Ear training for the interpretation of tango music in listening and dancing

I was recently doing a music jam and a young guy was very impressed with my guitar playing and asked me for some classical guitar lessons. He then asked me what I listen to. I told him that I basically listen to classical music. He then asked me whether I compose my music and whether I listen to contemporary music. I told him that I don’t listen to that because it ruins my ears. He then went on and on about the creativity of contemporary music and how all these contemporary artists are creative geniuses. I told him that I don’t think that contemporary music is very creative and told myself that teaching this guy is, at this stage at least, probably a waste of time.

One thing that I’ve learned both in relation to tango music and to playing classical guitar is that much of the process consists of ear training and that a major impediment to progress is having your ears ruined by listening to the wrong stuff. There are two areas of ear training: the actual music being listened to, and the quality of the equipment on which the music is being played. Listening to the wrong music or listening to it under the wrong circumstances will ruin your ears. Ruining your ears is like spoiling a child. You listen to musical candy on cheap gear and soon enough you’re incapable of informed judgement. You sound like a lot of these artists who carry on about creativity, or those people on tango forums who complain about the music but then can’t tell the difference. The major reason for so much bad music today is precisely that music is everywhere and it’s being fired at us whether we like it or not from all directions.

Ear training is learning to understand what to listen for. This is true both for understanding a musical piece or for understanding what we’re looking for in musical reproduction. As a musician I regularly have the experience that when attempting a piece of music I have trouble understanding what’s going on. It doesn’t make sense to me because there’s too much going on. Often you have to simplify in order to get it. I got started on a piece called “Duas Contas” by the Brazilian guitarist Garoto. It sounded boring when I tried to play through a page of the music. I then went to Youtube and found that there’s a vocal version of this tune by Gal Costa. It’s a great piece of music. Once I heard it sung it made complete sense. Another common issue has to do with the tone of the sound on my guitar. I play a piece of music in one position and it doesn’t sound very good, but in a different position it sounds great. The quality of the sound of the strings is different in different positions and that’s an important consideration. There are all sorts of other considerations and techniques to create a different feel or tone and this is as much a part of the training on a given instrument as the actual music written on paper.

So ear training is a matter of understanding a particular piece of music as it might be written down, how the melody goes, what’s the path taken, it’s geography so to speak, something we might hum; it’s also a matter of how that piece of music is interpreted in terms of the specific quality of the tone on a given piece of equipment used, whether it’s a specific instrument played in a specific way, or a specific piece of audio gear played in a specific sort of space. You have to take all of these into account in developing an understanding of the musical experience that is made available. The particular aesthetic experience of music is really the final product of these elements.

The basic problem that causes most tango people having their ears ruined is to play high energy tango music on substandard audio equipment in highly resonant spaces. This is a recipe for your brain shutting down to the music and merely using it as a prop for the emotional signalling for the exaggerated movements of the dancing lesson (see Using music for emotional signposting). If there’s no dancing going on the room and the sound within it is barely tolerable and makes people fidgety and restless. It is generally accepted nowadays that music should be big, and the bigger the better. Old music played on a handful of instruments without a lot of amplification is considered small and boring. When I told the young guy that most music today is highly processed and doesn’t sound good without all the gear he pointed to some singer who plays solo pieces on guitar and vocals. Sure, but even that is highly processed to sound bigger and more interesting than it actually is. Unprocessed performances will sound better but only on good quality audio devices and won’t sound as exciting. The goal of the musical industry is to make everything sound exciting even on cheap gear. This is the main reason people assume that the bigger, louder and more exciting the tango music the better.

We want to go in the opposite direction and aim for nuance. Recently TangoTunes made available transfers from late 20s to mid-30s by Di Sarli and Orquesta Tipica Victor. The Di Sarli transfers are surprisingly good. All are listenable and sound very good on a good sound system. I think that this is a major development because perhaps for the first time in our era we have access to tango music that is uncomplicated but very listenable. With D’Arienzo and onward we’re getting into a lot of complexity. It’s hard for the brain to process it all. It’s fast and there’re a lot of instruments. The arrangements are quite complex. If you’re just starting out it’s a lot to process. If you’ve never heard instrumental tango on, say, guitar and bandoneon duo, then this being y0ur first encounter will probably lead to overload. Following the music itself will be a challenge, but then on top of that finding a connection between the music and the many movements taught in a dancing lesson will be all but impossible. Understanding the music will be essentially out of reach. The result will be these so-called milongas where the music is essentially a vague background to a lot of pointless movement.

