Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: "Musicality"

Musicality is, simply stated, a sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music.

Musicality is not originally a dancer's term, although dancers sometimes use it as if it were.  Musicality, as I learned it formally, is the ability to express music in a way that goes beyond the correct notes or literally what is written in the musical notation.  The expression of musicality creates a response that accentuates a mood or feeling.  If you have seen musicians or dancers who perform and you are deeply moved, it was more than the music or graceful movement to the music:  Musicality was on center stage.

Musicality is a subset of every course on music a musician takes and is the goal of every musical performance.  In academic settings, musicality is addressed especially under musicianship courses.

The best musicality course for a musician, however, is dance.  That is my experience, at least.  I am not alone.  Many musicians who become dancers have a common experience:  We learn more about musicality as musicians through dance than in any course!  We can feel the dynamics of the music, how the notes can fill the body with a dance response.  We musician/dancers then return to our instruments as better musicians, better at musical expression--without out any changes to our technical abilities.   Can dancers, then, do the reverse?  Yes.

Dancing exactly on the pulse, is the first level of musicality.  This level of musicality is like snapping one's fingers to the music in time.  Done correctly and simply can be a very wonderful musical expression.  The next level is "hitting the notes," which includes hearing and responding to the actually rhythms.  A much higher level is to hear and react to the the dynamics -- the myriad changes in the music, such as expressing the sweeping or staccato parts of the music, and then poetically knitting these dynamic changes all together.   However, I am reluctant to suggest a hierarchy to musicality.  Simplicity may win out for musicality in the end.

Musicians do not always dance musically.  Have you noticed?  I have.  Musicians must become dancers and embody music.  This is not easy, but once it happens, you may see a huge change in that beginner dancer who happens to be a musician.  One the other hand, dancers have to grow on the side of musical growth.  I believe a dancer must become what I would call an "aural musician," fully aware of the music.  I want my non-musician dance partner to have sat down next to Pugliese on his piano bench even though she cannot play piano.

Regarding "hitting all the notes"Imagine a piano competition in which all musicians must play the same piece.  Then imagine that they all play every note perfectly.  The judges do not have a hard task.  They look for one thing to acknowledge the truly impressive musician:  Musicality.
The "Player Piano" plays all the notes
 perfectly,but wins no musicality contests!

The winner of such a competition did something SO MUCH MORE than pounding out the notes.  It is all about the dynamics (changes) within the music.  The transitions within the music were poetically expressed.  The player piano which plays all on its own from a scroll of programmed paper has no mother that will be outraged that her child did not win even though "he hit every note perfectly."

The Musicality Moment
Nearly everyone experiences a "musicality moment." Isn't it wonderful when you and your partner listen and dance some special nuance in the music?  Isn't it magical when when you intuit what is going to happen next--when the music takes over even though you have never heard a particular piece.  Musicians experience this all the time, and it is truly wonderful.  Sometimes, it is even mystical.  My improvisational jazz experience may be wonderful, even mystical.  Yet, nothing is as powerful as my tango experience with this intuition.

Okay, if you know my blog, you know it is now time for a video clip.  Maybe you are waiting for an example of some great musicality by an awesome tanguero couple, right?   No, sorry.

I have something better--removed from tango--so that you will pay attention to the subject at hand. The dancer below demonstrates musicality very well, in spite of the fact that the dancer has very stiff legs.  This artist is not known for dance.  But you will be amazed at his musicality.  Watch how his body moves, and you see why it was more than just the steps that makes even a dancer with stiff legs so much fun to watch.

More Reading:

This list of ideas were shared in July 2013 by Terpsicoral Tangoaddict Facebook, which really point out eight well-written aspects of what it means to "dance musically":

1. Choosing vocabulary to suit the musical colour (I often like to think in Murat's terms of kiki and bouba vocabulary, i.e. more rounded steps for more legato musical moments and more abrupt, lineal or spiky movements for more staccato moments -- but this is only one possibility).

2. Choosing to dance to unusual rhythms within the tango instead of just stepping on the main pulse: offbeats, syncopations, 3-3-2 patterns, etc.

3. Making minute differences in what dancers call "cadence" (I'm not using this term as a musician would) that is slowing down or speeding up within the step -- i.e. choosing to glide or flow through the movement evenly; to suspend or delay it slightly and *almost* arrive late for the beat you want to land on; or to hurry and change weight *almost* early. This is subtle, but it can feel really great.

4. Changing the quality of your movement to suit the music, i.e. dancing the same step in very different ways to reflect what you are hearing (smoother, more abrupt, cleaner, more unrestrained, stompier, bigger or smaller in size to reflect dynamics, etc.).

