“Tango is a feeling”
Traditional tango dancers in Argentina are often heard saying that tango is a feeling and one has to express that feeling in dancing tango. There is the technique of dancing and there is the culture of the milongas, but in the end all of that is subsidiary to the ultimate goal of tango which is the feeling. Learning dancing technique and tango culture may distract us from this fact because we may suppose that learning these other things will ultimately guide us to attain that feeling, to experience it, and to express it in our dancing. Yet it seems that this outcome is not inevitable and that it is possible for a person to go through the whole process without succeeding in feeling what tango requires. It is not entirely clear whether feeling is something that one should automatically or naturally experience, or whether it is something that is also learned.
One may suppose that the feeling in question is just whatever one feels when one is doing tango. The problem seems to be somewhat like the problem of art: is art some specific type of work that we put in art galleries because it satisfies some artistic standards set by the critics, or as some postmodernist thinkers suggest, is it art simply by virtue of being located in the art gallery. In that case, could a fire hydrant be an artwork simply by virtue of being located in an art gallery?
If we want to claim that some people don’t feel the music we must provide some sort of a standard for telling the correct way of feeling the music. Here we must assume that feeling is not merely an individual and subjective experience, but is something that can be shared and agreed upon. Otherwise, how can two people dance if they have no way of telling whether they agree on the feeling. That means that the the feeling must be expressed in the way the dancer expresses, interprets and hence understands the music, which may be more or less correct or agreed upon.
The idea that the feeling of the music is a purely subjective matter might be in part due to the fact that a lot of music is listened to in silence without any overt expression. The paradigm of listening is people sitting and listening to a symphony. How are we to tell whether they feel the music correctly or not? However, there are fairly clear cases where music either does or fails to make sense to a person, and where different people can agree on whether the music makes sense to them. One such case is the case of tonal vs. atonal music. Most people who are used to tonal music find that they do not understand atonal music.
The latter is music that most people do not understand. Wikipedia defines tonality as follows:
Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality. In this hierarchy, the single pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. The root of the tonic chord forms the name given to the key; so in the key of C major, the note C is both the tonic of the scale and the root of the tonic chord (which is C–E–G). Simple folk music songs often start and end with the tonic note. The most common use of the term “is to designate the arrangement of musical phenomena around a referential tonic in European music from about 1600 to about 1910”. … Harmony in jazz includes many but not all tonal characteristics of the European common practice period, known as classical music.
In other words, tonal music respects certain relationships between notes whereby a ‘key’ or ‘root’ note establishes the tonality and the functional status of the other notes of the scale. The interval or distance from the tonic note determines the character of the note and what can be done with it, eg., whether it is possible to begin and end a phrase on that tone. The relationships between the tones have a push-pull relationship such as that they create tension, gravity, etc.
Tonality is an organized system of tones (e.g., the tones of a major or minor scale) in which one tone (the tonic) becomes the central point for the remaining tones. The other tones in a tonal piece are all defined in terms of their relationship to the tonic. In tonality, the tonic (tonal center) is the tone of complete relaxation and stability, the target toward which other tones lead. The cadence (coming to rest point) in which the dominant chord or dominant seventh chord resolves to the tonic chord plays an important role in establishing the tonality of a piece.
Because of these features of tonal music, we understand or feel the music when we perceive the relations between the sounds in terms of movement. Movement in music and its various ‘spatial’ characteristics are generated by the relations between the different tones. Musical movement is not inherent in the physical sound. Rather, it is ‘intentional’: we hear movement in the line of notes as connected and moving even though there is nothing that is literally moving in the physical sound and each pitch is separate from another. There may be silence between the notes, but we still hear a continuous line of tones connected in a melody (Scruton 2009).
The intentional character of music is expressed in language through spatial metaphors such as distance and movement. Music moves and it moves faster or slower, moves up or down, etc. Music has rhythm and beat, both of which are to be distinguished from the musical metre. Scruton argues that music can have beat without much rhythm. Rhythm arises out of the music and its accents, and generates the forward motion. Music can have beat without much rhythm, and vice versa, music can have rhythm without a strong beat. In the Western classical tradition up to the 20th century rhythm has been generated by the musical line. With the emergence of the drum kit the beat is introduced from the outside to music that has relatively little of either rhythm or beat.
