Tango Music - History and Characteristics of Tango Music

Tango music is a distinctive style of music that originated in late 18th and 19th century among the European immigrant and African slave populations of Argentina during the development of the modern tango dance. The styles that influenced this famous musical style have come from sources such as flamenco, polka, mazurika, hanabera, contradanse, valso criolo, milonga and candombe , while the most typical instruments are guitar, bandoneón (also known as “Tango accordion”), piano, violin, flute and double bass. The traditional and tango music can be played both with a solo instrument, or an ensemble orchestra (orquesta típica) that usually includes a flute, piano, double bass, and at least two of both violins and bandoneóns. While solo guitars and clarinets are rare, they are often a part of tango music ensemble band, and the same holds true for a vocalist.

The rhythm of the modern tango holds the 2/4 or 4/4 beats per measure with two upbeats and two downbeats, with frequent use of accented notes, nostalgic lyrics, sudden changes in dynamics, use of slides (glissandi), often use of staccato (march-like phrases), intense but melancholic mood and freedom for improvisation that is fueled by its old jazz origins. It is very rare to find tango music that consists only of beats. Traditionally, the more “romantic” or “sensual” the tango song is, the musical ensemble will prioritize melody over the underlying beat and rhythm.

Tango Music

Every five sections of tango music are made out of 4 phrases, which consist of 4 measures or 8 single-time beats, thus enabling each section to have 32 sing-time beats. Structure of almost every tango song fits neatly to the form of five distinct parts of alternating verses and chorus. In almost every tango song, the outro of the song piece includes similar melody as in first two verses, but with the addition of an instrumental solo or an addition of another musical instrument. The energy of the outro can also go up, leading to the final crescendo which is called “chum-chum” (the final two notes of a song).

The tango is known as one of the most versatile musical and dancing styles in the world, being able to morph quickly with the changes in musical styles, social environment or even changes in clothing fashion! In recent years tango music evolved into many new styles, including Tango Nuevo, Electro Tango and other.

Origins of Tango Music

Since the origins of the tango style are closely tied with the mix of influences from immigrants and slaves located in Argentina and Uruguay (most notably port cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo), the exact form of tango music changed widely over the years. Most probably, the original tango music that was played during early “conventillos” (gatherings of immigrants, poor and working-class people in communal dance halls or open fields) could not be easily identified today as a tango. That early tango community eventually became known as "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard), but their efforts eventually paid off. During those early years of tango music history, bandoneons (large square-shaped concertina/accordion that with bellows played by pressing buttons or keys) became highly popular in Argentina and Uruguay. That early tango community eventually became known as "Guardia Vieja" (the Old Guard), but their efforts eventually paid off.

As the tango became more popular in lower classes, authorities inevitably tried to limit its spreading, but thankfully they were unsuccessful. As the popularity of tango music rose, it eventually reached the core of Buenos Aires where it started being played in higher end dance halls and theater stages. During that same time, first compositions started capturing the minds of the upper classes of people across entire Argentina and Uruguay (such as one of the first tango “El Entrerriano” by Argentine pianist Rosendo Mendizabal in 1890s and the first tango recording made in Paris by Angel Villoldo) which were by that time experiencing sudden increase of national wealth. Younger generations of wealthy nobles became ambassadors of tango dance and tango music beyond the borders of South America.

Argentine Roots of Tango Songs

Tango was heavily influenced by already present musical styles of Argentine and Uruguay , such as Payada, Milonga, Pampas and Candombe, many of them drawing heavy influences from African slaves who brought with them new sounds and rhythms that were unknown to native settlers of South America and European immigrants.

Tango music was developed by underprivileged class of Buenos Aires

One of the earliest tango songs that became widely popular in Argentina was tango-candombe called "El Merenguengué" that was performed frequently on Afro-Argentines carnival that was held in February of 1876. The mentionings of the word “tango” in historical records were rare by then, and earliest findings point to 1823 Havana Cuba, an 1866 newspaper and 1789 government proclamation that banned the “tango” gatherings of slaves and lower classes in the port areas of Buenos Aires. The first organized “group” of tango musicians started operating in Buenos Aires between the early 1870s and early 1890s, consisting from two Afro-Argentines Casimiro Alcorta and Sinforso who played violin and clarinet.

Before 1900, Argentine became home of the dozens of popular tango songs, including:

  • Señora casera”
  • “Andate a la recoleta”
  • Lino Galeano’s “El queco”
  • Gabriel Diez’s “El Porteñito”
  • Jose Machado’s “Tango Nº1”
  • Juan Perez’s “Dame la lata”
  • Prudencio Aragon’s “El Talar”
  • Eloísa D’Herbil’s “Y a mí qué” and “Che no calotiés!”
  • And others

All these songs were almost exclusively performed live, but that era came to the end with the arrival of the recording equipment to Argentina or with the ability of Argentinian composers to travel to more developed parts of the world (usually Paris) where they could record their music. Some of the earliest recorded tango songs in Argentina were:

  • 1889 - “La Canguela”
  • 1896 - Rosendo Mendizabal’s "El entrerriano”
  • 1903-1907 - Ángel Villoldo’s "El choclo", “El Pimpolla”, “La Vida del Carretero” and “El Negro Alegre”
  • 1905 - Higinio Cazón’s “El Taita”
  • 1905 - Gabino Ezeiza’s “El Tango Patagones”

Carlos Gardel as Symbol of Tango

The history of Tango music would not be the same without the presence of some of its earliest stars, and out of them all the shiniest one was without the doubt Carlos Gardel who quickly rose from folk singer tointernational tango music sensation, film star and sex symbol, only to attract even more fame after his sudden death at the age of 44.

