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Jane Werry is an
AST and Director
of Music at Hayes
School in Bromley. She is an A
level moderator for
OCR and a regular
contributor to Music
Teacher online resources.

Jane Werry

I have a theory that the only people who dont like Tango music are ones who have never heard it. There is
something wonderfully appealing about its melodiousness and heart-on-sleeve melodrama. It is also a tremendous vehicle for covering some really meaty musical concepts with your classes, with a dash of cultural
context, and opportunities for social, moral, spiritual and cultural development.
For an excellent summary of the background to tango, see Richard Knights resource, published in Music
Teacher online resources for Spring Term 2, 2009-10. I do not intend to duplicate that information here; rather
I hope to give you really practical ideas for tackling the musical characteristics of tango through performing,
composing and listening.

Tango: acclimatising your students

Play your class the Tango Project version of Carlos Gardels Por Una Cabeza, which has been used in the films
Schindlers List, Scent of a Woman and True Lies. Ask students to use a mini-whiteboard to draw pictures or
write whatever words spring to mind. Chances are you will get all sorts of juicy misconceptions that it will be fun
to put right later - things like Spanish and posh, which is way off the mark. Leave the misconceptions to stew
until next lesson, and invite students to write down questions that they would like answered over the course
of the project. These could be on sticky notes, so that you can stick them on a question wall or Wonderwall.
Get students to organise them into categories and put similar/identical ones together or on top of each other.
Promise that all of them will be addressed at some point. If there are any that are asked multiple times, think
about setting some investigative homework.
The rest of the first lesson can be devoted to exploring some of the musical features of Por Una Cabeza, working principally by ear: see the section Unpicking the tango below.
In the following lesson, begin tackling some of the questions on the Wonderwall, using any homework findings
as a starting point. There are some good details to cover regarding the Tangos origins as a dance performed
by men as they waited to be entertained in Buenos Aires brothels in the early 20th century a far cry from
the idea that some students might have as it being a dance for posh people on cruise ships! It is likely that
students may have seen some tango on Strictly Come Dancing, and will have some idea about how it looks,
but it is interesting to explore this in more detail.
A really good video to show as a starting point can be found here. Emphasise the differences between true
Argentine tango and the watered down, stylised European ballroom version. To help you out on this, here is a
video in which Vincent and Flavia from Strictly explain the differences.

Unpicking the tango: performing and

Students need to get the feel of Tango by playing it. So much of it is based around chord patterns and chromatic gestures that you feel its shapes as much as anything else.

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Key terms and concepts

Contrary motion
Root position
Added 7th/9th chords

Por Una Cabeza is a good place to start; it is so appealing and evocative, and has plenty of musical features
to unpick that are quite easy to grasp. We will focus on the chorus section after the quiet introductory verse;
where the music really starts to feel like a Tango. The first concept to tackle is the sequence, as the music of
this section is based almost entirely on melodic and harmonic sequences. Start by focusing on the melody,
and play it on its own if necessary, or with the bass line:

Identify the length of the motif, clap the rhythm, and describe what happens the third time it is heard. Students
could now work out this melody by ear, working in A minor (starting on C) if you feel this makes it more accessible.

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The habanera is
a Cuban dance
that was extremely
popular in the 19th
century. Its accompaniment was based
on the rhythm that
we find here, often
used with a chord
pattern shape. To
exemplify, listen to
Bizets Habanera
from Carmen.

Next, focus on the bass line. Identify the rhythm and introduce this as a habanera rhythm. Revisit or introduce
triad shapes and try these out with the rhythm, building in a descending sequence to go with the melody.
A free ensemble
arrangement of Por
Una Cabeza can be
downloaded here.

It might be appropriate at this stage, depending on your class, to investigate this simplified version of Por Una

You could go on exploring more details of the layers of sequence in Por Una Cabeza endlessly: to what extent
you do so depends very much on the abilities, interests, and prior experience of your group. I would only say
that I have always been surprised by Key Stage 3 students interest in the theoretical side of music; they seem
to get great satisfaction from understanding exactly how the music is put together. If you feel that you are up
for maximising their appetite for this kind of detail, you might want to explore the harmonic sequence in Por
Una Cabeza.

