songs is the tempo. Tempo is the overall pace (beats per minute) of a piece of music. Both songs have the same amount of beats, but "Bahía Blanca" is 2:52 while "Pensalo Bien" is 2:18. What is different is the beats per minute. "Bahía Blanca" is played at approximately 56 bpm and "Pensalo Bien" is played at approximately 67 bpm. When I say beat, I am referring to the "walking beat" (aka downbeat or strong beat), which I will explain more in a moment.
Dancer's Notes: Tempo has a lot to do with our style of dancing. Below are some examples of how we might modify our dance depending on tempo. Notice that I keep using the word "might" as these are general ideas and not absolutes. We might do exactly the same steps in both, but the quality that we give to those steps might be very different.
|Faster Tempo||Slower Tempo|
|We might dance in a closer embrace. The embrace might be slightly firmer so that we stay connected while moving faster. BUT should not be too firm where the woman might not be free to move.||We might feel like opening the embrace periodically for more challenging steps. The embrace might be less firm, giving her plenty of room to pivot and take larger steps.|
|We might walk more staccato, meaning that we might walk with shorter steps and we might begin and/or end our steps more sharply.||We might walk more legato, meaning that we might feel like taking larger, longer steps and to walk more smoothly through our steps.|
|We might be more playful with our steps and embrace.||We might be more serious and dramatic.|
|We might move more linearly.||We might curve our steps and movements more. We might allow for more fluidity in our embrace. We might do more turning walks and more turns in general.|
|We might maintain a more constant flow and pause less or we might pause quickly and then begin again quickly.||We might use long dramatic pauses and then begin moving again very slowly.|
|We might try to step on most every beat, rarely skipping beats.||We might skip beats and really stretch out our steps.|
|We might work in quick embellishments with little flurries of their feet or quick toe taps.||We might work in more long, stretched out embellishments, which the men should wait and give the women time to complete.|
|We might use more rebound steps with lots of quick changes of direction.|
|We might use the quick, quick, slow rhythm more. We also might use the quick, quick, quick, quick, slow rhythm.||We will always dance with rhythm, but that rhythm might be more sub-dued and a the "slow" of the quick, quick, slow might be stretched out a bit more.|
Here are two demos from our classes that show very similar steps performed to "Bahia Blanca" and "Pensalo Bien" which should show some of the different qualities mentioned above.