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.

Note

*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

Classical

Tango as musical experience

Music is the world of sound production and reproduction. When discussing the topic it’s hard to figure out where to start and it’s easy to get side tracked or bogged down. I had the same problem when approaching tango movement. The conceptual scheme is a hermetically sealed echo chamber and everything is prescribed by the tango establishment. When you do get your head out of that you find yourself in the echo chamber of the audiophile world and again it’s extremely difficult to say anything meaningful beyond quibbling about this or that piece of audio gear, music files, or some particular tango recordings and in the end all such discussions have a tendency to fall flat and fail to inspire any genuine progress. Nonetheless, the issue is so critical that I believe that it goes even beyond the questions of technique and politics. Yes, tango milonguero is about the embrace and about conviviality. But ultimately I’m of the view that tango is first and foremost a musical experience and the other things follow from that. If the musical experience is not happening then the other things can’t make up for it. Yes, the essence of tango dancing is the hug and the connection. But the essence of tango is ultimately the music and in particular it’s a specific sort of musical experience.

If what I say has validity then despite the proliferation of Facebook tango pages and posters there is really very little tango anywhere because the vast majority of the tango DJs outside of Buenos Aires apparently know very little about what they’re doing other than organising their tracks into tandas on their computer and perhaps getting a cheap DAC and pumping that into some cheap PA speakers in spaces with awful acoustics. The DJs in Buenos Aires have some intuitive understanding of what they need to do to produce the requisite sort of musical experience. They don’t always succeed but they rarely fail to the radical extent that is the case elsewhere.

The question is how to specify the goals and then the means in a way that is more useful than just telling people what specific piece of gear to buy. Music production is performance for a live audience, performance in a recording studio, and the performance of music reproduced from a recording. What all of these have in common is that the artists ideally aim for a particular sort of musical experience. They are in the business of designing the sound that reaches the ears of the audience.

As I’m writing this article I’m sitting in a cafe with retro interior design, with vintage tables, chairs, lamps and bookshelves. Someone designed this interior to create a particular effect, which is sort of art deco vintage mixed with some other interesting elements. It sort of works except for a picture on the wall which is a large photograph of fish on a bright blue background in a square black frame, which completely clashes with and contradicts the vintage wooden decor. I know they exhibit modern art around here due to some regulation, but nonetheless the contrast is obvious. I don’t have to be a professional interior designer to know that the contrast between the cafe decor and the photograph is odd and jarring. It’s matter of being basically informed and having some decent taste. Not everyone has this and some will surely think that these pictures look good in this cafe. A lot of so-called modern artists are in this category. They are often teachers in schools, universities and art colleges and they ruin peoples basic sensibility and ability to make informed aesthetic judgements of any sort.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that some things are just aesthetically wrong, but it’s often difficult to say exactly why. These days people are so distracted that they rarely look around to even notice it. Also, the education system and art establishment convinces us to just accept whatever and not be “judgemental”.

As with interior design, the tango DJ does not have to be a professional musician or audio engineer to have a clue about designing an adequate musical experience for a milonga. But he does need a combination of basic technical knowledge and a basic sensibility. We can think of music reproduction as a DJ/audio engineer as analogous to playing music as a musician where the instrument is the equipment used for the reproduction and processing of the source file. That is why I think that if the DJ is not a musician or has no musical background at all (eg., is not an audiophile) the learning curve will be steeper and longer because a musician or an audiophile already has some basic listening skills and knowledge of what musical instruments, spaces, and audio equipment sound like. He has an idea what to aim for and just have to find the equipment to produce a particular acoustic effect. If you’re starting from scratch you need to start listening for things: instruments, spaces, tonality, timbre, etc. It’s not something you can really do part-time, it has to be a vocation. Sound is your canvas and you’re a painter. If that sounds hard or tedious leave the task to someone else who will put the necessary energy to create an adequate product.

The ultimate goal is to produce a certain quality of musical experience. The question is what type of musical experience you’re delivering. This raises the problem of specifying this musical experience. How many people are able to specify the quality of musical experience beyond what they like or don’t like? But language is kind of necessary. The interior designer needs language to explain why the picture clashes with the rest of the decor: the lines, textures, colours. The soft wooden browns of the furnishings clash with the saturated bright neon blue, the photographic texture clashes with the soft patterned texture of the walls, the hard edges of the black frame clashes with the sound shapes of the lamps and chairs, etc. Or something like that. I’m sure that a professional interior designer would do a better job than me, but I can give it a go even as an amateur.

