Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: The Essential Elements of Music

Music's Essential Elements:  Melody, Harmony and Rhythm.  

If tango dancers really wish to dance musically, they must at least sense which of the three elements of music is the fundamental block.  I realize that there are many more elements (see link at the bottom), but let's keep this discussion on what is the essential of the essential.  Among these three blocks, even the focus is often questionable. which is the one essential one?  Are they all essential?  No. However, if you watch the camera man's focus on music performance, the limelight is often on the melody.  Also, much discussion on the Internet on the essential blocks starts with the melody.  It's true in tango that I often dance the melodic line, but the best musicians who play/sing the melodic line are exceptionally connected to where the rhythm is!  Are you?

I  believe that if dancers really take time to consider these interacting blocks, their dancing will improve.  Rhythm is historically and is still the alpha and omega of music.  A baby's first "music" is the beat of his mother's heart.  Beyond musicians' perspective, dancers rely on rhythm as the distinguishing element of all dance music.  The vals (waltz) is perhaps the easiest to identify as a special type of dance that only fits into certain kinds of music.  Ever try to dance a vals to music to 4 beats per measure?  It's possible, but very weird.

So, rhythm is the essential block of all blocks.  Of course, the melody has its own rhythm, and therefore is nothing without the rhythm that it expresses. In tango, the melody revolves around tango's rhythmic uniqueness.

Let me give an example that every tanguero/tanguera really should hear!  A few years back a salsa artist from Puerto Rico, Jerry Rivera did a wonderful rendition of some of Carlos Gardel's most memorable tunes. The same melody, the same harmony, but the rhythm changed.  Of course the instrumental changes are obvious, but the rhythm is the distinguishing element of the music that makes it salsa, chachachá, merengue, and so on.

Listen to "Por una Cabeza" from Rivera's album, Gardel Caribe.  You can listen to the beginning, which is a slow dance, but I will start the embedded music (below) at at the improvisational part of the music, changing the rhythm to a totally different dance, the chachachá. Then it returns to a sensual slow dance (often miscalled bolero or rumba in the ballroom world).

Note:  I use Spotify because a wonderful blog, Tanda of the Week, introduced me to it.  You can search the titles I use however you like or use Spotify.

The rhythm identifies more than any other element what kind of dance music you are playing.  Biagi uses the wedding march into the context of a tango. "Jingle Bells" has been turned into a nice swing dance tune.  Rhythm overshadows harmony and melody.

If you search the Internet you will not find a consensus of which block is the bottom block. Many articles put melody first.  So can we just say it's a matter of taste?  Yes, it is taste, and perspective, perhaps.  For example one can argue that harmony is the essential block because harmony is the intermingling of vibrations, and all music and each note has its own rhythm.  Yeah, okay.  I like that.  Or the Universe first decided to stop just singing one note, and that lead to the next note, thus creating rhythm (and maybe the Big Band Bang?).  But it's best to have these discussion over a bottle of schnapps.

 Dancers:  Let's keep this simple.  Rhythm is king.  Join Juan D'Arienzo and be also the Rey del Compas (the king of the pulse) as a dancer.

Without rhythm, the second element, melody, is just one note going on forever.  But we can have a one-note melody as soon as we start playing/singing one more note.  Have you ever heard "The One Note Samba?"  Technically speaking, it is the "One Tone Samba" because the melody a wonderful rhythm single-toned melody (at first).  The lyrics hint at the three-block concept.  Please listen:

Once a second melodic tone is played, a rhythm has started -- in this case a melody within the context of a samba rhythm.

Harmony is the third block, which supports the other two.  In fact, the classic set-up for a rock band was a bassist, drummer, lead guitarist and finally the rhythm guitarist, who plays chords (harmonies in rhythm). The Beatles are an example of this.  Also, the essential instrument elements of a jazz orchestra are piano, bass and drums.  If one of these three musicians do not show up, the orchestra is crippled.  This section, piano, bass and drums, is called the "rhythm section" of the orchestra, although the section produces harmonies, melodies and sets the frame of a weave of rhythms by each member of the orchestra.  Another member of the orchestra plays only the instrument of movement:  The conductor.  If anyone gets up to dance, they are joining the conductor's lead who often is the "first dancer" using his/her body in harmony, rhythmically and even melodically.  The best conductors dance on the podium very well, indeed!

Playing in the rhythm section of a jazz big band orchestra used to be my "heaven on earth."  Then I learned how to dance tango.  Tango is even better!  But in a universe of antipodes, heaven has its darker side.  Playing or dancing can be hell if the rhythm is wrong.  Yes, we want the melody to be nice and the harmony right, but what dancers and musicians most need is the rhythm to be right!  A host of participants are necessary for this heaven:  The composer must love rhythm, the conductor must establish and maintain the rhythm, the orchestra must execute the rhythm soulfully, the dancers around me must move in a swarm of movement musicians, my partner and I must harmonize to all the above. When everyone in the band joins in the communal pulse of the music, heaven surely is within you.

Meet you in heaven!

There are many other elements to music.  Other elements can even be larger than these, such as emotion (soul), which can bend time, tones, dynamics, timbre and much more. This fourth meta-element can make or break musicality.   I consider emotion/soul/feeling the room in which the three blocks stand.  But for now, juggle these three.  We'll consider more later.  ¡Hasta entonces!

Extra credit:  Here's a thoughtful musician on this subject:

Photo credits:


  1. Nice article!

    TT wrote: "The vals (waltz) is easiest to identify as a special type of dance that only fits into 3/4. "

    More accurate: "...only fits into three". Vals dance fits equally well into 3/8 and 3/2 because the second number has no effect of the sound of the music, being simply an artifact of the way the music is written down.

  2. Chris, I had already changed the reference to 3/4 before I got your message. But of course your correction is appreciated. Thanks. I imagine that at every turn there is some qualification that I could find. Adding many footnotes would be necessary. For musicians and interested dancers, I would argue the feel is in 6. The dance and rhythm are correctly called "vals cruzado" which can only be understood in 6.

  3. Nice interpretation by Jerry Rivera there - I didn't know of this album. The only thing I'd say is that I reckon the closest rhythm to the 'slow dance' parts is bachata, not any ballroom rhythm.


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