“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Milonga Rhythm

Milonga is mostly faster than regular tango music, but that is not its most defining characteristic.

What else is typical in milonga music? It is a certain rhythmical pattern happening in almost every bar of the song.

Basics: quick-quick-slow on beats 3-4-1

Firstly, milonga has always bars with two beats. But the lightly stressed moments in between are easier to describe if we also call them beats (the light beats), and hence count twice as fast, which really isn't that much of a sin. It just allows for finer resolution. So on this page, I'll count four beats per bar, just like in regular tango music (not waltz). For a slow milonga, this will be about the same counting speed (about two beats per second, one bar lasting two seconds).

So we start with our standard walking: 2 out of 4 (always good!), shown in the diagram as StepsA. We'll step on beats 1 and 3, as always.

Beats: 1'''2''' The correct “official” count (2 beats per bar)
Beats: 1'2'3'4' The count I'll use here (4 beats per bar)
StepsA x...x... = SLOW ...... SLOW ......
StepsB x...x.x. = SLOW ...... QUICK QUICK
StepsC x.x.x... = QUICK QUICK SLOW ......
StepsE xxxxxxxx = (quick-slow-language fails)

Beats: 1'2'3'4'
MusicB x...x.x. = SLOW ...... QUICK QUICK
MusicF x..xx.x. = (quick-slow-language fails)
MusicG x..x..x. = (quick-slow-language fails)

Now the first typical element in milonga is shown in MusicB and it is only natural to mirror it in your dancing, shown in StepsB. What happens? An extra note on the 4th beat! This translates to dancing an extra step, the so-called traspié. No obligation here: you dance it when you feel like it.

I see many a teacher explain milonga as 123 123 123 (as in a salsa-class). It is wrong. It should be 341 341 341 341. What's the big deal? 2 and 3 would be echoing the important 1, and coming after it. It's not like that. Mind you that this notation stops at the end of the bar, and therefore masks what is really going on here: the 3 and certainly the 4 prepare and lead up to the heavily accented 1 of the next bar.

As explained, StepsC has a completely different feel to it and is almost the “wrong” thing to do in milonga. Use it sparsely. Meaning traspiés are much more true to milonga music when done on beat 4 than on beat 2! And in practice you do what feels right to the music.

Of course StepsD is also a perfectly legal possibility. And StepsE is a nice little fantasy: lots of tiny steps.

Everything should become clear if I use Uhmmm! for the heavy 1 and pa pa for 3 and 4. As a conclusion, the feel of milonga rhythm is:
Uhmmm! -- pa pa Uhmmm! -- pa pa Uhmmm! -- pa pa Uhmmm! -- pa pa Uhmmm!
and not
Uhmmm! pa pa -- Uhmmm! pa pa -- Uhmmm! pa pa -- Uhmmm! pa pa --

Advanced: the Real Syncopation

Now for the second typical element in milonga rhythm, which is a bit more complicated. It can take you some time before being able to recognize all of this in real time. It's in the music, but most milonga dancers don't bother with it, and to lead and follow these really syncopated rhythms is very advanced. You don't need to do any of this to be a world class tango dancer, and many indeed simply don't dance this jerky stuff, but it helps to know about it, or better still to feel it. But to be honest, I don't see it happen at all in traditional tango.

What it basically does is imply a twice as fast feel (twice as fast as the quicks, so four times as fast as the slows) to the music, and if you would step it, to your dance. It evokes what happens in StepsE, but without having to resort to all this very quick stuff. Rather subtly, one strategically placed note/step will do the trick.

It is shown in MusicF and might be a bit hard to grasp at first if you have no musical background. It simply is an extra note right in between beat 2 and 3. You could say: not on a heavy beat, not on a light beat, but on a very light moment (which we even don't call a beat anymore because of this). As a useful example for MusicF: it is the rhythm played by the violin family and pretty much everybody except for the singer throughout the entire “Habanera” in Bizet's “Carmen”. Hear them do “Uhmmm! - tapa pa Uhmmm! - tapa pa Uhmmm!”. A true milonga-feel there! Or more correctly, it is the other way round. And if you listen to “Milonga Sentimental”, especially in Canaro's version, you'll here the exact same rhythm played by the “lower” instruments.

The 3-3-2

Or even more often, it will be MusicG, the so called 3-3-2, where one could say that the note on beat 3 is played half of a beat duration too early. If you want to get this rhythm right, do the following.

  • Use a slow pendulum, or be headbanging slowly, or move your hand up and down as relaxed and regularly as possible.
  • Do MusicB, the “Uhmmm! - pa pa Uhmmm! - pa pa Uhmmm!” Say something every time you go down except on beat 2. The normal thing would have been to spread one papaUhmm! over two downs (so that down is heavy and up light), but now we will be headbanging twice as fast, just to get the very lights (in between the beats) right. They happen now when we go up.

So this gives
MusicB =
1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 1 .
Down Up Down Up Down Up Down Up Down Up
Uhmm! pa pa Uhmm!

The only thing left to do now is to say the first “pa” too early. It should come precisely when your head or hand is up.
This yields
MusicG =
1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 1 .
Down Up Down Up Down Up Down Up Down Up
Uhmm! paaaaa pa Uhmm!

The crazy part here (the syncopated feel really) is what happens on 3. 3 is a pretty heavy beat, your head goes down, but you're in the middle of saying aaaaaaaaa and not doing anything at all on that heavy beat!
If you manage to do this correctly and after speeding it up a bit, you'll should recognize milonga or maybe rather salsa music!

An interesting theoretical property of this very famous rhythmic pattern MusicG, is that you could say that it is as close as one could get to playing “waltz” without leaving the 4-beat rhythm. So it certainly is no waltz, but it is the most even way to spread three notes or steps out over the four beats in a bar, while sticking to the 8 most logical moments available in such a four beat bar! The bar gets divided in three almost equal parts with durations 3/8, 3/8 and 2/8 of a bar. That is why is its also called the 3-3-2. It is also something very essential in salsa music, but you'll certainly find it somewhere in Abba music too.

Now one can perfectly step such rhythms. It is however very advanced to lead and follow it, and very few people do. It will feel a bit jerky too, since the very fast underlying half beat tempo is implicated as explained.


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