The tango musicalizador also needs to start finding ways to describe qualities of sound and identify what is satisfying and what is lacking, what makes something—a tune, and piece of gear, a space—sound good, and what makes it sound bad, and what is good about it. One of the biggest pitfalls that I see is the trap of relativism and egalitarianism, that is, the lazy habit of the postmodernist to label attempts at improvement as judgemental, elitist and closed minded and to insist that it’s all good and you should be open minded to a diversity of experiences. This line of thinking the reason for much of the mediocrity and chaos that we see in tango today. When you look at comments under Youtube videos like the one by Danny Richie from GR-Research (Some listening education for Argentine Tango DJs) it is clear that this divides the audiophile community into two hostile camps, and I’m firmly with those on the elitist side and have no time for any sort of egalitarianism. I find that the egalitarians have poor taste in music, ie., they clearly listen to pop and rock even if they don’t admit it. For example, they rarely emphasise the idea that you want to aim for the emotional impact of a live performance and a feeling of space and instead tend to focus on whether the gear sounds fun and whether the bass drum is punchy or the cymbals sound accurate.

Developing both as a musician as well as an audiophile I came to the view that being able to specify the quality of musical experience, to bring some of these under control so that you have an idea how you can perceive and reproduce the quality of musical experience, is the expertise of both the live musician and the DJ. The process of selection, which the tango DJs seem to be focusing on, is secondary to the task of reproducing a musical experience of a certain quality, such that when choosing the music you’re aiming for a qualitative experience of a particular sort. The music that you purchase and download to your laptop is the paints, the audio gear is the brushes, and the space is the canvas that you fill with the colour and shape of sound. What is it that you want to communicate to the audience? What do you want them to think and feel? What experience have you discovered yourself that you want them to get? How will that experience enrich their life? That is the task of the artist in the sphere of sound.

What that means is that you’re not merely focusing on the content of the music (ie., the melody and harmony), but its quality. I play jazz on a nylon string classical guitar that is amplified. This music can be played on un-amplified classical guitar or an amplified electric guitar. It can be played in a jazz club, outdoors, or a bar. When I started performing I did some open mics in pubs. The music was totally wrong for that sort of venue. I did the same set on the same guitar in a jazz bar and it was great. Different context, different quality. The acoustics of the venue make my set sound totally different. Playing outdoors vs. playing in a well designed jazz venue vs. playing in a poorly designed music venue all make my set sound completely different. Some situations like the jazz venue are close to ideal, others are only marginally adequate. It’s still me and my guitar plugged into an amp, but the results are radically different. Sound is a very fragile sort of paint and needs a canvas that will shape and contain it in the right sort of way. The gear, the music and the musician is just part of the story.

It’s always good to use analogies with food when thinking about music: when you eat you’re not merely concerned with the amount of protein, carbohydrate, and vitamins, but also the quality of these things both in terms of their health value (eg., bioavailability) and their palatability and visual appeal. Focusing on the content of the music without the quality is like focusing on the abstract nutritional value of food without the other things. As a musicalizador your job is to design the musical experience that is aesthetically and emotionally nourishing and satisfying. I’m discovering that to achieve that goal you need to be able to satisfy that requirement in your own life, you need to have great sounding music in your own house, even if it’s just a desk setup or a set of high fidelity headphones, you need to have a reference system that is a benchmark for you to be able to judge and evaluate the sound of some audio equipment in a given venue, and over time to be able to evaluate different sorts of venues.

Now I’ve been arguing in a number of articles that we should prefer a dancing education that teaches a type of dancing that is economical with the space and I understand that this may seem like a pet peeve, something that might be nice but is not really fundamental to anything. If we have access to a large amount of dancing space why bother with this? I think that once you start thinking in terms of musical experience and musical design, and you start playing around with gear you will start to understand the cost and difficulty of filling up a space with any decent quality sound. Thinking that you can fill up a large studio space with a couple of loud PA speakers is, to go back to the food analogy, like thinking that you can make quality food with a bag of flour and sugar whereas what you’re going to end up with is a lot of empty calories. Being loud and having bass is all too often confused with sound quality. You’re much more likely to be able to create a satisfying auditory experience on a reasonable budget in a smaller venue.

Getting quality sound does require a lot of quality speaker and amplification per square metre and these don’t come cheap. Large spaces are not easy to fill up with quality sound and are expensive to treat: large wooden floors, walls and windows will cause reflections, budget PA speakers will not provide enough detail in the highs, satisfying mids and tight lows. Room treatment is less of a problem when the space is filled up with people who will diffuse a lot of the sound but when untreated large empty spaces sound really bad (see also Do you find yourself having to shout at a milonga?). On the other hand, while sound treatment will alleviate unwanted resonance it will also eat up a lot of that sound, so what would sound loud but ugly in an empty studio space will be much quieter in a space treated with sound absorbing surfaces. So the speakers and amplifier need to be big enough and this is a big cost. You may find that the PA speakers in some large studio space are very loud but the point is quality of sound, not loudness.

