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Guide to Tango Music: A Brief History of Argentine Tango

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Out of all Argentina’s cultural exports, few have had the impact of Argentine tango. Since the early twentieth century, tango Argentino and the tango dance tradition have spread throughout Latin America, Europe, North America, and beyond to become a world music phenomenon.



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What Is Tango Music?

Tango is a style of music that originated in Argentina and Uruguay, influenced by both regional folk music and European classical dance music. Both Uruguayan and Argentine tango dance music is composed in the easily danceable time signatures of 4/4 and 2/4. Tango music can be instrumental, or it can feature a vocalist.

A tango sextet is a small ensemble with a piano, double bass, two violins, and two bandoneón players (the bandonéon is a close relative of the accordion). A tango orchestra, or orquesta típica in Spanish, is a larger tango ensemble that includes additional instruments like guitars and drums, as well as vocalists and tango dancers.

A Brief History of Tango Music

The history of tango dates back to the nineteenth century.

  • Origin: In the mid-nineteenth century, European immigrants in Argentina and Uruguay began experimenting with music that combined European salon music and dance traditions like the minuet with African rhythms they encountered in the western hemisphere. Tango music also took hold in countries such as Cuba and Spain, but it was the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan capital Montevideo that particularly fostered this new genre of music. Rosendo Mendizábal is considered the first tango musician of note. Vicente Greco, one of the first tango bandleaders, introduced the tango sextet ensemble, which consisted of piano, double bass, two violins, and two bandoneóns. It was the singer Carlos Gardel, though, who popularized singing tango with the song "Mi Noche Triste" in 1917, becoming the biggest star in tango music and ushering in tango's golden age.
  • Golden age: This golden age began with Carlos Gardel's untimely death; musicologists define the golden age of tango as the years from 1935 to 1952. Whereas early tango was more limited to musicians' circles and underground venues, the 1930s helped make tango a form of popular music, and this popularity endured throughout the Second World War. It was during this era that major bandleaders from the United States began to take notice of tango and even incorporate tango songs into their own repertoires.
  • Schism: During the golden age, a schism developed in Argentine tango; some bandleaders like Juan d'Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi sought to perpetuate the style established by musicians like Gardel. Argentinian Osvaldo Fresedo led a series of relatively traditional-sounding ensembles and had perhaps the longest commercial career of any tango musician, working steadily from 1925 through 1980. Other bandleaders, like Carlos di Sarli and Aníbal Troilo, tried to push tango style in more experimental directions.
  • Tango nuevo: The most globally famous of the tango evolutionists is Astor Piazzolla. When international audiences think of Argentine tango, they likely imagine the tango nuevo ("new tango") that Piazzolla pioneered in compositions like “Adiós nonino.” There was mutual admiration between Piazzolla and New York jazz musicians, which further engrained tango into the culture of the United States. In newer forms of tango, such as the jazz style of tango music, improvisation is common, blending jazz with the influences of European classical music and Latin American folk music in traditional tango.
  • Legacy: Over the decades, many other tango musicians have risen to prominence, including Ángel Villoldo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro, Julio de Caro, Lucio Demare, and Miguel Caló.
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7 Characteristics of Traditional Tango Music

Tango music can be characterized by the following elements:

  1. A 2/4 or 4/4 time signature
  2. Heavy use of the tango rhythm— a 4/4 measure comprised of two dotted quarter notes followed by a quarter note, similar to the first half of a 3:2 clave bell pattern in son Cubano and rumba styles
  3. An angular, staccato rhythmic emphasis
  4. Strong influence of European classical dance music, including minuet, flamenco, polka, mazurka, and contradanza
  5. Additional influence from Argentine folk music, including the payada and milonga styles, and Uruguayan folk music such as pampas
  6. Spanish-language lyrics (although instrumental tango music is common)
  7. Often performed by a tango orquesta típica, featuring instruments like bandoneon (a cousin of the accordion), violin, and guitar

7 Traditional Tango Instruments

A tango orchestra, known in Spanish as an orquesta típica, tends to feature the following instruments:

  1. Double bass
  2. Guitar (either one or two)
  3. Bandoneon (a close relative of the accordion)
  4. Violin
  5. Flute and clarinet (often played by the same player)
  6. Piano
  7. Vocals


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