A Short History of Tango
James Stewart, Edinburgh Tango Society
Although there are many legends and stories about the origins and development of tango, I will attempt to give an outline that is commonly recounted, if still contested, which I have picked up from a variety of sources. Tango is a dance, music and poetry that originated in Buenos Aires at the turn of the century, developing in the melting pot of cultures that was Buenos Aires. Immigrants from Europe - Italy, Spain, Britain, Poland, Russia, Germany and every other European country mixed with earlier generation of settlers of all races from other South American countries. They brought their native music and dances with them, and continued to assimilate new innovations from abroad. Traditional polkas, waltzes and mazurkas were mixed with the popular Habanera from Cuba and the spanish seaboard, to form a new dance and music, the milonga, which was popular in the 1870s . This was known as the "poor man's Habanera". The word tango was used at the time to describe various music and dances, for example the "tango andaluza" from Spain in the 1880s. Central to the emergence of the milonga is was the culture of the black population, with their dances such as the candombe, a mix of many different african traditions, which contributed the early 'canyengue' movement and style - the cuts (cortes) which became a central feature of tango. The African descended population may also have provided the name 'tango' after the place they danced.
Buenos Aires was very poor city, with almost penniless immigrants coming to make their fortunes on the plains of Argentina or Uruguay, failing and ending up in the cities. In the early years of the 1900 2 million immigrants arrived in BsAs from Europe, 1/2 from Italy, 1/3 from Spain. Many were single men, hoping to earn enough to return to Europe, or bring their family or buy a bride from Europe. A poor, desperate, male population bred crime, brothels, gangsters, and the tango! The generally accepted history has the tango dance originating from the minor toughs, the compadritos, with nothing to their name except macho pride, imitating the dances of the African population, as the danced on the street. Thus, possibly, the much wilder candombe was mixed with the milonga to form the early Tango. Men learned together from a young age- there were few women, and certainly none to practice with. Tango inevitably moved to where they could be found - in the brothels, and dubious legend has it that the women could chose their clients by their dancing skill. The man had three dances to prove himself! In the mysterious way that popular culture develops, this dance and music was both popularised, and moved up the social scale, where it met more refined cousins coming down, and was picked up by the sons of the rich who preferred to spend their time in the less salubrious parts of their city.
By 1910 the rich sons of Argentina were making their way to Paris, centre of the cultural and entertainment world. They introduced the tango into a society eager for innovation, and not entirely averse to the risqué nature of this import, especially as taught by the dashing, rich latin boys who brought it. In 1913 the Tango had spread from St Petersburg to New York, not without controversy, and had become an international phenomena, even if its heart was still on the Rio de la Plata and the cities of BsAs and Montevideo. The Argentine upper classes who had shunned the tango were now forced into accepting it, because it was fashionable in Paris. Hollywood glamorised the tango to a mass audience, with Valentino as the most famous if completely inauthentic tangoing gaucho. At this point a long conflict started between tango as the expression of the soul and experience of the Buenos Aires resident- the Porteño, and this being inaccessible to anyone else, and a universally practiced and meaningful music and dance.
The First World War was a hiatus to the development, but during this time the first films were made, the tango lyric and music developed and recordings made. After the War the tango was again taken up again and became the dominant music and dance of the fun seeking and culturally anarchic 20s. The development of tango in this period reflects its emergence from the small venues, where sex and machismo were the everyday, to become a mass entertainment, danced by thousands of respectable citizens in the caberets of prospering cities: Argentina was now one of the richest countries in the world. The dance was refined to the slick and elegant 'salon' style, the lyrics of the songs slowly moved from lamenting the poverty and loneliness of the immigrant men, to more generic love songs for the mass market. Many lyrics played on nostalgia for the "good old days" before the neighbourhoods were cleaned up (e.g. Manzi); lunfardo, the slang of the working class barrios was still used emphasise this. Stars were made, singers, notably Carlos Gardel, and many other musicians, dancers, lyricists and composers. They were not only famous in Argentina and Uruguay, but travelled the world, and becoming film stars.
