The 3 Types of Tango Music
The milongas of Buenos Aires are notorious for lasting until sunrise, often featuring 6 hours (or more) of dancing. A few of the so-called “marathon milongas” that start in the late afternoon even offer up to 9 hours to get your tango fix!
Which leads to the common question: “Isn’t it boring to dance the same dance all night long?”
Perhaps it would be, except that tango isn’t just one dance. It actually consists of three different styles of music, each having its own distinct rhythm and sonic development. Although the steps that are danced are all derived from classic tango, the dancers themselves would tell you that the differences in energy and interpretation caused by the divergence of musical styles are substantial enough to render them separate dances.
Unless you have a keen eye or a musical ear, however, tango’s tryptic of musical traditions might have passed you by. Never fear! For the uninitiated, or those who have trouble distinguishing the different types from one another, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to break down the sights, sounds, and history of each style so that you are well prepared to recognize the differences in a real milonga environment.
Why start with milonga and not with “traditional” tango? Because the milonga style is actually the progenitor of classic tango! It derives from a street dance that was performed in bare feet on the unpaved roads in the South of Buenos Aires, where the African slave communities danced to the rhythm of the candombe accompanied by a drum chorus and/or the payadores from the pampas of Argentina dueling it out on their guitars. Later, the syncopated beat of the Cuban habanera got layered over top, yielding a fast, energetic dance with small, traspié (tripping) steps and lots of forward momentum.
Those with musical training will recognize the rhythm of the milonga as that of the habanera, in 2/4 time:
But if that looks Greek to you, or if you’re not familiar with the famous aria “Habanera” from the opera Carmen composed by Bizet, there are other easy ways to recognize a milonga. First, it is noticeably faster than most standard tango songs, necessitating smaller steps on the dance floor. Further, the steps of milonga tend to be simple, linear and sharp. It is less frequently taught or practiced, so the floor tends to clear out a bit for the milonga tandas. Finally, it sharply contrasts tango’s melancholic character with a playful, upbeat spirit. This serves to provide a nice psychological break from the bittersweet nostalgia of classic tango music.
Watch one of Argentina’s greatest pairings—Javier Rodrigues and Geraldine Rojas—perform a milonga to Francisco Canaro’s interpretation of the theme “Reliquias Porteñas” by Graciano De Leone. See that pep in their step? Classic milonga!
For a deeper understanding of this musical style, listen to the excerpts below of some of the most famous milongas, which are still thrilling the dancers of Buenos Aires today as much as they did 70 years ago. Try to listen for the syncopated habanera beat in the bass parts, particularly in the lower registers of the piano and the upright bass.
“Milonga Criolla” ~ Music: Alberto Soifer, Lyrics: Manuel Romero (1936)
“Flor de Monserrat” ~ Music: Juan Santini, Lyrics: Vicente Planells del Campo (bef. 1945)
“Milonga Brava” ~ Music: Antonino Cipolla, Lyrics: Celedonio Flores (bef. 1938)
Remember the opening scenes from the Godfather, where the Don dances a waltz with his daughter Connie on her wedding day? Even if you wouldn’t know it by name, chances are you have heard or witnessed plenty of waltzes in both TV and film. Tango co-opted this classic dance and gave it an Argentine spin to create the vals.
The distinguishing characteristic of this music is its 3/4 rhythm, meaning that there are 3 beats to one measure of music. This instantly sounds peculiar to our ears thanks to the fact that most music has an even number of beats to a measure (2 or 4). On sheet music, it looks like this:
For the non-musicians in the audience, though, think of the waltz as having a lilting beat that carries us forward on a fluffy, giggling cloud of pure joy!
How do the dancers respond to this musical ecstasy? By swirling, twirling, and generally whirling around in phrases of 4, 8, or 16 measures at a time before momentarily collecting their feet… and then doing it all again in the opposite direction! The vals is all about maintaining a fluidity of movement, so pauses are generally avoided. This eliminates certain movements (like sandwiches, paradas, and long, lazy adornos) from the standard vals repertoire. Just as with the milonga, fewer dancers feel comfortable managing the faster rhythm of the vals, so the floor will generally be half as full as normal.