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Here, the extra bass stave shows the movement of the roots of the chords; down a fourth and up a second
repeating until the end of the phrase, where the pattern takes us back to the start via a perfect cadence. This
is immensely similar to Pachelbels Canon (and all the many songs that are based on the same sequence),
but in a minor key.

Notice how Gardel has cunningly alternated root position and first inversion chords in order to make a smoothly
descending bass line. It is very useful for KS3 students to understand inversions, as they often provide a useful
way to make things more playable, or to create effective patterns in the music, as in this example. If they have
not been covered previously, this could be a useful and apposite opportunity. The way that inversions are used
in Por Una Cabeza can also be communicated like this in order to see it clearly:

It is a good idea at this stage for students to practise playing the chords, in root position and then with the
inversions. You can transpose these into A minor for ease, the most important thing being for students to feel
the shape of the chords under their hands, and hear the effect of the inversions on the bass line.

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You may also decide that this piece offers a good opportunity to talk about how to create an effective countermelody. This countermelody occurs in the second chorus of the Tango Project recording at 1:36, with the
bandonen on the melody and the violin on the countermelody:

Notice how the countermelody shape is an inversion of the main melody, and how the bars with the triplets in
alternate between the two parts, creating an effective call and response texture. Again, the countermelody
moves in a descending sequence to fit with the other two parts.
With any luck, investigating the nitty-gritty of a piece in this way will demystify what is going on in it, and push
Originally a Uruguayan carnival
march, this piece is
a fiercely defended
part of Uruguayan
cultural heritage.
There was a scandal
at the 2000 Sydney
Olympics, when
the Argentinean
team marched to La
Cumparsita, much
to the offence of the

the idea that its all about making patterns that fit together, not about waiting for some magical inspiration; its
actually much less arcane than most students think, and to realise this empowers them as composers.
Further investigation: La Cumparsita
It would be a shame to do a project on tango without exploring that other ubiquitous tango tune, La Cumparsita
by Gerardo Matos Rodrguez.
An easy piano arrangement of La Cumparsita can be downloaded here.
Everything in La Cumparsita is based on chords I, IV, and V, and again the key is minor. Here is a harmonic
outline of the main tune:

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Each two-bar phrase has a chord shape followed by a little chromatic turn
Notice how every other phrase is based on chord I, A minor, but in different inversions
In this tango, inversions are used not to keep the bass line moving in a pattern, but to keep it static; the whole
of the first eight bars keep E as the bass note
Understanding how chords within a key can be named using Roman numerals is crucial here; if your class has
previously done work on the 12-bar blues this should not be anything new. You can also take the opportunity
to investigate seventh chords, and even revisit Por Una Cabeza to unravel the added ninth chord at the end
of the phrase.
At this point, students can take the structure of La Cumparsita chords, melody shape, everything and do
their own version of it. This will help to give them a feel for the structure of the melody, and how it fits with the
An unmissable tango gesture: the der-dum
The der-dum (for want of any more official term) is an invaluable musical idea to give any tango some authentic flavour. You can see one at the end of La Cumparsita, and a variant at the start of the chorus of Por Una
Cabeza. It involves dominant and tonic notes in a distinctive rhythm, which might be

Sometimes a more extravagant der-dum can be heard, which incorporates a chromatic run-up:

The bass line for any der-dum goes in contrary motion to the melody; the simple ones have dominant-tonic
movement moving downwards, while the extended der-dum moves down chromatically from an E to an A

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before doing the same. This forms another example of how important contrary motion is in tango and how
effective it is as a musical feature in a more general sense.
You may wish to bring to your students attention the harmonic function of the der-dum: to reinforce the dominant-tonic relationship. It functions as an emphatic perfect cadence, and can appear at the beginning or end
of a phrase. It proves, in a succinct and unequivocal way, just how important chords I and V are in the harmony
of the tango style.

