The Origins and Influences of Tango Music.

When Did Tango Music Originate?

Dan Farrant is the founder of Hello Music Theory and plays guitar, piano and bass guitar. He loves teaching music and has helped thousands of students unlock the joy of learning.

The tango was born around the turn of the century when massive European immigration to Argentina brought with it many influences. It developed into a respectable middle-class genre with Carlos Gardel as its star.


Tango developed around the turn of the century in the Buenos Aires melting pot of cultures. Immigrants from Europe – Italy, France, Germany, Britain and Russia – mixed with earlier generations of settlers of all races from other South American countries to create a unique dance and music.

These immigrants also brought the bandoneon, a large accordion like instrument, that is an essential part of tango music. This tango music evolved into its own unique style with the addition of such famous singers as Carlos Gardel and the growth of ensemble bands (orquesta tipica) of violin, flute, piano, double bass and two bandoneons. Suddenly, this music was no longer just associated with lower class clubs and brothels and entered polite society in Argentina. It also spread to the rest of the world, where it gained tremendous popularity.


In the late 1800s massive waves of immigration to Buenos Aires and Montevideo gave birth to a new musical genre. Local indigenous musical styles (like payáda and milonga) mixed with African candombe, Spanish-Cuban habanera, European waltz, polka and mazurka, and Neapolitan song influences.

By the ’20s, Carlos Gardel made singing tango acceptable to middle-class Argentines. He popularized tango-canción by adding lyrics to existing tunes such as Pascual Contursi’s 1917 Mi Noche Triste, which tells the story of an abandoned lover.

In the 1930s, Juan d’Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi revived instrumental Tango with an emphasis on melody and speed. They also created the standard Tango sextet: two bandoneons, two violins and piano. This ushered in the Golden Age of Tango. However, by the 1950s, tango lost popularity to Rock and Roll and other youth cultures.


Until the 1920s, most tango musicians were self-taught. Then the classically trained players came along. They introduced a complexity and elegance to the music that made it less easy to dance to. But this did not take away from its popularity with the dancers.

In the late 1800s, tango developed in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It grew out of the fusion of European salon music and dance traditions (like the minuet) and African rhythms, such as those found in the Cuban habanera.

The first recordings began to appear and were recorded on anything from a single singer accompanying himself with a guitar to large orchestras. One of the earliest stars was Carlos Gardel who became an international tango sensation, film star and sex symbol, only to be tragically killed in a plane crash.


The tango uses several techniques. It often has a strong melancholic mood, with nostalgic lyrics and sudden changes in dynamics, slides (glissandi) and improvised melodies. Rhythmic variations, accents and the use of different voices are also used.

The bandoneon is the most characteristic instrument of tango music. This free-reed concertina with bellows that can be opened and closed by pressing buttons was probably brought to Argentina around the turn of the century. It is fiendishly difficult to play, but it creates the distinctive sound of tango.

The tango became very popular in the early 1900s, with Carlos Gardel being the biggest singer of the time and ushering in tango’s golden age. But the coup of 1955 that overthrew the nationalistic Peronist government discouraged Argentine music and made public dances illegal.


In the 1920s violinist Julio De Caro formed a classically trained orchestra and recreated Tango, making it more elegant, complex and refined (and slowing the tempo). It was this style that established the Golden Age of Tango music.

The bandoneon, a square-shaped concertina/accordion with bellows and buttons like a piano, is the main instrument in most tango music. It was invented in Germany by Heinrich Band, and arrived in Argentina and Uruguay by the end of the 19th century.

The most famous tango singer of all time is Carlos Gardel, who rose from poverty to international fame as a singer, actor and sex symbol of the times, until his tragic death at age 44. He is credited with popularizing singing tango, and is considered the creator of classic tango lyrics.

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