So what room is there for a person to fail to understand tango music and how would that be manifested in their dancing? If we consider for a moment how one learns to play a piece of music on an instrument, the quality of the playing depends on things like rhythm and expression. Rhythm refers to the grouping of notes, accent, emphasis or suspension. Suspension, playing a note on an offbeat and holding it till the first beat of the next phrase, is present music that is syncopated which includes tango. Expression has to do with the phrasing of notes, the correct gesture, dynamics (playing loud or soft), crescendo (gradually increasing loudness), and so on. A teacher will make gestures to communicate to the student how to play a given passage. Otherwise, the performance will be mechanical and without feeling, like what one might get from software that plays from a written score.
We can see here that learning musical interpretation in dancing is going to be very much similar to learning musical interpretation in playing. Scruton suggests that it is possible to divide music that is influenced by speech and song, and music that is influenced by dancing. If tango emerged as dancing music then its beat and feeling will be strongly connected to the movement of dancing, eg., one should be able to tap one’s foot to it. The music will have a pronounced beat or pulse that’s danceable. There will be a perceptible ‘on’ and ‘off’ beat, and if the rhythm is syncopated, the ‘off’ beat will be emphasised and suspended, driving or dropping into the ‘on’ beat of the next phrase.
Now, different tango orchestras will interpret tango music with different emphasis, with more or less beat, rhythm or expression. This makes the task of interpreting the different recordings in dancing somewhat complicated. However, dance education devotes the majority of the time to movement and little or not time to learning how to listen to tango music. This is largely due to the prevailing false idea that listening is not a skill. One should already know what one likes and that’s the end of the discussion.
But the idea that listening and experiencing music is spontaneous and effortless is a new one, and it has really only arrived at a time of pop. Pop music (including Rock, RnB, Rap, etc.) is really a new kind of thing that departs from prior musical traditions, and moves away from the Western classical tradition. Western classical music has evolved to a high level and requires effort and cultivation in order to understand and appreciate it. Pop is based on a very narrow set of structures, in particular, an ostinato backing which is external to the music and which appears to require no effort to enjoy but is actually addictive. Pop music requires the harmony and melody to be fitted to the ostinato rhythm which absolves the music itself from generating a rhythm through melody and harmony.
Because there is no ostinato backing in classical music or tango the forward motion and rhythm is created through melody and harmony: grouping, accent, and emphasis. Rhythm is here to be distinguished from the musical metre. It is commonplace to hear that while milonga music is 2/4, tango is 4/4, and vals is 3/4. These, however, designate the meter in which the music is written, that is, the way that the musical bar is divided into sections. Rhythm, however, is not created through these and it is possible to have music in these meters that have little or no rhythm. For example, not all music written in 3/4 can be danced to as a waltz. Rhythm is also different from the pulse or beat. The pulse or beat is the point where you would clap or tap with your foot. But rhythm consists of all the up and down beats and stresses that happen in between, so that you have different rhythms with the same sort of beat.
So the first step to learning to dance with feeling, with the correct expression and interpretation, is to learn to listen. Dancing tango is difficult because one has to move with the partner to music. If we dance complicated patterns we will have little attention left to give to the music. Then we will be dancing mechanically, robotically, without expression. At first it is better to develop the practice of listening to a given orchestra without dancing. If you feel like moving you can stand and make gestures with your hands like an orchestra conductor. This gesture will flow into your body and ultimately into your dancing. Start by listening to music you can easily tap your foot to. When you’re finally on the dancefloor, dance to music that you are already somewhat familiar with. Before venturing out, give the music a few moments of attention and have caught onto the gesture that it elicits. This is the gesture that you communicate to your partner as you move into the first step.
Roger Scruton (2009) Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation. Bloomsbury Academic.
Here is a series of videos that are helpful in understanding music:
 Examples of atonal music, which Roger Scruton thinks we don’t really understand because we naturally seek tonality.
 A lecture explaining tonality and atonality with examples:
 Listening to tango music is more like listening to classical than to pop, so the following videos apply to tango as well:
 Interpretation classes with Benjamin Zander are very instructive on how to think about emotion and interpretation in music:
 A lot of useful insights into the history of music (classical music was originally for dancing), structure and layers in music.