Composing a tango
There are decisions to be made here to do with exactly how your students will go about composing their tango;
whether your usual working method is to work in groups using keyboards and other instruments, or to use a
sequencing programme, this project can work equally well.
A more important decision, perhaps, is at what stage you introduce elements of composition. There are two
main approaches here:
Do all the listening/exploring/performing/analysing first, before attempting any composing
Run the composing part of the project alongside the performing and analysing, adding different elements to
the composition as they are discovered through the other activities
Personally, I prefer the second approach: it seems more holistic and authentic, and avoids any unnecessary
feelings of performing and composing being divorced from each other. However, you need to decide what
suits you and your students best; I have presented the different activities separately here for the sake of clarity.

Objectives and success criteria

The objective for this part of the project has got to be something along the lines of:

To use characteristic features of tango effectively to create a tango composition.

Or, if you are a fan of the objective-as-question style:
Can I use characteristic features of tango effectively to create my own tango?

The best way to come up with success criteria is to negotiate them with your class; the downside to this is that
it takes time, especially if your class is not used to the process, or to using explicit success criteria as an ongoing framework for self and peer assessment. Whether you choose simply to present the success criteria as a
fait accompli, or negotiate them, they will probably end up looking pretty much the same the real motivation
for negotiating them is the sense of ownership that the process brings.

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One really good way to prioritise success criteria is to use a traffic light system where red = essential, amber =




desirable, and green = challenge. A set of criteria presented in this way might look like this:

Habanera rhythm
Minor key
Appropriate sounds (bandonen, violin, piano)
Based on chords I and V
Melody based on chord notes
Sequential melody
Chromatic movement in melody
Use a wider range of chords
Use some inversions
Extended der-dums
Harmonic sequence
Extended der-dums with contrary motion bass line

This ends up being something of a shopping list of features. However, attention must be paid to the musicality
and effectiveness of the outcome, and developing students guild knowledge in this respect is an important
part of their development as musicians. So you may want to add some holistic criteria, perhaps along these





Techniques used accurately and effectively

Planned structure with good beginning and ending
Some fluency and accuracy in performance
Good balance of repetition and variety in structure
Good fluency and accuracy in performance
Good ensemble skills shown (if appropriate to your method of working)
Has a real sense of tango style

A step further would be to assign a point score to each of the criteria. To do this collaboratively with your class
might make a good compromise if you decided to save time by presenting the criteria as a package earlier.
The advantage of doing this is that it gets students thinking about which criteria are most important or tricky,
and makes monitoring progress with self and peer assessment tangible and measurable.

How to get started

A harmonic framework is essential, and students need to start off by deciding whether to go for a straightforward I and V structure (they could even adapt the chord sequence from La Cumparsita) or be more adventurous and create a harmonic sequence. You could create a grid for students to make a note of their harmonic
The bass line can be the next step; students should use the habanera rhythm to make a pattern from notes
of the chord. If they are aiming for the green end of the success criteria, they should introduce inversions if
they have not already planned for these, thinking about whether their aim is to keep the bass static, create a
sequence, or incorporate both of these ideas.
If appropriate or possible with the way your class are carrying out the task, you may at this point add a chordal
layer, perhaps on a piano sound. Then melodies can be added, using a mixture of chord patterns and chromatic movement. Add some der-dums at appropriate points, and the bare bones of the tango are there.

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Tracking progress
You will want to make sure that progress towards the success criteria is visible to you, to the students themselves, and to whoever else might be looking. If you are using a points system to increase the measurability
of the success criteria, you can use a mixture of self and peer assessment each lesson to track progress and
help students to plan targets for next lesson.
This can be done in a very simple way towards the end of a lesson: students might take a moment to assess
their own piece against the criteria and give themselves points in whatever way has been agreed. This might
be moderated using peer assessment, each group teaming up with another, playing their work in progress
and getting their opposite numbers to score them. Once classes get used to this way of working perhaps
after some thorough modelling of the process from you they should take it on board as part of the general
routine, and it should be efficient to administer. Make sure that they make a note of their own scores, moderated scores, and priorities for next lesson.
A more detailed way of doing this, which perhaps is good to use at the mid-way point in the composing project, is to record work in progress and post it online for students to access, perhaps on your school VLE, or on or For homework, students listen to their own piece and that of one
other group, filling in a sheet identifying how well the success criteria have been met, strengths, weaknesses,
and priorities for improvement. Hearing their own composition can give students a different perspective on it,
and having it on the internet can develop a sense of pride in the work. It also forms a hugely useful record of
progress over time in a way that is so much more musical than just having written notes.

