Music Theory and the Tango

April 30, 2003

Teaching music theory and musicianship skills in a manner relevant to todays students is a fascinating challenge, especially in the broad liberal arts environment of my university. At Emory, the majority of undergraduate music majors are dual majors, more likely to be bound for medical school than for graduate school in music. My colleagues and my own response is to give our students an education that opens their ears and minds in a broad waya way that helps them understand the music of the common-practice period yet is relevant to their contemporary musical interests. The result is exposure to both the traditional Western canon and current popular music. While in general we follow a traditional approach for harmony and voice-leading, I seek to include components from outside the traditional canon in the classroom.

My contribution to the CMS panel The New Analysis and Music Theory Pedagogy last September in Kansas City was an interdisciplinary and crosscultural approach to teaching rhythm, meter, and phrase structure using the music and dance of the Argentine tango. As a guest lecturer for my colleagues course in World Musics, I have taught students about this repertory and used it to develop their general musicianship.

My aim in this class is the teaching of rhythm, meter, and phrase structure through tango dance movementa kind of eurhythmics revisited. The music and the dance of the Argentine tango allow this method, for they are intimately related - the dance translates the sound into physical motions. Through this translation, students can better understand the rhythm, meter, and even phrase structure of this musicand I contend all musicsbecause they can feel it literally in their bodies.

While the dramatic, choreographed show-style of tango should be reserved for trained, professional dancers, music students can learn the genres social style. In the social tango, dancers improvise within a basic vocabulary of steps and figures in an intuitive, spontaneous translation of sound to motion. This form of tango beautifully illustrates how dance translates music into physical motion.

Basic Metric and Rhythmic Patterns in the Argentine Tango

Teaching meter and rhythm of tango music through body movements is quite straightforward. The Argentine tango is a walking dance with a standard meter of 2/4. For the basic step, dancers walk to the driving marcato quarter-note pulse. A subdivided beat creates quick-quick steps called the corrida, or running steps. Students can feel not only the metric groupings of strong-weak by walking to the beat, but also the simple eighth-note subdivisions throughout the corrida. An excellent example to demonstrate these two basic steps is the most famous of all tangos, La Cumparsita (The Little Carnival Procession), written by the young Uruguayan Hernán Matos Rodriguez). Different instrumental layers of the musical texture define the tangos rhythmic patterns. The bass line often carries the driving dance pulse, while the accompanying middle parts (the bandoneón or the strings) subdivide the quarter-note pulse into rhythmic syncopations on the level of the sixteenth-note, often a sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth-note figure. These rhythmic figures are translated into a syncopated walk by the leader or into playful embellishments by the follower. When students try the syncopated walk, they cannot help but feel the syncopated rhythm.

While the dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth-note pattern followed by a pair of eighth notes is commonly associated with tango, in fact it comes from the Cuban habanera and is most characteristic of the Argentine milonga, a faster folk dance from which the tango developed. In this dance, the rhythmic figure is translated into a side-step called the traspie. Again, by teaching this characteristic step, students are able to take the rhythm of the music and place it into their bodies.

Dancing the Phrases

The relationship between tango music and dance goes beyond meter and rhythm into the higher level of phrase structure. I have heard tango dancers talk about dancing the melody when in fact they mean dancing the phrases. Sensitive dancers intuitively combine the basic steps and figures into gestures that initiate, fill out, and conclude the phrase, thus translating its musical departure, middle, and conclusion into motion. In between these points of initiation and conclusion, the phrase is marked by improvised gestures, including forward steps, side steps, occasionally back steps, ochos (swivel steps forward or backward that trace a figure eight), and turns.

Tango dance teachers often present an academic 8-count basic pattern to their beginning students, because it includes most of the simple steps in the dance. The 8-count pattern is divided into four parts: (1) the salida (the exit) on beat 1 is the point of departure; (2) the parte caminada, on beats 2, 3 and 4 (the walking part), entails the act of walking progressively through space in the rhythm of quarter notes or eighth notes (slows and quick-quicks); (3) the trabada, on beat 5, suggests joining together, where the leader usually marks for the follower the cruzada, or cross-step) and (4) the natural resolución, on beats 6, 7, and 8, brings physical closure to the entire set of steps.

Since tango music normally falls into 4-bar groups and 8-bar phrases, marking the 8-count basic helps students hear and feel phrases. They feel the initiation, rise, and closure of the phrases in the music as they walk through repetitions of this pattern. By following this scheme with all slow steps, a dancer can express a four-bar group, probably to a half cadence. Upon repetition of the pattern, the dancer can arrive at the conclusion of an 8-bar phrase with an authentic cadence.

In my experience dancing in Buenos Aires, the milongueros (as well-seasoned tango dancers are called) do not adhere to this academic structure, but they do follow the phrases and translate the essence of the music into their gestures. Once students are able to hear and mark the phrases in the tango music, they can improvise and expand upon the 8-count basic with their own figures).

By teaching students to hear tango meter, rhythm, and phrase structure through dance movement, we offer them a holistic sense of this music, in fact a precise sense of how the music and dance are intertwined. When they are able to translate the musics essence into their gestures, the sound, feeling, and theoretical knowledge become one.

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