But isn’t the waltz a European (specifically, a Viennese) dance? Yes, and it was exported to Buenos Aires in the mass European immigration of the late 19th century, along with the scandalous new dance frame that had been developed by the Vienna royals and adopted by that other risqué European dance, the polka: man facing woman with his right arm around her waist and his left hand boldly clasped in her right. That hold would later bring together the individualized, expressive dancing going on in the streets of La Boca in the 1880’s and 1890’s, but with that Latin penchant for proximity that gave us the close embrace.
Below, watch as Maria Filali and Özgür Karahan improvise a vals tango on the streets of Paris. Pure, unbridled joy!
And now, enjoy a few of our favorite vals selections to further cement your recognition of this music. As Oscar Rubens writes in the opening lyrics to the 2nd piece below, El Vals Soñador: “Who, when listening to the first beats of a waltz, hasn’t had the desire to dance?” Indeed!
“Desde el alma” ~ Music: Rosita Melo, Lyrics: Homero Manzi/Víctor Piuma Vélez (1947)
“El Vals Soñador” ~ Music: Armando Pontier, Lyrics: Oscar Rubens (bef. 1942)
“Soñar y nada más” ~ Music: Francisco Canaro, Lyrics: Ivo Pelay (1943)
And last but not least, the style of music that wins the majority of airtime at a milonga is the one, the only: the tango.
Just how much of the upper hand does classic tango music have at your typical milonga? Well, DJ’s will customarily play tandas in the following sequence:
This pattern creates “sets” of 6 tandas that last for about an hour (for tandas of 3 songs each) to 70 minutes (for tandas of 4 songs each). Seasoned milongueros/as take note of exactly where they are in the set so that they can plan out their partners according to the style of music on deck.
And how do you know that you’re listening to a traditional tango? Basically, if you could describe the musical mood as “melancholy” or “dramatic,” if the beat sounds slow and deliberate, or if the floor suddenly crowds with people, you can be almost certain that you’re witnessing a tango.
Dancers think of the tango as the place where they get to express drama, passion, and romance. They do this by taking slow, graceful walking steps, rolling from the toe to the heel. They make a scene out of long, dramatic pauses, using the full repertoire of steps afforded them by the slower beat.
Trained musicians will recognize the tango rhythm this way, in a 4/4 time signature:
But not all beats are created as equal as they appear above. In tango, the 2nd and 4th notes are king, as these are the beats that the dancers actually step on. The 1st and 3rd beats, on the other hand, allow plenty of time to execute the moves that make the tango sparkle: long foot drags (arrastres), flourishing sweeps (barridas), and lovely adornos where ladies slide their legs variously up, over, and back down in seductive footplay.
One last trademark of any tango: the painstakingly slow process of taking up the embrace. Given that it serves as the foundation for the entire dance, it’s important to ease into it to have a chance at achieving that most elusive state of “one body, four legs”— the magical union that dancers constantly dream, hope, and long for. Watch below as Federico Naveira and Sabrina Masso demonstrate this dance mating ritual before setting off to performing a beautiful, classic tango.
And, for more examples of what “classic” tango sounds like, check out the clips below:
“Bahia blanca” ~ Carlos Di Sarli (1957)
“A las siete en el café” ~ Music: Armando Baliotti, Lyrics: Santiago Amandini (bef. 1943)
“Vida mía” ~ Music: Osvaldo Fresedo, Lyrics: Emilio Fresedo (1933)
One embrace, two skilled dancers, and three musical traditions: these are the ingredients of the artistic feast we call tango!
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the origins of tango, be sure to sign up for one of our authentic milonga tours where we delve even deeper into the music, the culture, and the dance. Also, like us on Facebook to keep up with all the tango happenings in Buenos Aires!