By 1930 Tango was out of fashion in Europe, a military coup in Argentina surpressed and censored it for 10 years, and Gardel died in a plane crash in 1935. But out of this developed the Golden Age of Tango, with a flourishing in music, poetry and culture, and the tango came to be a fundamental expression of Argentine culture. Indeed it was championed by nationist political movement of Juan and Eva Peron from 1946. New bandleaders, such as D'Arienzo, reinvigorated the tango as a popular dance by going back to the more rythmic roots (1936). The depression also changed the character of tango, and the lyrics reflected the renewed poverty and social divisions in the country, through poets and lyricists such as Enrique Cadícamo and Enrique Santos Discépolo (Cambalache, Yira Yira, Uno, Cafetin de Buneos Aires). However the Golden Age lasted through the 40s and early 50s and this is the period of its greatest development and expression.
Tango changed with political and economic conditions, and we can hear this in the music. In poorer times, orchestras were smaller, and as political repression developed, lyrics become political too, until they started to be banned as subversive, purged of the 'corrupt' language of lunfardo. The dance style changed, as large salons closed , and dancers were once again forced into small venues with less space. At the end of the 1950s Tango eventually went out of fashion, crushed like many other dances, by the arrival of America swing and rock and roll, and was repressed by post-Peronist nationalist government . From the 1960s to the 1980s it was only danced and played by a few of the older generation and enthusiasts
The current revival dates from the early 1980s, when a stage show Tango Argentino, starring dancers such as Juan Carlos Copes and other future stars of tango, toured the world creating a dazzling version of the tango and a romantisisation of the early and golden ages of tango. This is said to have stimulated the revival in the US, Europe and Japan. With the arrival of democracy in Argentina, and a search for a national culture, tango interest was revived, and although still ignored by many young people, there is enough interest to supply the world with a steady stream of hopeful tango teachers and a market for musicians to rediscover and reinvent the music.
The period since 1990 is again a time of renewal, of tension between the international and the argentine, between a desire to recreate the Golden Age, and another to evolve it in the light of modern culture and values. There is an explosion of interest around the world with places to dance in many cities and towns, and a growing circuit of Argentine and international festivals.
Some people see tango as primarily a dance - a connection between two people in a beautiful pas de deux. However most will say tango is the music, and the lyrics, and the dancers' interpretation of that music, and the sentiments it expresses. Getting to know the music is part of learning tango. Learning both the general style and the individual compositions and recordings enables you to dance with much more confidence and enjoyment.
The classic tango orchestra or 'orquesta típica' is made up of bandoneons, violins, piano, and bass. The guitar is also a common instrument, especially accompanying singers, notably Carlos Gardel. Other instruments are added viola, cello, saxophone, lute, flute electric guitar, drums in various styles. The Bandoneon, perhaps the key to the tango sound, is a large and fiendishly complicated concertina, originally developed in Germany for churches that could not afford organs.
In the first years of the century the first tangos were written e.g. El Choclo(Angel Villoldo)', Yo Soy La Morocha(Enrique Saborido, 1906), and were big hit and best sellers of piano scores. Recording came in in the 1910s and older songs, like La Cumparsita were arranged as tangos. Gardel recorded his first tango Mi Noche Triste in 1917, and became an enormous force in popularising tango.
