How To Write A Tango

As a serious dance form, it is epitomized by the dancers jerky movements to the characteristic rhythms. When composing your tango, remember that tangos are composed to be danced to, not just listened to! The main musical features to work on when starting to compose your first tango are the bass, melody and general rhythmic feel. The easiest way to begin composing this type of music, is to familiarize yourself with the style through listening, or better still playing some tangos, and other Latin American music.

Consider picking up The Tango Orchestra: Fundamental Concepts and Techniques if you want the definitive comprehensive guide.

The Basics

The two main rhythms that characterize tango music are:

Tango Rhythm

The first rhythm is taken from Cuba, and is called the Habanera. These rhythms are used as the basis for both the bass line and the percussion parts. Make sure that when you compose your own music, these rhythms feature heavily (don’t worry about not being original, this is important in getting the tango sound). Although there are many variations, these two are the main rhythmic cells. Remember, tangos tend to be in either 4/4 or 2/4, and while there are some exceptions in other meters, this is considerably less common and makes it much harder to produce convincing results.

You can begin to add your own personality and originality when creating your percussion parts; begin with one of these rhythmic cells as a basis. Once you have this simple starting point, begin to intuitively add other notes until you have a fuller sounding percussion part. However, be careful not to overcrowd the percussion part, as this may hide the tango pulse. Also, be careful not to add too many short notes; try to make quaver notes (eighth-notes) the shortest notes that you use. Look at this example to get an idea how to make a successful tango percussion part:

Tango Percussion


Most tangos begin in a minor key, reflecting the serious nature of the dance (indeed, most dancers keep stern faces when dancing tangos). When starting out, the easiest key to use is the harmonic minor, but all minor key variations are fine to use. Melodies also tend to use lots of chromatic notes, so use these to fill in any gaps between tones in your melody. Rhythmically, melodies can move either with your bass line, or they can play flowing straight notes to contrast the dotted rhythms in the other instruments. Moving by step, or by leap is equally okay (as long as the melody works with the harmony!) so as long as your melody sounds musical, it’s okay!

Bellow are a few examples of the type melodic ideas that work in tangos:

Tango Melody


Tangos use relatively simple harmony, which contrasts the more complicated rhythms and melodies. The main chords used when the music is in the minor key are the chords i, iv, V7 and VI. In A minor these chords would be A minor, D minor, E7 and F major. In most tangos, the harmony comes out through the bass line, or a through a piano accompaniment.

Composing A Tango From Scratch

The first step to writing your first tango is sketching out a chord sequence and a bass part. To begin, make an 8 bar chord sequence using only the four allowed chords. The most important two chords are i and V7, so use these most of all!

Here are some examples of typical 8 bar chord sequences:

Example 1: Am |Am |E7 |E7 |E7 |E7 |Am |Am |
Example 2: Am |Dm |E7 |Am |Am |Dm |F |E7 |

To make your bass part, start by copying one of the tango rhythms into your bass line.

The first note of every bar should be the root of the harmony. So for an A minor chord, move first note in the bar should be an A, and for and E7 chord the first note should be an E. The remaining notes can be any pitched from any note in the chord. This includes the 7th if your using the V7 chord. Examples of bass lines can be seen below.

Composing A Tango From Scratch - Bass

Now, using your chord sequence and a bass pattern like the ones above, construct a skeleton score like the one bellow:

Composing A Tango From Scratch - Skeleton

Now that you have your skeleton score, begin to add a melody. You can try to add one of the melodies you made earlier, or make a new one specifically to fit the harmony. Most melodies should work; though make sure you have some consonant notes in every bar! If your melody doesn’t seem to fit the harmony, try checking whether you can fit more consonant notes into your melody. If you can’t add any more notes and the melody still doesn’t fit, then you can add more chromatic scales to the melody to help mask this. As mentioned earlier, melodies in tangos tend to be chromatic. The melody doesn’t have to be too fancy however, just look at the example below made when using the skeleton score above:

Composing A Tango From Scratch - Skeleton With Melody

Once you have got a melody and harmony that works well together, repeat these steps to create another 8 bars of music. Try to make these a bit different from the first bars, either by making the rhythms more complex, or by making the melody more chromatic. If you arrange your music later on, then arrange these bars differently to the first. An example of the sort of contrast you might want can be seen below:

Composing A Tango From Scratch - Contrast

We now have two sections of music written, both of them in a minor key. Two thirds of your tango is now composed.
For the final composed section of a tango, we need to modulate to the relative major. If you are using A minor so far, then we now will move to C major. We can extend the chords we can use to make harmony to I, ii, iii, IV, V7 and vi to help once again build our 8 bar skeleton score. As before, add a bass part, and then a melody, aiming to make this section sound a bit different from the other two.

Finishing Your Piece

Use your 8 bar sections, to form a structure akin to the one below:

Section A (8 Bars) -> Section B (8 Bars) -> Section C (8 Bars) -> Section A (8 Bars)

If you want to make the piece longer, you can repeat each section. You can also add an introduction or a separate ending based upon the material you’ve created to make the piece even more musical.

Add your percussion part you created at the very beginning, and if you want, you can also add your own drum fills every four, eight or sixteen bars.

In essence, you now have successfully completed writing a tango. To develop your material further, you may consider arranging the material for a different ensemble.

Another way of developing your piece is by adding a second (or even third) melody. You can use a second melody antiphonally, as a call and response feature with your existing melody. If you have less space for call and response type melodies, you can use harmonize the melody in thirds or sixths (but be careful in the places you have use chromaticism!)

Congratulations on composing your first tango!

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