Thursday, January 8, 2015


PictureWe hear very often that Tango music is set in 2/4 time. OK, but what does that MEAN? 

Music is written in measures. Each measure has a pre-defined number of beats. Remember when you walk during the Tango class and your teacher annoys you to death shouting: ''beat!, beat!, beat!, beat!...' - yes, those.


Composers decide the number of beats per measure early on and convey this information with a time signature. The magic 2 by 4 (2/4) is a time signature for Tango music.
Time signatures consist of two numbers written like a fraction.
- The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats to count. This could be any number. Most often the number of beats will fall between 2 and 12.
- The bottom number tells you what kind of note to count. That is, whether to count the beats as quarter notes, eighth notes, or sixteenth notes. So the only numbers you will see as the bottom number (the denominator) will correspond to note values:


  • 1 = whole note (you’ll never see this) 
  • 2 = half note 
  • 4 = quarter note 
  • 8 = eighth note 
  • 16 = sixteenth note 
You could continue on with 32, 64, but you will hopefully never encounter them! After a while it gets a bit unwieldy. The most common bottom numbers are 4, 8 and 16.

There is another trick to it. 
There also exist a way to indicate the silence in music. That silence indicated by note rests also has value. Exactly like notes do.

Tango is in most cases 2/4 which means there are two beats (2). Each beat is a quarter note (4).
The fact that each beat has a value of quarter note DOES NOT mean you are limited only to quarter notes. Beats may contain half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, rests, whatever the composer wants, but all note and rest values must combine to equal no more or less than the top number (or numerator) of the time signature.

PictureHere is a cheat sheet:
1 Whole note = 2 Half notes = 4 Quarter notes = 8 eighth notes = 16 sixteenth notes

1 Whole note = 2 Half notes
1 Half note = 2 Quarter notes
1 Quarter note = 2 eighth notes
1 eighth note = 2 sixteenth notes

There is also a way to extend the existence of note by half by using a dot....

Now - why is this important for dancers?
In a way - it's not. You can go to Argentina without speaking Spanish and survive. I did. But there is a huge difference between simply surviving and actual participation. 

In music - most people intuitively hear. Knowing the structure though helps you verbally express what you hear and understand what the music tells you. It helps you advance in interpreting the music with understanding. Also - now - you can discuss it.
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  1. Hmmm, as a musician and a dancer, I think I disagree, or need clarification. My mind says that tango is almost always in 4/4 time where each step of the dance is 2 beats, except for (in the case of American tango) the "tango-close" where the quick-quick steps are each 1 beat. Furthermore, after dancing just a bit of argentine and observing it, I see most dancing NOT on the beat, but to the phrase, where the dance is more interpretive rather than rhythmic such as in ballroom or American tango. I think I disagree with most of what is written here! Any comments on this? (Peter Donovan - briefly an ex-student of yours in Union Square).

    1. Hello Peter, we never taught at Union Square, so you might be confusing us with someone, but that's not the point. It's great that you posted the comment and it's always great to have a discussion. What I'm not sure is what's your question? I would love to clarify whatever is you don't understand.

      You are saying you are musician and and a dancer but you use a lot of 'My mind says' and 'after dancing just a bit of argentine and observing it'. Music is a bit like a math. you cna say same thing in many different ways and the final count will be same.

      I'm also not sure about what in your mind you interpret as beat and phrase. They are 2 different things and you can dance with the phrase and still be on the beat. And yes, you are absolutely right that ballroom tango is much more rhythmic. Or to say it in other words - they are both rhythmic, just the Ballroom put extra emphasis on making sure you hear your beat very clearly so you cannot miss it. Ballroom figures are inserted into ballroom choreography to finish on the phrase. If you switch one Ballroom Tango to another Ballroom Tango the choreography will still match the music. Argentine Tango is 100% improvised. If you create choreography to specific Tango you will not be able to dance it to the other piece.

      There is also no way you can know all Tangos, all orchestras, all interpretations. So the music always surprises you. Some of songs you've heard several times. Some - you hear first time in your life. You compose your Tango, your moves as you dance.

      There are dancers that dance to melody and those who dance to particular instrument. And those who dance to lyrics/voice. And those who stay with the beat and those who play with the beat by using double time, syncopation and contra time.

      Anyway - you are free to disagree with everything I say, my reason for writing it is to help my students understand things we are discussing during class. If you think it's not clear enough - please try to explain it more clearly. That would be a great help.

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