Eine Kleine Ear Training

This was written by Peter at the request of many of our dancers

I’ve have been asked by a lot of people about what to listen out for in Tango music and how we can respond to the different elements of the music in our dance.  Quite a few of these folk are new to Tango, so to start with let’s keep it really simple.

As a result, this post may seem like a gross over-simplification (which of course, it is) especially to musicians and more experienced dancers.  But we also come across a lot of people who are experienced dancers, and who have a great love of Tango music, but who have only taken in its beauty at face value.  I hope this post will offer you something new and open up some interesting fresh possibilities.

I find it amazing just how much musical richness there is crammed into these three minute masterpieces.  I’ve always preferred the subtlety of the miniature to the gargantuan ‘grand oeuvre’ – I’ll take Pugliese over Wagner any day.

Before we delve deeply into the music, however, we need to consider the quality of our listening.  There may be a host of wonderful things happening but they will be lost to us unless we can hear them, so it’s important to be able to listen out for, and hear, all these different parts.

Imagine you were looking out of your window.  You might just take in the general picture, but it’s quite likely you’ll look at something in particular – the sky, the clouds, trees, buildings and so on. Or you could focus on a completely different  set of things – the colours, patterns of light or even the weather.  There’s an almost endless richness of things to take in and enjoy – depending on your window, of course!  The point is, you can actively choose what to focus on, and switch the focus of your attention at will.

This is all very obvious when it comes to looking and seeing,  but we may not have anything like that level of skill in focussing our attention when listening and hearing.  For most of us, our visual acuity is far more developed than our auditory, and, what’s more, our musical ear is only a small part of our overall perception of sound.

The sad tale of how our culture has failed to develop the musical ear of successive generations is another topic for another time.  But whatever our starting point, we can develop and improve it, even as adults.

If you want to practise focussing on different parts of the music, probably the easiest place to start is the orchestration, as each instrument has such a distinctive colour.

As an example, let’s take a very well known Tango, Carlos Di Sarli’s Bahia Blanca (the 1957 version – I think it’s the most popular) and look at it – or rather listen to it – in more detail.

There’s  a short piano introduction – just a few notes – before the violins take over with the melody.  Now, instead of doing the obvious thing and following the violins,  stay focussed on the piano and listen to what it does.

After accompanying the violins’ first melodic phrase with some octave jumps and chords, the piano fills the gap at the end of the phrase with a sympathetic decoration (this is at about 7seconds).

The violins take the melody over again, with a phrase that answers the opening one.  BUT KEEP FOLLOWING THE PIANO – this is about practising your listening focus, not just enjoying the music!

The piano continues to accompany this second melodic violin passage.  Then, at the end of the phrase it has another decorative fragment to fill the gap before the first melody is repeated, but this time the bandoneons take the tune.  During this passage the piano continues, accompanying and decorating, slightly more intricately and rather more noticeably than before (after all, Di Sarli himself is the pianist, it was his composition – and his orchestra!)

You can carry on listening to the whole piece in this way, just following the piano.  Notice who has the very last word.  You guessed it – Di Sarli!

Nw, start all over again, and this time switch your focus to the violins.  See (sorry hear) what they do throughout the piece.  Then go over it all again, this time following the bandoneons.  Finally, check out the bass which has some lovely phrases and lines, and a few unexpected pauses, whilst providing  a perfect foundation to everything going on above it.

You’ll probably end up listening to Bahia Blanca more than you’ve ever done before.  Do stop, though, before you start hating  it – this is not meant to be aversion therapy to cure you of your Tango obsession.  Gradually, I believe, your entire perception of this piece will change as you start to notice  more and more of the different things that are happening inside the music.

This exercise raises another question.  How many of us take the time to listen to Tango music as a preparation to dancing to  it?  And I mean really listen –  actively, with 100% concentration – not just in the background, in the car or whilst working on the computer or whatever.

As you listen, you may also start to realise, at a more macro level, the role of different instruments in the structure of the whole piece.  In Bahia Blanca, hardly surprisingly, the piano has the role almost of the ‘anchor man’ linking all the phrases and sections together.  This perspective opens up some exciting possibilities for how one can structure a whole dance as an expression of the structure of the music.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself – that bit will have to wait for a while.

Typical tango orchestras share a very similar line-up – violins, bandoneons, piano and double bass and you’ll soon learn to pick up their distinctive sounds.  Interestingly, Tango bands used drums only rarely – the rhythm is embedded in the other instruments.  Those of us who are used to listening to pop or rock music with its pervasive, driving beat may need to work at listening out for the more subtle ways in which the rhythm is expressed in classic Tangos.

Using this approach you can listen, or re-listen,  to all your Tango music with, I hope, a new richness and enjoyment.  And you’ll also be developing your musical ear – vital if you want to hear more of what’s going on and how it all fits together.

In subsequent articles I hope we will be able to look at all musical elements- melody, rhythm, phrasing – even the form and structure of whole pieces, as well as the evolving sound and style of Tango music over the years.  For me, this is a fascinating part of the journey.  If you’re up for the challenge, and prepared to invest some time on it, the rewards are immense.  Let me know how you get on.

A Couple of Footnotes:

1.  Did you ever notice how our language favours the visual over the auditory?  I often have to resort to visual words – look, perspective, notice, colour, focus – even when referring to sound.  Our auditory senses  have a lot of catching up to do!

2.  At this stage I’ve deliberately not mentioned vocals, the changing role of the singer over time or the poetry of Tango lyrics.  Later perhaps?


© Peter Okell-Walker, Tango Nomads, 2017