Carlos started his career as a singer of folk songs in Buenos Aires, first as a solo singer and then as a part of a singing trio. His first moment of true fame arrived with the production of the “ Mi Noche Triste”, a first tango-canción in 1917 that mixed the Pascual Contursi’s lyrics about failed love with the popular existing tune. The triumph of that song enabled Carlos Gardel to become an international superstar and one of the national heroes of Argentina. His influence on Tango history was immense because he served as a bridge point between the origins of tango as a music of lower classes (tango was even described then as “gangster music”) to the music that was appreciated by middle and upper-class dancers and audiences. His most famous tango song was “El día que me quieras“ from 1935.

Carlos Gardel

During the height of his popularity, he toured South and Central America, successfully performed in all the major entertainment hubs of the world (most notably New York, Paris, London, Barcelona, and Madrid), and he filmed numerous films for Hollywood studio Paramount that showcased his singing and star appeal.

Carlos Gardel popularized Tango like no one before him

In addition to incredible repertoire of tango music (where he often collaborated with music composer Alfredo Le Pera), Gardel found much of his fame because of its sex appeal toward his female audience. To achieve this status, he hid away from the public his personal relationships with several women.

Carlos Gardel and several of his music associates died in an airplane crash in Medellín, Colombia on 24 June 1935. His death triggered a period of mourning not only in his native Argentina but also in entire Latin America. His body was presented for respects in Columbia, New York, Rio De Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. He was buried in in La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

After more than 2 decades in the spotlight of the international audience, death of Carlos Gardel led to the end of the “traditionalist” period of the tango history, enabling the arrival of the “ golden age of tango” which put more emphasis on big tango bands than individual singers.

Golden Age of Tango Music

Death of Carlos Gardel brought a divide between traditionalist tango supporters such as Rodolfo Biagi and Juan d'Arienzo and evolutionists like Aníbal Troilo and Carlos di Sarli. Evolutionists eventually won, managing to popularize arrival of big band era (usually consisting of bands that had over dozen performers) that lasted from 1935 to 1952. The most popular bands from that era of tango music history were those of Juan d'Arienzo (also known as “King of the beat”), Francisco Canaro, Mariano Mores and Aníbal Troilo.

Fame and sales were achieved by dozens of big bands, including those of Osvaldo Pugliese and Carlos di Sarli who managed to popularize piano and stringed instruments over the traditional sound of bandoneón. While di Sarli’s music was easy to dance to, Osvaldo Pugliese's approach to Tango music was much more experimental, with a rich, complex and discordant sound that prevented easy dancing (but it was possible to be a base for the creation of dramatic choreographies).

During two decades, tango was viewed as one of the most popular music genres in the world

While this new focus of tango bands was contained in Latin America, this movement eventually managed to find fame in North America and Europe, where many bands adopted tango tunes which were enhanced with new instruments such as clarinet, saxophone, accordion, electric organ and many others. During this time, tango really managed to become a worldwide dance, with the popularity that equaled those of slow tango, foxtrot, and rumba.

The golden age of tango came to the end between the early 1950s and early 1960s with the rise of rockabilly (popularized by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis) and

British rock and roll (Beatles).

Tango Nuevo

Of course, tango music did not disappear when rock-n-roll stormed the world, but it just took a new form. The evolution of tango music in the 1950s was fueled with the exploits of Ástor Piazzolla, whose song “Adiós nonino” became one of the most influential tango songs ever created. The musical style of Tango Nuevo breaks the conventions set by the traditional tango rules, which instantly caused irritation in old performers and lovers of traditional tango sound who did not want changes, even the adoption of new musical instruments such as electric guitar and saxophone, and dancing moves taken from ballroom, swing, and salsa.

Tango Nuevo incorporated many Jazz influences, complex harmonies and elaborate arrangements from 1970s Buenos Aires scene, and that style was popularized by Litto Nebbia, Siglo XX and Buenos Aires 8. In the 1990s, Tango Nuevo scene was changed once again with the exploits of the pianist and composer Fernando Otero.

Some of the most notable composers of tango nuevo music were Osvaldo Pugliese, Ariel Ramirez, and Juan Carlos Cacere.


NeoTango is a movement of tango music that incorporates electronic influences into what has become known not only as NeoTango but also “electro tango” and “ tango fusion”. The addition of electronic instruments and computer edited vocals have enabled tango to reach the brand new sound that was very appealing to early 21st century audiences.

New Tango Songs

Tango changed once again in the last years of the 20th century with the arrival of NewTango, which borrowed orchestra-based influences of early tango history and mixed it with the lyric style that was focused on contemporary themes. The most notable performers and bands of this new type of tango music are Julian Peralta, Orquesta Rascacielos, Altertango, Ciudad Baigón, Victoria di Raimondo and Pacha González.

Tango Music
Carlos Gardel