Early orchestras (pre 1920s) include Firpo, Fresedo and Canaro. Firpo in particular helped define the new tango sound with arrangements of songs such as Alma de Bohemio (1914). They were influenced by the jazz sounds they encountered on tour in the US and Europe. In the 1920s two streams of music developed: the 'traditional', exemplified by Canaro, which concentrated on the rhythm and dancability, and the 'evolutionary', led by Julio de Caro and his brothers who explored harmony, melody, the fraseo, and created the modern sextet featuring innovative musicians such as Laurenz and Maffia. These two steams continued into the Golden Age of Tango in the 1940s and 50s The most popular bandleaders and composers in the traditional stream are Canaro, Ricardo Tanturi, Juan D'Arienzo (the 'King of Rhythm'), Rodolfo Biagi ("Manos Brujos") and Alfredo De Angelis. The evolutionary or 'decareano' school was developed by Troilo, one of the greatest composers and bandoneon players. In the deareano school we also find Carlos Di Sarli, Osvaldo Pugliese, Miguel Caló, Salgan, Gobbi, Maffia, Laurenz, Piazzola, Francini and Pontier.
As the music developed it became less rigidly rhythmic, more harmonic and melodic, and the hallmark tension and release was developed. The fraseo, phrasing, the soloist (or soli) bending the melody across the underlying rythmn, became a central part of tango. Many interwoven layers of music can be picked out and danced to each with their own rhythm and feeling. However the orchestras, who knew which side their bread was buttered generally kept the underlying time steady, except for maybe catching the dancers out sometimes with breaks and unexpected endings. The 'traditional' orchestras (e.g. Canaro, D'Arienzo) played it simple and pleased the dancers. Composers and players, in the Decareano school such as Pugliese, Salgan and Piazzola were more interested in the music, and played for listening, and from the 1960s the dancing audience disappeared anyway.Their music takes the tension and release further, the time changes, they introduce spectacular pauses and accelerations. Their music was originally shunned by dancers, who thought it impossible, and it is still extremely difficult to dance to. Other groups of this time include Sexteto Mayor, Color Tango and Quinteto Real. Of all modern tango musicians, Piazzola is the best known, and the person who tackled it musically, introducing new sounds and concepts. Born in New York, and trained classically, his music is often completely un-danceble in a salon, but he never intended it to be.
In the 21st Century a new generation of musicians are mixing tango with contemporary music styles, reimaginging what tango music can be, and creating new arrangments of classics. This has been branded 'Tango Nuevo'(although Piazzolla was called that in the 70s) or 'Neo-tango', or 'tango fusion'. Popularised by the highly popular Gotan Project based in Paris, a raft of new compositions and sounds is being heard not only by tango enthusiasts, but by 'dancemusic' and mainstream TV-advert-watching audiences. This type of music often makes up a considerable part of the music played for dancing in milongas. Other artists include Bajofondo Tango Club, Daniel Melingo and Carlos Libedinski (Narcotango). However some contemporary musicans are following other musical paths closer to tango's traditional sound, including groups such as Pablo Aslan's Avantango and El Arranque, often with a jazz influence. Tango dancers also explore other non-tango music (to the horror of tradiationalists), looking for tango-like feels, or finding ways of exploring tango movement though other rhythms.
Different tango music tends to suggest different styles of dance when we hear it. Although many of the dance styles that were original danced when it was compose are now lost, with our mixed and reinvented tango we are able to interpret it. Some music suggests the use of cortes 'cuts' that reflect its strong rhythm, others are most flowing, while still others are full of tensions and accelerations. In the end it is up to the couple how they dance, but it is important , and more interesting to really listen to the music, and not just dance the way same all the time.
Link to More about music and Todotango
Here are some sources I have come across to help me write this. There is also a great deal on the Web of interest.
- Tango and the political Economy of Passion, by Marta Savigliano,
- An academic book on the history and sociology of tango.
- Tango:the Art History of Love: Robert Farris Thompson.
- Good cultural history of tango by Yale professor of african and african-american art, taht attempts to tell the story ofthe african contribution to tango. This reviewer in the TLS does not like it though.
- Tango, by Isabal Muñoz and Évelyne Pieller,
- Coffee table book of tango lyrics and semi-erotic photographs of tango dancers!