5. Dancing to submelodies played by non-dominant instruments or secondary voices within the music (which might be shared between several instruments).

6. [Editor's note:  Good concept but poor word--"polyphonic" means "multiple tones."] Dancing polyphonically with leader and follower emphasizing different levels/voices/instruments/rhythms, etc. (The fact that leaders and followers often have different steps and timings in tango, rather than dancing as mirror images of each other, makes this very possible at some points in the dance. And decorations can also help to achieve this).

7. Choosing to not dance to everything but use pauses judiciously, omitting to dance to some notes in order to emphasize others. (Although trying to catch every last note like an insane dervish can be fun too).

8. Marking the changes in the music with changes in your dance. Music has a tendency to divide into sections, which are parts that sound different from each other (apologies for stating the obvious). One of the easiest ways to dance musically is to reflect that in your dance: when the music changes within a tango, you can change the way you dance by altering such things as your choice of vocabulary, quality of movement, amplitude of movement, amount of decoration, etc.

In all of this, the follower's musicality is at least as important as the leader's and the musical interpretation is created together, as a couple, by listening not only to the music itself but to how you each hear it (which requires excellent somatic listening and communication skills from both parties). And led-and-followed moves and decorations and other solo movements are complementary ways of expressing the music.

Musicality Glossary Definition
for tango teachers only 
(Really! Everyone else, this is boring -- so do not read it): 

Teaching "musicality" through the "you-know-what-I-mean" method, as it often is taught, is misguided.  The assumption behind "you know what I mean" is often that musicality is knowing the music.  But it is not.  The player piano "knows the music" (plays it perfectly), but is not "musical."  Another assumption is that musicality is led/followed or just done on one's own with adornos.  But it is not.  If I dance with a woman who is not listening to the music, then my musical expression is limited.  In reality, the musicality starts when the leader is the music and ballroom concept of leader/follower disappear.  It is true that men and women have specific roles to embody and interpret the music's lead, but leader/follower terms indicate a responsibility on the "conductor" that is not true in my experience.   Who would say that musicality has it genesis in the conductor's baton?  Musicality is not expressed by simply following the conductor or directing another person to have it!  What is true about musicality for musicians is just as true for dancers.

I am not suggesting a curriculum for your musicality classes; however, the three M's are a good place to start: Music, Movement, eMbrace.  If there is a huge gap in the embrace, the potential for dancing musical nuances between strangers is less likely.  If you students are focused on steps, then Music is only a backdrop, and the true leader is not leading.  Movement includes axis and grace.  All three M's are needed.  If music, the true leader, is conducting the couple, something marvelous appears.

If you are a musician, go back to you instrument and pay attention how tango may have transformed your growth in musicality.  If you are a dancer, I suggest you return to dancing after you have joined a tango orchestra as a "aural musician."  Become the auditory-musician, and when you return to being a dancer, you are all the better dancer for it.  Please then, help your students learn to embody and interpret the phrasing, rhythms, timbre, melody and ensemblic expression of the music.

Photo Credit for the harp (and a very good resource for hearing/listening):

Photo Credit for the player piano:

A great resource:  Here's a blog on aural skills, which is very enlightening. (


  1. Marcel Marceau interpreting Canaro (Orq. Mario Demarco)
    He is not dancing Tango, but he got the music!

  2. It's much more than adornos or even 'hitting the notes'. As a couple, you are two extra instruments that add themselves to an orchestra, with its particular use of counterpoint (yes, there is even counterpoint even though you and the orchestra can't really be _harmonically_ interdependent. Sometimes, though, what I and the follower have just stepped to has its own melody in my head that goes with _that_ rhythm, and I can actually _sing_ it --sometimes to the chagrin or the delight of my follower).

    When the 'flow' is right, the leader and the follower each adorn in their own manner and at different moments, and you even _don't_ hit some of the notes in the orchestra because you'll let them shine more if you don't step to them (I really do have an issue with some couples who elbow the orchestra out of the picture; it's not all about me, me, me)...

  3. Nice article, Mark. And I agree with your point about misguided teaching of musicality. Musicality is receptiveness and creativity, and comes solely from an individual's experience of music. The best dance teachers foster musicality simply by doing nothing that sabotages its natural development in each student - such as trying to teach it.

  4. what happened to the promised video of the guy with the stiff legs? Is it my browser or is it actually missing?

  5. Strangely enough the embedded video did indeed disappear. The video is of Charlie Chaplin "dancing" with forks. Thanks for pointing this out!


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