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.

6 Answers 6


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.

  • 1
    This always seemed to me to be the defining characteristic: the de-emphasized second (half) beat. Jan 20, 2012 at 23:43
  • @luserdroog, I like the way you phrased that. Jan 21, 2012 at 2:14

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.


All of these definitions for Tango seem to concentrate on the melody line, but I think equal importance has to be given to the contrasting bass line, which commonly features a pick-up on beat 4 (or the second half of beat 4) that serves to emphasize the first beat of the following measure (ta | TUM (2, 3, 4) ta | TUM (2, 3, 4), etc.) This bass line is usually quite steady and without syncopation. The contrast of the straight bass line with the syncopation in the melody line serves to emphasize melody's syncopation. Even when a tango melody is heard alone, you still feel that contrasting bass line at the same time, even though it is unheard — especially if you are dancing. A tango melody played alone isn't really a tango at all, unless you have that instinctive awareness of the contrasting bass rhythm.

(A similar unheard accompaniment is felt in American swing music. Most Americans will automatically snap their fingers or clap their hands on the off-beat, not on the beat itself, even though there is no back-beat written into the melody.)

  • This answer nails it. I'm a bass player and have played a dance gig where the only other player was a violinist, yet we could play an unmistakeable tango. It's the bass rhythm that makes it a tango in exactly the way described above. I'd say that the defining rhythm involves emphasising 3-4-and-1 and usually a rest on beat 2. Tangos are wonderful to play on bass because you have so much scope for counterpoint melodies involving flat fifths and ninths and tritone substitutions. Playing for good tango dancers is one of the best experiences of all.
    – Charl E
    Mar 4, 2016 at 11:46

Some answers focused on the rhythmic structure of fourth, eighth, eighth and variations.

With Argentinian tango (as opposed to "standard" or "European tango", the ballroom club version), the "feet-dragging" is more explicit and is much more likely to be dotted eighth, dotted eighth, eighth, (or, more likely, double that).

Note that old arrangements (the stuff that tends to be out of copyright these days and available as free piano excerpts and arrangements) of Argentinian tango are closer to the rather rigid European tango rhythmic subdivisions, but more modern interpretations tend to use this sort of "drag" in the rhythmic section that catches up only at the end of the measure.

Argentinian tango also has a rather formal structure (with a trio part in between) and is usually tied to the tonality of a bandonion. While bandonions are prima facie mostly chromatic instruments when played on the draw (most Argentinian tango players almost never push the instrument which is utterly different on push), with the "natural" scale being nominally centered around a major seventh, but in fact used more like a modified minor scale, just like with a blues harp on draw.


Finding a technical basis to define Tango is not going to work -- it would be like asking what defines a Pop song.

A tango dancer defines tango as an emotion or a mood, hence he will dance to even blues, pop, jazz, electronica etc. He may not be to define the technical reason, but he recognises it, the same way a music listener can tell what is a requeim and what is a ballad, just from the feeling of the piece.

The quality of the music that makes it danceable as a tango is the walking rhythm, which contrasts strong accents with weak accents in many possible configurations, like 2/4 marcato, 4/4, 3/4, 4/8, habanera, candombe, etc. Music from tango's golden era (30s to 50s) are almost always danceable.

But note that the walking beats are de-emphasized in tango music after 60s, as a result of Piazzolla's revision of the genre with jazz. The modern tango genre focuses more on feeling and less on walking rhythms.

A tango's strongest quality is the feeling of a story unfolding, with drama, suspension, layers of instruments, and liberal use of syncopation to create unease. It is no surprise that tango music makes great movie scores, as it builds and releases tension in the listeners.

It is also important to note that the feeling of old tangos is tied to the use of big orchestras (known as an Orquesta Tipica) and traditional instruments of Bandoneon. Modern tangos are often small chamber quartets and using strings. This change mirrors the evolution from Swing (big band) to Acid Jazz (soloists).

I know it's not satisfying to say "I know tango when I hear it" but that's the truth. Most tango dancers need to immerse in the genre for several years before they start to recognise tango music.


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.

  • 1
    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. Jan 19, 2012 at 10:16
  • That makes sense - sorry. I would love to see a floor of dancers tangoing to Metallica :-)
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Jan 19, 2012 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. Jan 19, 2012 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!
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Jan 19, 2012 at 14:17
  • 1
    Even if it's not strictly Tango, Tango dancing techniques are often used to a variety of music. It's a remarkably expressive dance, and is often "fused" with techniques from other partner dances - See Fusion Dance and The Fusion Exchange (unfortunately now defunct, though other Fusion Dance events exist).
    – Ryan Kinal
    Aug 5, 2014 at 15:47

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