In this article, I explore what a melody is, how the different instruments in a tango are organised, and some interpretation characteristics.
This article is written as a background for my animated tango visualisations. I just published the first one here!
Imagine a meal. Different ingredients are put together and presented as a whole. The ingredients are chosen to complement each other, but the ingredients have different roles and it's nice to be able to tell them apart (unless it's soup). The same principle applies in music! Different instruments play different roles. They're basically like "musical ingredients".
Let's take a closer look at these ingredients! There are lots of details and levels in a piece of music, but I'll focus on some things that I believe to be relevant to us as dancers:
Playing style isn't an ingredient per se, it's more how the melody, accompaniment, and embellishments & countervoices are performed. To continue with the food analogy: playing style is how ingredients are prepared to influence the flavour of the ingredients.
Most of the time, a tango wasn't created as a finished piece ready to be played by a full tango orchestra. Oftenmost, it was born as just a song that we can sing. This is what we call "the melody". When an orchestra decided they wanted to include a melody in their repertoire, someone would write the additional instrumental voices that make up what we call the arrangement or orchestration of the melody.
A tango melody is typically made up of A-and B-sections, a bit like verse and refrain. Each A- and B-section is divided into phrases, like sentences, where it feels natural to take a breath when singing the melody - or maybe pause and start again when we dance. The phrases often last for eight (or two times four) walking beats, but not always! If you start counting, you'll find that many tangos have phrases that are shorter or longer than eight walking beats.
The melody is sung and/or played by an instrument group or a solo instrument. It's meaningful on its own, but it needs some accompaniment to become good dance music! The accompanying instruments mark the walking beat and offbeats plus play some additional tones to give the music energy, drive, and a sense of a solid foundation.
To keep things interesting, the beat / accompaniment often stops playing during a tango. When this happens, we can still listen for the beat in the melody and embellishments / countervoices instead, since all the instruments are organised on the same beat grid. The singer, on the other hand, is more free around the beat grid. Some orchestras, notably that of Osvaldo Pugliese, remove the beat for longer periods while the melody and embellishments / countervoices play more freely around the beat (there's still a certain rhythmical consistency, it just isn't as metronomic).
To make the music more rich, it's common in tango arrangements to have small embellishments that fill the silence between the melody phrases. The embellishments are often played by the piano or one or more bandoneóns. We also have additional "countervoices" that sound like a different melody that complements the main melody. Variations that build on the melody are also common.
Some of the melody phrases are played legato (smooth), which gives the melody a singing quality. Interestingly, it's very common in tango to also play some of the melody phrases staccato (chopped). The singer is mostly legato. But sometimes there are other instruments playing the melody together with him/her, and they might play some of the phrases staccato! Changing between staccato and legato melody phrases during a song creates variation, and playing the melody staccato makes the music feel more rhythmical or percussion-like. The beat / accompaniment is often - although not all the time - played staccato in tango.
A cool feature in tango is that each A- and B-section is oftenmost played differently when repeated. The first A-section could be instrumental, the second A-section could be with the singer, and the third A-section could be a variation on the melody. During a tango, the violins, bandoneóns, and the piano often switch between playing melody, beat / accompaniment, and embellishment / countervoices. The instrument groups will also combine in different constellations within each of these roles. Only the bass mainly does beat / accompaniment.
Different orchestras apply all the above musical elements differently, also depending on the decade. This explains why the same melody sounds so different when recorded by different orchestras.
It's not always 100% obvious which function the instruments have at any given time. I don't think this is something we need wo worry about when we dance. The most important thing is to listen for ingredients we like in the music, in order to express them through our dance!
Takeaway: tango music is composed and arranged within structural rules, like a recipe. It doesn't happen by some mysterious and divine magic. Don't feel disillusioned by this, though - our (conscious or unconscious) understanding of musical structures is probably the reason why we like the music, and knowing more about these structures may help us when dancing.