- Tango, by Simon Collier (ed) Artemis Cooper, Maria Susana Azzi, Richard Martin and Ken Haaset
- A glossy illustrated tango history that lots of people have - it tells you everything you would want to know about tango in a straight forward way (i.e. not much sociology or cultural studies). Collier and Azzi also wrote "Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla"
- Paper Tangos by Julie Talyor
- A personal study of tango by an American dancer, anthropologist and argentinophile
Films available in the UK
Saura's Tango 1998. a chance to see some beautiful dancing, starting Juan Carlos Copes, Cecilia Narova, Carlos Rivarola, Julio Bocca, and Mia Maestro. Also wonderful scenes of Sagan , Marconi, De Lio, Giunta and Agri playing, and of Adriana Varela. As a story/film though, just let the music and dance distract you! Review
The Tango Lesson, by Sally Potter. Beautifully shot film, with great dance and music...although pretty corny in other respects. If you have not seen tango before , or just want to enjoy watching the dance, there are video clips to down load from the web site: http://www.spe.sony.com/classics/tango/stillsclips.html
Naked Tango : Dark film about turn of the century Buenos Aires, slavery of women, brothels, and the violence of the compadritos
Any records by the musicians mentioned above. However they are not easy to come by directly in the UK. There are some good compilations available in general stores though, and some to download on iTunes. Links to recorded music sellers can be found here
More online reading
Todotango is the definitive source now on tango history.
Excellent History of Tango Music by bass player and tango arranger Pablo Aslan, adapted from his masters thesis.Link
Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires : lots of very interesting material on this blog/book
TWO 2 TANGO A good article on tango history by Armando Susmano.
Christine Denniston of London has put some of her articles on a web page: History of Tango
Sergio at Totango has a short history
Text of a talk by Armando Susmano on GardelWeb
Lots of tango histories on different topics on the El Portal del Tango server(spanish only)
English translation of a Historia del tango by Jorge Luis Borges, published on Tango Noticias
Want to know what Finnish tango is and why? The story of the Finnish tango
Even The Economist ran a history of tango a few years ago
Short discussion by Stanford dance academic Richard Powers on evolution of tango and samba from the original style frozen in international ballroom forms link
Thead on the Tango-L group discussing international ballroom tango and tango history
Another nice discussion of ballroom tango v. tango preferences and differenceslink
A list of books by Garrit Fleischman, and a bibliography on Le Temps du tango Website in Paris, bringing together a variety of sources in different languages. Here is another bibilography from "Tango : du Noir au blanc", Michel Plisson, Actes Sud/Cité de la musique 2004 (not working). Another Bibliography at Duke University (2009)
Paper by Kristin Wendland called Rhythm, Meter, and Dance of the Argentine Tango
Influence of the Habanera in Catalunya
Eva Perón and tango artists by Nestor Gorojovsky : a Marxist take on tango lyrics.
Neotango article by Steve Brown (TejasTango)
Steve Brown also has a DJ's guide
An article by, Judit Lentijo translated by alberto Paz, on the story of the show Tango Argentino, very interesting story of modern tango revival, and probably libelous in places.
A list of the origins of the titles of some tangos (in Spanish from 'Mundo Gotan' pages/Tango Reporter)
Article on the etymology of the word tango by musican and researcher Oscar Escalada. He has another article in English on 'Rhythms of the Americas', where he mentions the origins of the tango. He has some interesting choral arrangements of tangos.
Some sides on tango history
Originally written 1998, last update 2005.
Dance rhythms: an introduction
Although many of these dances and their names have long been forgotten, their rhythmic patterns have survived through oral tradition in the setting of exercises. It is useful to know about them because you can:
- use them as keywords when you are searching online music libraries
- use them as rhythmic templates for improvisation
- use them to make connections between conventional ballet scores and music from different styles and periods, and
- give a name to a rhythmic pattern that a teacher asks for, which enables you to find more music of the same type.
