Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ask Helaine: Should I memorize tangos for my musicality?

Today’s question comes from Antonio, a tanguero in Spain, while he's working on our musicality program

"Hi Helaine.

Should I take the time to commit Tangos to memory?  What happens with the lesser-known tangos?


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Thanks for your questions, Antonio!

I recommend that you study a few tangos that you like and let them become your "good friends". 

The milongueros and milongueras in Buenos Aires who have such remarkable musicality have been listening to tangos since they were children. They've been dancing to them for many years, so they know what phrase, what pause, what syncopation, what accent, etc. is coming next!  

We can become more like Porteño milongueros by getting to know some tangos very, very well.  Then we’ll naturally understand many other tangos that have a similar structure, and those too will start to feel like “good friends”.

Here’s an example of what I mean by that:

The tangos in the first half of your Tango Musicality Mojo” program all have the same structure:  5 groups of 4 phrases of 8 counts!!  It is a very common tango structure for Golden Age tangos (mostly 1940's).   I call tangos with this structure "Regular" and tangos that don't follow this structure "Irregular".  Irregular tangos are more complex, like irregular verbs in a language that break the simplicity-rules of verb conjugations.

So how can you identify and interpret Irregular tangos? 

In our 6th module of “Tango Musicality Mojo” we look at a different collection of tangos.  I show you how to do a 30-second analysis of these to easily determine whether a tango is Regular or Irregular.  You’re basically looking to see whether the “groups of 4 phrases of 8 counts” occur in the first half-minute.  If they do, you’ve probably hit a Regular one.  Then you can easily breeze through the full overview analysis in 2-3 minutes of listening to a whole tango.

After you’ve identified whether a tango is Regular or Irregular, you can continue using my method to do a light, overview analysis of any tango on a paper napkin in a restaurant, while listening on a mobile device with earbuds!  Sketching these quick mini-charts will help you enormously with your musical phrasing, so on the most basic level, you’ll be able to dance that tango well.  

To do an overview analysis of a Regular tango may take about 5 minutes to analyze and even double-check your work.  An overview analysis of an Irregular tango may require that you listen to the tango 10-15 times, stopping to listen over and over to a few phrases. If you're up to investing more time and energy on these, it can be really rewarding!  

Next, if you want to deeply understand a tango you’ve lightly analyzed, you can use the “grid sheet” templates I provide to explore exactly what’s happening rhythmically and melodically in every phrase of any Regular or Irregular tango!

It’s not difficult to first become an expert at interpreting Regular tangos.  When you’ve thoroughly understood a few, you will naturally understand many.  Then it gets easier and easier.  Regular tangos might make up half the tangos played in a milonga!  What if you were to dance half the tangos with accurate phrasing and lots of confidence?

But be sure you know when you’ve hit an Irregular one, or you will be pulling your hair out as you wrestle with it!

Be patient, do a few overview analyses of Regular tangos, and it will become more and more clear.  Analyse a couple each week, and you'll quickly be an expert on the phrasing of Regular tangos.

And by mastering the phrasing of Regular tangos, you’ll be dancing with much greater confidence, because you will really understand the essentials of interpreting a hundreds of tangos!

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Have any observations or feedback?  Please share it with us in the comments area below this post!

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Yesterday at 5:18pm • 


  1. Hi. My approach to musicality was by seeing a tango video of a couple I liked on youtube. At first I didn't know why I liked them, but I kept to observe them dancing and dancing that tango.
    While I observed them, that music entered inside me, connecting its music phrases with their movements... WIthout realizing it, that music was inside me.
    I repeated this natural approach with other tangos of that couple and other tangos of other dancers I liked.
    A lot of music now is inside me, connected with those beautiful interpretations. And I thank Helene for her beautiful and continuous suggestions.
    Sometime, when I dance, I connect the tango music I dance with those dancers, even if they are not among us. But they are alive in us.

    1. That's lovely, Stefano! Thank you for sharing this with us.