This is an interesting video from the Early Music Sources Youtube channel comparing the differences in the performances of classical music recorded at the beginning of the 20th century and contemporary performances.

So I think these recordings by the early Di Sarli and OTV are very good for developing your ears for tango if reproduced on a decent sound system in a room with some acoustic treatment. I would follow them with the early D’Arienzo and later on add D’Agostino. Only much later I’d add Tanturi, Calo, Troilo, etc. I would avoid listening to all the different orchestras in one go. Generally, the way you listen to different sorts of music is going to be different. So the late-20s to mid-30s will generally sound similar when you get to the 1940s the way you listen to that is going to be different because the complexity and energy of the music will be much higher. This is not necessarily better. In fact, I would argue that developing the listening skills on the early music helps to understand the more challenging music of the 1940s. So a good amount of listening to the early stuff can help to retune your ears and provide a baseline for better interpretation of the more difficult later material.

Listening recommendations for ear training

Let me finish off by discussing the listening recommendations below. I suggest listening to the Beginner Tango list regularly before moving on to the Intermediate Tango list, perhaps several weeks if you’re listening most days. You don’t need to listen carefully, it’s fine to listen passively so long as the music is played at good quality and good volume. I also included a list of classical CDs that I think are helpful.* The way I arrived at this as a starting point for listening is my own experience trying and failing to get into classical music. Classical music is usually associated with orchestral music from the 18th and 19th century. At some stage I came across the CD by John Williams in a shop and found that it’s really great for doing focused work, whether on the computer or reading, as background music (in fact I’m listening to it as I’m writing this). At the beginning I didn’t really take it very seriously but over time I discovered that my enjoyment of contemporary music like a lot of jazz, funk and electronica was affected. I just wasn’t getting as much of a kick out of it. On other hand I noticed a positive effect on listening to tango and other classical music. (Well, it wasn’t all positive because I also became aware of how bad the sound quality at the milongas is and I started to pay more attention to the equipment they’re using.)

My point is that you might think that you like contemporary music and you don’t like classical and also that you like the new tango music and the old tango music sounds boring. There are a couple of things to say about this. My young musician friend above was very insistent on two things, namely, that creativity is very important, and that contemporary musicians like Pink Floyd or Nirvana are creative geniuses. He’s obviously high on openness as a personality trait and has an intuitive approach to music. Scott Adams pointed out that it’s probably better to have a range of skills than to focus on getting better and better at a few things. So my response to someone who’s high on openness and is very creative, but who has difficulty on focusing or sticking to one thing but is instead jumping around, doing improv vocals and that sort of thing, that perhaps he should invest in skills that he’s not that good at. In this case becoming more conscientious and perhaps actually learning and memorising some tunes and learning some music theory would counterbalance all that openness and creativity. The thing is that, if he does that, he might come to the conclusion that Pink Floyd and Nirvana, while competent musicians or at least interesting, are not the creative geniuses that he currently thinks they are. They just happen to appeal to that part of his personality that seems to be overdeveloped.

The point is that if you find it challenging to listen to classical music that is not a reason not to do it, and in my own experience I’ve found that the recordings of J.S. Bach and baroque music below are fairly painless ways of getting into it and enjoying it. Again, it’s not a problem to have these playing as background music so long as the quality and the volume are good. At this point you might say that you don’t have the technical skills to get a decent audio system. Once again, if this area is a weakness that is not a reason not to learn more about it, and even if you follow the most basic recommendations on this website and invest a few hundred dollars you can get really high quality sound, even if you start off with a pair of audiophile headphones and a headphone DAC/amplifier.

What you might find is that the way you hear not only tango but also contemporary music may change. You may become aware of the space around the music, around the instruments, and also of the timbre of the different instruments. One of the advantages of the Bach recordings is that they’re on solo instruments that are really well performed and recorded. They’re easy to listen to and do not fatigue your ears, and they’re easy to follow even though they take you through many different musical ideas. This may make it less enjoyable to listen to music that is highly repetitive, with relatively few musical ideas, and that is highly processed so that the spatial and timbral information is missing. However, this information will only be available if you’re using audiophile quality source files, DAC and headphones or speakers.


*All the tango music is from high resolution 24/96 files purchased at TangoTunes.com. The recordings of J.S. Bach can be found on Rutracker dot org in the following formats: John Williams 16/44.1 (CD quality), Glenn Gould DSD64 (Hi-res) as well as other formats, and Evangelina Mascardi 16/44.1 (CD quality).

Beginner tango

Intermediate tango


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