We have made a downloadable list of dance styles you might encounter or find useful, and their typical rhythmic patterns. This is not an exhaustive list of what you can play for class; it is just a guide to lesser known rhythms that are common in dance and ballet music, but not in the popular or classical piano repertoire.
When do pianists need dance rhythms?
- For accompanying ‘free enchaînements’ in vocational graded examinations. These are exercises set by the examiner during the exam (the equivalent of sight-reading tests for musicians). They will first mark the exercise for the dancers, indicating the kind of music that they need, perhaps indicating a dance rhythm such as a rag, mazurka or polonaise. You can improvise something suitable, or play something appropriate from your repertoire, or use one of the pieces supplied in the appendices to the syllabus music books.
- For non-syllabus classes (‘free classes') where the teacher sets each exercise herself, rather than referring to a syllabus.
- For syllabus classes where the teacher wants to isolate and practise a particular movement from a set exercise or dance, using different music. Appendices in the vocational graded syllabus music books include pieces that can be used for such occasions, but you will need more.
Why dance rhythms rather than time signature?
A small change in feel or rhythmic pattern within the same time signature can make a large difference to how an exercise feels for the dancer. For example, a piece in 3/4 can feel like a one-in-a-bar or three-in-a-bar. It can have a slightly lengthened second beat, or a dotted rhythm that accentuates each beat equally. Some pieces in 3/4 have a strong accent every 3 beats, others have one at the beginning of every two-bar group, others may tend towards a 12/8 feel, and not feel much like 3/4 at all, and so on. Dance rhythms provide a quick way of identifying several characteristics at once with a single name: a polka mazurka, for example, is a moderate tempo 3/4 with a dotted rhythm melody that accents every beat in the bar, with a slight lift on the third beat and a slight weight on the first.
For more on this topic, see Metre, rhythm and time signature in ballet classes.
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Dance rhythms in triple metre
In ballet classes, you will come across two main types of triple metre:
- Waltz-time, where you get a stronger metrical accent at the beginning of every two or four bars rather than every bar.
- ‘Truly triple metre’, where you still feel a strong sense of three-in-a-bar.
The ‘truly triple metres’ are just about everything except the waltz. The further away from Vienna of the mid-19th century you go (historically, socially and geographically) the more you encounter truly triple metre.
- Polish types: polonaise, mazurka (national dance), kujawiak, oberek,
- Spanish types: bolero, fandango, cachucha
- German types: early German waltzes, mazurka (ballroom dance), polka mazurka, redowa
- French types: sarabande, chaconne, minuet, hornpipe (in 3/4)
The waltz types
As a dance that has enjoyed two centuries of popularity, it is hardly surprising that there should be so many variants. The English or Boston waltz is generally slow, with a definite weight to the beginning of the bar. The early German waltz is rather like the mazurka, and often has a continuous running eighth-note movement in the melody. 'Viennese waltz' is often used to mean a way of playing: a one-in-a-bar feel, where the second beat is played slightly early, giving a lilt or swing to the rhythm.
The waltz song has a tendency to be less rhythmic than waltzes written for dancing, and is often in four-bar phrases, rather than the more usual two.
Waltz variations are solos from the ballet repertoire that are based on the waltz rhythm, but are more suited to jumping or very lyrical movement than ordinary ballroom waltz music. When teachers want this, they sometimes ask for a ‘big waltz’ or a ‘grande valse’.
The mazurka types
The main difference between mazurkas and waltzes is that they tend to have three definite accents in each bar, whereas waltzes have a pronounced accent only on the first beat (except the early German waltz). Chopin's mazurkas are in fact examples of three different types of Polish dance, the mazur, the oberek (or obertás) and Kujawiak. Broadly speaking, the Kujawiak is the slowest and most lyrical of the three, the mazur (or mazurka) of medium tempo, and the oberek the fastest.
The mazurka was not just a Polish national dance, but also a very popular social dance in European and American ballrooms. This ‘ballroom mazurka’ is quite slow and less marked than the Polish mazurka, and often has a dotted rhythm melody throughout the bar, like the polka mazurka.