Exploring other types of tango,

including tango nuevo and electrotango
Start off by listening to Neotango from Lo Mejor Del Tango Argentino by stor Piazzolla. Listen out for the things
that are similar to Por Una Cabeza and La Cumparsita, and those that are not. You might come up with a list
that looks something like this:

Similar to other tangos

Different from other tangos

Changes of mood/tempo
Some sections have a descending bass line a
bit like Por Una Cabeza
Some of the harmonies are based around I, IV,
and V
There are some der-dums

Changes time signature (some sections have a

waltz feel)
Electric guitar sounds jazzy
The feel is more choppy with lots of short, very
different sections
Sometimes it goes into a major key
Some of the chords are quite clashy

stor Piazzolla was the most famous composer of the tango nuevo style, which developed in the 1950s.
Although born in Argentina, Piazzolla grew up in New York, where he heard a lot of jazz and also listened to
classical music, particularly Bach. His father bought him a bandonen in a pawn shop and his musical talent
soon became very evident. When he moved back to Buenos Aires in early adulthood, he started a tango
band, but became frustrated by the limitations of traditional tango style. Studies in Paris broadened his horizons further, and he started adding elements of jazz and 20th century art music to the tango. Although this
angered tango purists at the time, tango nuevo soon became part of Argentine national identity, and today
Piazzolla is revered as one of the true tango greats.

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Now listen to Mi Confesin from Luntico by the Gotan Project, and again listen for what is recognisably tangoesque and what is new.

Similar to other tangos

Different from other tangos

There are extended der-dums
Violin countermelodies
Piano glissando
Minor key
A lot of the harmony is based around chords I,
IV and V

A club dance drum beat

Rapping (in Spanish)
Use of effects, such as filtering on the voices
and timed delay
Guitar melodies

The Gotan Project is a French-Argentine group which fuses traditional tango sounds with elements of club
dance music. Their music has been used in many films and adverts, and is hugely popular in Argentina.
Although it is straying much further from pukka Argentine roots, it can also be fun to listen to El tango de
Roxanne from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. Der-dums abound, and there are genuinely tango-esque piano
chords and violin countermelodies, together with a minor key and some dramatic descending bass lines. However, as the track progresses, more elements are added that are truly filmic in character, with layers of vocals,
a brass section and flouncy harp glissandi.

Creating an electrotango piece

An excellent variation on the composing part of this project might be to use sequencing software to create an
electro tango piece based on Mi Confesin and Santa Maria, both by Gotan Project. There are plenty of details
in these two tracks that can provide inspiration for your students, and which are easy enough to replicate using
GarageBand, Logic, or Cubase.
Both songs are incredibly simple harmonically; Mi Confesin is based mostly around chords I and IV in a minor
key with the occasional V, while Santa Maria uses I and V exclusively in an unchanging alternating riff for almost
six minutes. Students can start by working out a basic bandonen riff that fits with a two-chord alternating pattern, with two bars on each chord. This should be rhythmic and chordal in texture rather than melodic: some
melodic content will be added later. If your sound library does not include a bandonen sound, it is sure to
have an accordion sound that will be a perfectly acceptable stand-in. Add a bass guitar riff that fits with the
chords this should have an effective syncopated rhythm, as it will not change over the course of the piece,
and it needs to be interesting enough to withstand repeated hearings. Do not introduce the bass riff at the
same time as the bandonen riff remember that economy is a real feature of the Gotan style!
Explore your loop library for club dance drum loops; there are bound to be plenty that have the right kind of
tempo and mood. One of the ones that is based on the classic Amen break would be perfect.
The Amen break comes from the song Amen Brother, released by funk band The Winstons in 1969. From the
1980s onwards it was sampled extensively in a wide variety of club dance genres; it has been said that the riff
spawned several subgenres all by itself. Written in notation it looks like this:

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The development and interest in both of these songs lies in textural variation. Get your students to think about
the best point to bring in the drum beat: in Mi Confesin the tango style is well-established through other musical ideas before the dance beat comes in, which is a nice twist do they want to achieve the same effect?
Mi Confesin features plenty of classic extended der-dums on the bandonen, with the piano joining in for a
weighty dominant-tonic at the start of phrases. Add some der-dums at appropriate points in the piece, to fit
with the alternating chord riff. To these, add some supplementary riffs on string sounds, which can be added
at various points to fill out the texture. These might be on violins above the main body of the sound, or on cellos
in the mid-to-low range. Achieving a good balance between some legato riffs and some that are very staccato
will make the overall result more effective.
Emphasise with your class the importance of having a good range of pitches when they are planning how they
will vary the texture as their piece progresses; if everything is bunched up around middle-range pitches the
music will sound cluttered and indistinct.
As well as thinking about this top-to-bottom dimension, introduce them to panning, and planning how to spread
out the different parts from left to right. Which should be in the middle? (bear in mind here that this is where the
most important parts usually go) Should/could any of them move around within the stereo field, just for effect?
Mi Confesin features rapping in Spanish, and this could be something that would be interesting to explore
with your class, perhaps in conjunction with the MFL department in your school. Students studying Spanish
may be able to work on translating English phrases in order to use them in the piece, or MFL teachers may be
able to recommend some Spanish song lyrics or poems that could be used for rapping. They could also help
with getting pronunciation and emphasis correct, or perhaps put your class in touch with some A level students
who might be prepared to be recorded speaking the phrases.
Record the rapped phrases and show students how to drop these into their composition as an audio track.
The different rap voices on Mi Confesin are EQd in different ways to provide another way of achieving variety.
Some of them are given the telephone voice treatment, which is a good way to introduce your students to the
whole idea of EQ. Recreating the telephone voice effect is easy: the highest and lowest frequencies are cut,
while those around 2-3KHz are boosted.

Your class could experiment with EQing the voices in a variety of different ways this would mean that you
could get away with a relatively small number of rapped phrases.
Another very straightforward, yet effective, technique used to great effect in Santa Maria is timed delay, where
repetitions of a staccato bandonen chord are timed to fit the tempo of the beat. This idea is a little nod towards


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dub reggae, which features very heavy use of timed delay. Input one staccato chord at the beginning of a bar,
to fit with whichever of chord I or V you are on at the time. Find delay in your library of effects, and experiment
with the settings.

You will need to make sure that sync is selected so that the delay is timed to go with the speed of the beat.
Here, with sync on, and the delay set to 1/4, the repetitions will be heard every crotchet; your students can
experiment with different note-values to find out which are most effective. Feedback and mix can also be
played around with to achieve the desired effect.
You can explore some sampling in the compositions as well. Santa Maria uses short sung samples, but more
interestingly, there are also cicada sounds, which have been incorporated into the rhythm track. The sky is the
limit with this idea: all sorts of short percussive sounds could be chopped up and reassembled for rhythmic
effect. These could be taken from free online sample libraries such as, or students can
unleash their imaginations and record their own it all depends on how much time you have for the project,
and just how techy you want to get.
Mi Confesin also uses a scratchy record sound at the start, to give a vintage effect. This could be achieved
by finding a sample of the right sound, and adding it as a separate audio track set to a low level. An alternative
is to see what noise plug-ins your system has; Cubase, for example, has a Grungelizer which adds a layer of
authentic-sounding old-style crackle.
Once all of these different musical ideas are worked out, the challenge is merely to assemble them in such a
way as to keep the texture constantly evolving and changing, adding and subtracting different layers of sound
in a way that is at once hypnotic yet compelling, with a satisfying balance of repetition and variety.

Music Teacher January 2013

For inspiration on
how to use found
sound samples to
build up a rhythm
track, listen to In
the Musicals from
the soundtrack to
Dancer in the Dark
its not remotely
tango, but as an example of how to use
samples creatively,
it cant be bettered.
There are bouncing basketballs
and pitch-shifted
samples of trainers
squeaking on a floor,
which will surely
inspire a visit to the
school gym with a
handheld recorder