In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tango

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comprehensive Histories
  • Journals
  • Tango Abroad
  • Tango and Social, Cultural, and Political History
  • Tango and Literature: References to Tango in Fiction and Essays
  • Vocal Delivery of Tango
  • The Dance
  • Performance Practice and Pedagogy
  • Selected Audio Recordings
  • Discography
  • Tango in Film
  • Tango in the Theater
  • Tango as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Music Tango
Omar García Brunelli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0315


Tango emerged in the late nineteenth century as a univocal fusion of music, poetry, and dance that still endures as a complex cultural system. Its origins are traced to the River Plate area that comprises Buenos Aires and Montevideo, respectively the capitals of Argentina and Uruguay. Buenos Aires, however, has been the hotbed of activities from tango’s beginnings to the present. Definitive theories of its origins, or agreement on some aspects of its history, however, remain speculative. The role that African descendants might have played in shaping this form of expressive culture, the presence or lack thereof of an Andalusian tango in its ancestry, and the demimonde of brothels fueling its conception are still the subject of heated controversy. Initially, tango was a style of dancing habaneras, tangos, or polkas with a straight arm and provocative figures; toward 1900, the dance called tango became associated exclusively with the musical genre of the same name, which by then had developed as an independent entity. The entire evolution of the dance hinged on that music. The lyrics were initially picaresque and betrayed the strong influence of Spanish poetry, but by the early 1900s the immigrant population had attached a particular melodramatic tinge to tango lyrics that was to remain a fixture of its style for decades in the future. Within the trilogy of music, poetry, and dance, music stands as the inalienable core of this univocal expression, but research on the texts and the dance as independent manifestations also has been pursued. During its long history, from the late-nineteenth and well into the twenty-first century, tango’s music has undergone substantive changes, clearly in response to local socioeconomic and cultural conditions. The musical anatomy of tango has not yet been fully studied, but significant advances have been made toward mastering the task. As instrumental music, tango displayed a vast range of possibilities, from its early small ensembles of self-taught musicians to the development of its own original and complex language, set to contrast with European norms at the beginning of the 1920s. The genre’s historical energy reached its peak in the 1940s, with brilliant innovations altering its parameters. Tango vocalists were turned into celebrities from the 1920s to the 1950s, and, more than a half century later, tango singing has retained its luster. The vanguard of the 1960s provided an additional creative impulse that is still lingering, mixed with more traditional trends. As dance, the protagonism of tango dominated the 1940s and 1950s, to wane and almost fall into oblivion in the 1960s and 1970s. However, tango dancing resurged locally and internationally in the 1980s, mostly through new choreographies that shared a cultural space with resilient traditions from the past. In Buenos Aires, there is an intense though reduced space for the practice of the revered tango. The appropriation of tango abroad has taken on a variety of shapes. Most importantly, these practices are strongly interconnected, converting tango into a cult-like passion for its performers and devoted followers. This article has been translated into English by Malena Kuss.

General Overviews

Four entries in reference works offer a general introduction that takes into account the breadth and complexity of the genre. These are Béhague 1998; Béhague 2001; Kohan, et al. 2002; and García Brunelli 2014. Franco-Lao 1975, Plisson 2001, and Norese 2001 are influential introductions to the genre published in Europe. Iconic as well as indispensable are the substantive overviews written by Horacio Ferrer (b. 1933–d. 2014), the Uruguayan-Argentinian poet and tango lyricist who collaborated with Piazzolla on some of his most famous hits. Ferrer 1960 weaves a concentrated synthesis of tango’s stylistic evolution up to the date of publication; and Ferrer 1980, the definitive Libro del tango, stands as a classic source for the accuracy of the historical data, the broad-ranging coverage of leading figures, and the array of insightful aesthetic characterizations of styles and practitioners.

  • Béhague, Gerard. “Tango.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Vol. 9. 2d rev. ed., Sachteil. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 221–227. Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 1998.

    A general introduction that outlines tango’s stylistic changes throughout its historical development in the twentieth century. The entry includes an exploration of the ethos of machismo embedded in the lyrics and the dance, delves into characteristic features of the musical styles, and describes the main types of instrumental ensembles that define tango’s iconic sound. Online edition published 2016, edited by Laurenz Lütteken and available by subscription.

