“How strange the change from major to minor” – Ella Fitzgerald in “Ev’ry time we say goodbye”
Minor and major keys of 203 tango scores
To retune tangos to their original speed and pitch, I often check the original score to see in which key or keys it is. The key indicates which scale is used. Scales have different numbers of flats and sharps, shown in the key signature. For every key signature there is one major and one minor scale. For example one ♭ is F major or D minor. The final chord or bass note of a piece can help determining which one it is.
I selected a sample of 203 tango scores to analyze keys and major and minor key change (modulation) in tango. Modulation is a change to another key: for example C major (C) to C minor (Cm) or to A minor (Am).
Are all tangos in minor?
Most tangos have a minor and a major part. These are mostly verse and chorus (refrán or estribillo), but Guardia Vieja tangos often add a third part called Trio.
Of the sample of 203 scores, one-third start in major and the other two-thirds start in minor.
Of all tangos starting in major, two-thirds modulate to a minor part while one-third is completely in major. Of all 203 scores 11% are completely in major; 1 out of 9 tangos.
Almost half of the tangos starting in minor have no modulation but stay in the same minor key. The other half of the tangos starting in minor has a change to a major key.
68% starts in minor:
- 31% starts in minor, no modulation
- 37% starts in minor, modulation to major
- 0% starts in minor, modulation to another minor (only “Naipe”)
32% starts in major:
- 8% starts in major, no modulation
- 21% starts in major, modulation to minor
- 3% starts in major, modulation to another major (only 7 scores)
Wild or subtle minor-major modulations
Let’s first stop the babylonian confusion in modulation names:
Same base note (C major and C minor): relative key = Paralleltonart (Ger), tonalidad homónima (Sp), tonalité parallèle (Fr)
Same key signature (C major and A minor): parallel key = Varianttonart (Ger), tonalidad relativa (Sp) relative majeure / mineure (Fr)
A wild change to a key that has totally different notes (a remote modulation) almost never occurs in tango.
Relative modulation is a subtle change to the relative major or minor key. Every major key has a corresponding minor key which uses exactly the same notes of the scale (e.g. A minor and C major). They use the same scale, only starting from another note. Because the relative major and minor key use the same sharps or flats, this change is not indicated by a different key signature. Only examining the chords reveals this relative major-minor change.
Most common in tango is parallel modulation: C minor to C major, D minor to D major etc. This parallel modulation is more noticeable because in the new scale three notes are altered (e.g. e turns into e-sharp). It is also very obvious in the score because the number of flats of sharps changes, requiring another key signature.
How does it sound? All those words: Let’s hear how it sounds. An example on my piano:
Relative modulation (two times A minor cadence & two times C major cadence)
Parallel modulation (two times C minor cadence & two times C major cadence)
Type of modulation in sample of 203 tango scores:
|parallel||43%||e.g. C minor to C major, new key signature|
|relative||13%||e.g. A minor to C major, same key signature|
As you see, most tangos use a parallel modulation but there are also many tangos that have no modulation and thus no minor-major change.
Sometimes a new part starts modulated, but the new key is used only for a few bars. This is no real modulation because it is not established by a cadence of chords belonging to that key (e.g. Vendrás alguna vez).
Tangos in major
Tangos in the sample that are only in major, without modulation are:
Boedo, Cambalache, Como dos extraños. Don Esteban, El retobao, Esta noche de luna, Melodía porteña, Nada, Nido gaucho, Nueve puntos, Pero yo sé, Por la vuelta, T.B.C., Tarareando, Uno, Vendrás alguna vez.
Tangos that modulate from one major to another major key:
Bajo Belgrano, El entrerriano, Retirao, Tierra negra, Tierrita, Tinta verde, Un copetín.
The real thing: audio examples of modulation in tangos