To go back to tango DJs in Buenos Aires, it really helps that the milongas there are relatively packed. Unless you can make sure that your event has a good number of people you need to have a solid setup of speakers and room treatment to deal with the empty space. A large empty space with a wooden floor and naked walls with cheap PA speakers is a recipe for total failure. You’re much better off with a smaller space. The first thing in developing in this area is to develop an understanding and a language for describing the quality of sound experience and then making a decision on how to design and deliver this quality as an end-product. One way we can begin to think here is that we need to distinguish different sorts of music and different sorts of qualitative experience that can be delivered.

I noticed that audio reviewers tend to differ depending on the type of music that they prefer. Unfortunately they rarely fess up to what they listen to and when they do I finally understand why they like the gear that they do. The way we listen and experience different sorts of music is going to be different. Our goal in relation to tango is to try to place tango music on the spectrum of musical experiences. To reiterate my earlier point, this is essentially the same as what a musician is doing. As I mentioned, the bossa nova/jazz sound on my nylon string acoustic-electric will fit in a jazz club, a cafe or a restaurant, but not so much in a loud bar. The way people experience music is very different in a different sort of a context: bar, jazz club, concert hall, street, etc.

So the music and the gear will have to be adapted to that. Unfortunately, gear reviewers rarely inform us what sort of music they listen to. I try to follow audio designers and reviewers who focus on classical and jazz. But that is not exactly ideal because what I’m finding that tango needs a speaker setup that is a bit more forward and energetic that what you might want for classical or jazz. Christian Xell who runs TangoTunes told me that he uses Altec cinema speakers. The thing about these is that they are horn speakers which tend to project sound more forward.

Horn speakers, theatre/cinema speakers, PA speakers and guitar amplifiers have a more forward character which is probably better for tango. Many fans of vintage audio also prefer paper cone drivers.

In my own case I find that my Roland Acoustic Chorus AC90 acoustic guitar amp sounds better for tango than the ELAC Reference speakers powered by NAD D-class amp. In both cases it’s 45W per channel. The AC90 has larger 8 inch woofers and you feel more of the bass extension, and generally the speaker is more forward and the paper cones have the right sort of character that I would call “vintage”. By contrast, the ELAC/NAD combination is more a smooth and cerebral sound that’s ideal for classical and jazz audiophile experience. The AC90 has that sort of forwardness and vintage grit and fullness that is just right for tango, both for listening and enjoying or for movement. It’s not loud and aggressive but the fullness and bass is more tactile for lack of a better word. I also like the combination of my iLoud MTM studio monitor speakers with either the AC90 or the ELACs. The MTMs complement both being forward, lively and accurate. They seem to add the midrange to the AC90.

Currently, given the current state of my knowledge, I’d either use the AC90 together with the iLoud MTMs, and even a pair of AC90s for a small to mid-size venue. Otherwise I’d try to build a pair of theatre speakers. There are Youtube channels devoted to DIY speaker building. It seems that most of the cost of speakers goes into retail and labour, and that it’s possible to build speakers for a fraction of the retain price, like 10-20%. So you could build a pair of speakers that retail $5000 for under $1000. As I said, you need to a good amount of speaker and that means fairly big and efficient drivers plus the speaker box and electronics. All of that costs money. Remember, you’re not paying for volume but for quality. The size of the speaker is not to give you something that’s loud, but something that delivers a lot of detail and space without being too loud. That requires good quality parts and that’s what you’re paying for. So if I’m in the situation to do this I’m planning on getting a DIY kit and building my own theatre speakers for tango. Combined with a nice room with good acoustics and a good chain (DAC, amp, etc.) I think you’d get some really nice sound for tango.

You need a lot of speakers and amplification, even in a small bedroom: iLoud MTM powered studio monitors, ELAC Debut Reference DBR62 speakers, NAD C338 integrated amplifier, and Roland Acoustic Chorus AC90 guitar amplifier as a subwoofer.

A listening bar in Brooklyn, New York

What a great idea. I sort of remember having been to one in South Korea. He mentions listening bars in Japan. I’m planning a possible move there. If that happens I’m going to look for them. If I make it in the markets it’s on my bucket list as a hobby project, with emphasis on Golden Era tango of course. I particularly love the horn speakers. They must sound amazing and would probably be perfect for tango.

Acoustics is absolutely the main issue I have with most bars, they all just sound awful. Apart from the sound system, they never have any room treatment, just super resonant. Even ones that have live music. I once plugged my Chord Qutest DAC into a system in a bar that had pretty expensive PA system. It sounded really good. They were just plugging the audio cable into a phone or iPad. They told me that they’re planning improving their sound by getting a mixer. I felt like banging my head against a wall.

Generally, I love this guy’s idea: creating a community atmosphere, eliminating barriers between the audience and the artist, getting people interested in the music. That’s the attitude that we really need to bring to tango, things would be just so much better. I hope that my new content that I’m currently working on bringing in the form of a regular “tango audiophile vlog” can bring us closer in that direction.