  • Béhague, Gerard. “Tango.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 25. 2d ed. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 73–75. London: Macmillan, 2001.

    An overview of the genre tracing its origins, early development, and proliferation of styles that emerged throughout the twentieth century. Included are brief descriptions of idiomatic musical structures, choreographic features, and a discussion of the lyrical contents’ aesthetic pathos. The entry also provides a rather imprecise account of tango’s historical periodization and discusses the internationalization of the genre. Published online in Oxford Music Online, available by subscription.

  • Ferrer, Horacio. El tango: Su historia y evolución. Buenos Aires: A. Peña Lillo, 1960.

    Brief introduction to the origin and development of the genre to 1960 by the Uruguayan-Argentinian poet whose collaboration with Astor Piazzolla brought to life classics such as “Balada para un loco,” “Chiquilín de Bachín,” and the operita María de Buenos Aires (1968). This text discusses continuities and discontinuities in tango’s sequence of stylistic stages, highlighting protagonists and iconic figures throughout its history. It was reprinted by Peña Lillo-Ediciones Continente in 1999.

  • Ferrer, Horacio. El libro del tango: Arte popular de Buenos Aires. 3 vols. Buenos Aires: Editorial Tersol, 1980.

    An indispensable source structured as an extensive first volume, “Crónica,” followed by two volumes of biographical entries. The “Crónica,” a chronologically organized history of the genre, assumes a reflective, literary, and often poetic tone. The eight chapters into which the first volume is divided address styles, various types of characters, orchestras, historical stages, and every imaginable aspect of tango’s history. The two tomes that follow amount to a complete and exhaustive biographical dictionary that also includes technical terms.

  • Franco-Lao, Méri. Tempo di tango: La storia, lo sfondo sociale, i testi, i personaggi, la fortuna e il revival. Milan: Bompiani, 1975.

    An entertaining historical narrative that verges on critical essay and summons tango’s attributes, its lyrics, the marginality of its origins, its access to the élites, and its widespread reception abroad. Attractive and ingenious, somehow relating Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe to tango characters, it captures the worldviews of practitioners as expressed in a huge corpus of literature. Very influential in Italy, the book has undergone several revisions in 1977, 1986, 1996, and 2004, with titles such as T come tango.

  • García Brunelli, Omar. “Tango.” In The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. Vol. 9, Genres: Caribbean and Latin America. Edited by David Horn and John Shepherd, 826–843. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

    A synthesis of styles and basic periodization of tango that also covers the lyrics and the dance. It includes a brief discographic guide.

  • Kohan, Pablo, et al. “Tango.” In Diccionario de la música española e hispanoamericana. Vol. 10. Edited by Emilio Casares Rodicio, with Victoria Eli Rodríguez and Benjamín Yépez Chamorro, 142–154. Madrid: Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, 2002.

    This substantive collection of essays covers the problematics of tango as a semantic field in the context of urban popular music, its history in Argentina, and its international reception, highlighting the protagonism of composers and performers. It includes separate entries on composers and orchestra leaders, excluding those who were active only in performance. Therefore, the coverage in this fundamental work is less comprehensive than in Ferrer 1980, which takes into account the significance of performers.

  • Norese, Marta Rosalía. Contextualización y análisis del tango: Sus orígenes hasta la aparición de la vanguardia. Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2001.

    As introductory source it is extensive, but a detailed index enables the reader to search for topics of specific interest. It delves into tango’s origins and the sociocultural and economic factors that made possible a particular intersection of generic characteristics. It also describes the musical tributaries that contributed to shaping tango’s early style and the ecology that sustained its development. The analyses of musical features, however, remains superficial. It covers tango only until the decade of the 1950s.

  • Plisson, Michel. Tango: Du noir au blanc. Paris: Cité de la musique, 2001.

    A history of the genre from its origins to circa 2000, with an accompanying CD. It covers all the predictable topics relative to the genre’s history, such as the expressive range of the music, the strong identity of the urban culture it signifies, the seductive choreography of the dance, the role that immigration played in coalescing essential elements of its style, the bandoneón as its signature sound, and the broad range of practitioners it interpellates. Copublished with Actes Sud, 2001.

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