Sarabande, triple jig and polonaise
We have grouped these dances together, because they often tend to create six-count phrases, as opposed to the more common eight-count phrase. For this reason, introductions for these dance rhythms are usually only two bars (i.e. six counts) long.
Chopin’s polonaises, and those found in the Tchaikovsky ballets are often stately and processional, with complex rhythmic patterns running against the basic triple metre. A lighter, faster kind of polonaise is more suitable for jumping. This kind is often found in Bournonville’s ballets. Sometimes, ‘polonaise’ is just a misnomer for ‘bolero’ which has an almost identical rhythmic pattern, but at a faster, lighter speed.
Triple jigs (also called ‘slip jigs’) can sometimes be substituted for the lighter kind of polonaise, as can the baroque hornpipe in 3/4 found in the music of Handel and Purcell, for example.
Minuet and chaconne
Some forms of the minuet are slow and stately, and tend towards an accent on the second beat and a feeling of six-count phrases. Others, particularly those found in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, for example, are considerably faster, and begin to sound like early precursors of the waltz.
Like the Sarabande and mazurka, the chaconne tends to have a ‘lean’ on the second beat of the bar (called an ‘agogic accent’), but at a faster tempo and with a lighter feel.
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Rhythms in duple metre
Two rhythms and two metres dominate the 19th century ballroom, the waltz (3/4) and the polka (2/4). You can do a polka to gallops, reels, quadrilles and hornpipes as long as the metre is duple and the tempo is right. Tunes marked ‘polka’ often have continuous semiquaver movement in the melody, and an oom-pah oom-pah accompaniment. It is one of the styles used in the quadrille, and in the late 19th century becomes transformed in Brazil into choro and in America into ragtime. For this reason, it makes sense to think of rag, polka, hornpipe, reel, choro and quadrille as part of the same rhythmic family, even though the musical styles are very distinct.
The 'classic' polka rhythm is often said to be 'a-one and two, a-one and two'. This might be true of some forms of the dance, but it is not always the case with the music. The idea that polka music followed the rhythm of the polka step itself most likely comes from a few 19th century concert or salon pieces called 'polka' which were, so to speak, music about the polka, rather than music for the polka. In other words, the music was supposed to suggest to a concert audience an imaginary dancer doing the polka.
The schottische (usually pronounced shoteesh), despite its name, is actually a German dance, not Scottish – and also features in Spanish music as chotis. Schottisches are moderately fast, and are similar in style to the shuffle. The continuous dotted rhythm in 2/4 can be very useful for medium allegro.
Teachers – and composers – often use these terms interchangeably. A useful distinction is to think of tango as a dance style with many different styles of music, and habañera (particularly the ‘habañera rhythm') as a musical style, which is often a feature of tango music. Some teachers like to use a very slow habañera for battements fondus. The tango brasileira (Brazilian tango) is a variant of the tango that is very useful for classes. Chiquinha Gonzaga and Ernesto Nazareth both wrote pieces in this style.
Learn to distinguish between:
- The dance step, usually accompanied by a lilting, jig-like rhythm.
- The dance (19th century) – the galop from Act 1 of Giselle, that has a characteristic double semiquaver bounce on the first beat of each 2/4 bar
- A concert piece from late 19th and early 20th century composers, also called polka schnell or Schnellpolka (like the Thunder and Lightning Polka by Johann Strauss II). A relation of the French can-can and Hungarian friska, the fast part of a csárdás. All of these form the basis of the balletic coda, the style used for the finales of 19th century pas de deux.
The jig types
Folk musicians categorise jigs as single jig, double jig and triple jig (or slip jig).
- Single jigs tend to have a long-short lilting pattern (and one and two and three and four). They can replace the march or polka type music in the quadrille (think of those Sousa marches in 12/8).
