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Is there something about a song that can be used to classify it as "a Tango"? There's different Tango styles (Finnish Tango music, for instance, is different from Argentinian) and there seem to be Tango elements in songs that wouldn't necessarily be classified as one.

Examples of non-classical Tangos include:

  • "Little Drop Of Poison" by Tom Waits
  • "Dos Gardenias", performed, for example, by Buena Vista Social Club
  • "La Chanson Des Vieux Amants" by Jacques Brel

Songs that to me seem to have some Tango in it include:

  • "It Takes More" by Ms. Dynamite
  • "What Have I Done" by Anna Ternheim

I also have heard musicians refer to songs being "rearranged" as a Tango, and I wonder what that means.

Note that I don't mean "suitable for dancing Tango to". At Milongas (Tango dance events), the DJs sometimes play non-tango music, a good example being "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica. As a Tango dancer, I can confirm that this song is quite "tangoable", but I'm pretty sure it's not actually part of the Tango genre. Also, there's famous and popular Tango pieces that are not very popular to dance to. Astor Piazzolla and Osvaldo Pugliese tend to fall into this category.

Wikipedia tells us that Tango is set in 2/4 or 4/8 time, but that is true for other genres, too. And while there's instruments that are traditionally used in Tango music (bandoneon and violin), there's plenty of songs that don't use them (there's many classic recordings from the 1930s with just guitar and vocals). Modern Electro-Tango music uses a lot of synthetic base drums, where traditional Argentinian Tango doesn't have percussion at all.

To more knowledgable people than me, it may be a helpful hint that there are particular genres that are "close" to Tango, in that composers and performers from those genres regularly cross over into Tango, or fuse the styles. Klezmer and Fado come to my mind, but Gothic / Metal musicians do tip their toes as well.

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According to the Grove Dictionary and Oxford Music Online (subject heading "Tango"), a tango is a piece "in duple metre, with a characteristic rhythmic figure, it consists of two sections, the second usually in the dominant or relative minor." It gives the rhythmic figure as one of the following two possibilities:

  1. Dotted eighth plus sixteenth, two eighth-notes
  2. Sixteenth plus eighth plus sixteenth-note, two eighth-notes

What I am guessing draws your examples together is the rhythmic base of each, which was inspired by the tango rhythm. More than just the fact that it is in 2/4 time, but the syncopated rhythmic ostinato gives a tango its distinct feel.

Most importantly, a tango is a dance, so the rhythmic patterning is very important to the dancers, rather than the instruments or melodies used.

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This always seemed to me to be the defining characteristic: the de-emphasized second (half) beat. –  luser droog Jan 20 '12 at 23:43
    
@luserdroog, I like the way you phrased that. –  Reina Abolofia Jan 21 '12 at 2:14
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The music itself appears to be any music accompanying the dance - a quick run through 18 tango pieces on youtube gave me 7 distinct styles of music, including jazz, rock, and electronica, as well as your Ms Dynamite piece...

The ones which feel most Tango-y to me are the ones with heavy emphasis on the beats the dancers emphasise, often a much higher emphasis than rock, for example.

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We'll have to distinguish between music suited for dancing Tango to and music that a composer or musical theorist would classify as belonging to the Tango genre. The latter is what I'm asking about. I'm an enthusiastic Tango dancer, and I will readily confirm that "Nothing Else Matters" is quite "tangoable", but it's quite definitely not Tango. I'll revise my question to be more specific about this. –  Hanno Fietz Jan 19 '12 at 10:16
    
That makes sense - sorry. I would love to see a floor of dancers tangoing to Metallica :-) –  Dr Mayhem Jan 19 '12 at 11:16
    
It's great. "The Unforgiven" works nicely, too, especially Apocalyptica's cover version. In general, Metal and Gothic ballads tend to work quite well, both musically and atmospherically. There's also a number of "Metal Tango" crossover pieces by Metal composers. –  Hanno Fietz Jan 19 '12 at 11:40
    
I can see the weekend being spent with some odd youtube search terms. We sometimes use dancers at our gigs, but hadn't thought of tango! –  Dr Mayhem Jan 19 '12 at 14:17
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The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines the tango as being a song in two equal repeating sections; the first section being in one key and the second being in either the key of the dominant or relative minor of the original key. This structure is very important to early and modern tango styles.

The musical element that really sets tango apart from other song types is syncopation. Most often seen written in 2/4, it is characterized by being in a duple meter (2/4 or 4/4 commonly). As Tango progresses throughout the musical time periods, the syncopation becomes more and more complex. However, simple repeating syncopated rhythms (8th-dotted, 16th, 8th, 8th) are very commonly heard.

I recognize that tango music is usually just associated with dancing, but there is also a common lyrical thread. The Harvard Dictionary of Music also says that originally the songs were often about urban or social issues, originating in urban areas of Argentina. In this way, lyrics may be another way to recognize a song as being in the tango genre.

And to answer your side question, rearranging a song in any genre is simply using the musical elements from that genre to alter the original melody. If I were going to rearrange a popular rock song into a jazz song, I would use jazz-appropriate rhythms and more complex chords (7ths, 9ths, add 13, add flat 9, etc.) in order to make it sound like a traditional jazz song. I would alter the melody to the original popular tune in the same way but not so much that its identity is no longer recognizable.

In the same way, one could use the common attributes of tango (as listed earlier) to affect any song one wished.

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