What Is the Tango? - Definition, Origin & History

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

A tango is both a sensual dance and the music used for accompanying the dance. Explore the roots of this unique style and learn about some of its characteristics, important performers and iconic compositions.

Tango: Origin Story

When the tango craze hit New York in late 1913, the dance was shocking to many at first because of the close body contact between partners and its sexually aggressive movements. It remained popular through the 1920s, with the Golden Age of tango music coinciding with the swing era--roughly 1935 to after World War II.

The Tango
Tango dance image

The exact origins of the tango are hard to pinpoint. It's believed the dance and corresponding music evolved during the early 1800s in the working-class ports of Buenos Aires, Argentina and later in neighboring Montevideo, Uruguay. In Argentina, these ports were really slums populated by African and European immigrants. There are several references to both the music and the dance developing in that area throughout the rest of the 19th century.

By the early 1900s, the tango was extremely popular in terms of record and sheet music sales. One classic tango example, 'El Choclo' ('The Corn Cob'), dates from 1905. In 1912, dancers and musicians from Buenos Aires traveled to Europe, and the first European craze took hold in Paris. It quickly spread to other major cities before coming to the United States in 1913. As the dance form became all the rage, Argentine high society adopted it as their own. What began in the Argentine slums was now accepted in the upper class ballrooms.

Tango Instruments and Artists

The emblematic instrument of the tango became the bandoneon--a concertina or small accordion. By 1916, bandleader Robert Firpo had standardized the tango orchestra instrumentation as a sextet of two bandoneons, two violins, piano and string bass. Earlier ensembles consisted of flute, violin and guitar. Pieces would also be played as a piano solo.

A bandoneon
Image of bandoneon

In 1917, folk singer Carlos Gardel recorded 'Mi Noche Triste' ('My Sad Love'). The tragic emotion expressed in the song became a core element of tango music. Gardel became a tango superstar in the 1920s and 1930s due to his smooth voice, handsome looks and sensual depiction of the dance in film. Song lyrics were typically from the male perspective and focused on the pain of lost love.

Carlos Gardel
Image of Carlos Gardel

Juan D'Arienzo was another Argentine tango musician who came to be known as King of the Beat. Much of his music is imbued with an insistent, driving rhythm that dancers found irresistible. 'El flete' ('The Freight') is a good example. A brilliant young bandeonista named Astor Piazolla left Buenos Aires in 1950 to study classical music in Paris. He successfully fused jazz elements with the tango. His signature work 'Adios nonino' ('Farewell, granddad') of 1959 became the most influential example of tango nuevo. He wrote it in memory of his grandfather, who had just passed away.

Tango Music Characteristics

The tango pulse is generally in two or four, creating a march-like quality. These sections are usually played staccato (or in short and detached notes). 'La Cumparsita' ('The Little Parade') is an adaptation of a Uruguayan carnival march and has become a standard tango number.

There are usually two sections, with the first part in a minor key and the second part in either a major key or a related minor key. Melodies can be dramatic with smooth, chromatic (notes that are close together) passages and the use of glissandi (sliding) contrasted by wide interval leaps. The music is typically punctuated with sudden changes in volume. The bandoneon is able to bend notes and provides a sense of weeping. These traits help strengthen the sensuous nature of the dance and the emotion of tragic love often being expressed.

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