- Double jigs are slower, and have a continuous quaver motion
- Triple jigs (also called slip jigs) are in 9/8, and tend to be counted in 6 (i.e. in two-bar units)
The tarantella is a much faster version of the double jig in rhythmic terms, although it is not related to this dance. Tarantellas usually begin with a half-bar upbeat in 6/8.
These are not dance rhythms exactly, but are useful to have in your repertoire. The Latin root barca- refers both to a boat (related to the English word bark, a sailing ship) and a baby's crib. Barcarolles, by analogy, have a slow, rocking motion like the roll of a ship at sea (or a gondola in a Venetian canal – a favourite 19th century image) or of one of those cribs with a curved base which allows the baby to be rocked to sleep. Because the primary motion in both cases is from side to side, the main feature of a barcarolle is a very prominent form of duple metre, where the music seems to 'rock' constantly back and forth in two count phrases. The subdivision of this metre can be duple or triple, hence barcarolles are found in the 19th century repertoire in both 6/8, 3/4 and 2/4.
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Here is a list of rhythm types that are useful to have in your repertoire. If you have a few examples of each of these, you will be well prepared.
Slow to medium
- Lyrical adagios in any time signature (e.g. arias, nocturnes or barcarolles)
- Mazurka, polka mazurka or minuet
- Waltzes at various speeds and rhythmic patterns
- Polonaise/triple jig/bolero/
- Habañera/tango types
Medium to fast
- Jig, quadrille, rag, choro, contredanse, hornpipe, reel, polka types
- Czardas/galop/can-can/coda/Schnellpolka types
- ‘Spanish’ dances in the balletic tradition (i.e. those from The Nutcracker, Coppélia or Don Quixote).
- Polka-style dances in 2/4 with continuous semiquaver movement in the melody (see also
- Polka-style dances in 2/4 at moderate or very moderate tempo (sometimes called ‘Polka française’)
- Balletic variations in waltz time at various speeds
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Metre, rhythm and time signature in ballet classes
Metre is a kind of framework that groups beats into twos or threes. To some extent, that framework is ‘in’ the music: musicians put accents on certain beats in order to convey a sense of this grouping. But the framework is also in our heads: once we have a sense of what the music is doing, we then expect the music to carry on that way, and so we still have a sense of how the beats are grouped, even without strong accents being present in the music. For more on this, read Justin London’s How to Talk About Musical Metre.
Time signature is a feature of music notation, and is a way of representing metre and metrical grouping on the page. In the simplest terms, metre defines how music goes, and time signature describes how music is written. You might feel that music is ‘in 3’ while you are counting or moving along to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s written in 3/4: it might be written in 4/4 with a ‘triplet’ accompaniment (three notes in the time of one beat), or in 12/8 but counted in threes (i.e. four lots of three in a bar). The opposite can apply: music might be written in 3/4, but you will group each bar into a phrase of four or eight counts as you listen, so that it feels like ‘4’.
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Metre, time signature and dance rhythms
In metre, we only ever talk about groups of two or three, whereas the number of possible time signatures is enormous. But however complex the time signature is, it will only ever consist of some kind of combination of twos and threes. So a 6/8 is a combination of two threes, a 4/4 is a combination of two twos, a 9/8 is a combination of three threes, a 7/8 is a combination of twos and threes in all sorts of ways – 2+2+3, or 3+2+2, or 2+3+2 and so on.
Time signature doesn’t tell us anything about tempo, only about the grouping of beats. You can have a fast 3/4 and a slow 6/8, and vice versa. Neither does time signature tell you much about the feel or quality of the rhythm of a piece of music: the same time signature can have a totally different feel depending on the tempo, how beats in the bar are grouped or subdivided, and subtle differences in timing within the bar. This is similar to what Justin London calls this the ‘many meters hypothesis’ in his book, Hearing in Time. You can consider that many meters hypothesis as another way of talking about many dance rhythms.
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