Saturday, 6 February 2010

Tones

If you are a native speaker of any language at all in which pitch is not relevant to the meaning (this includes, among many others, all the Indo-European languages), just try correctly pronouncing a short sentence of Mandarin.

Try to hear the difference between , , and [links from about.com], and then try to reproduce one rather than another, on purpose, in a sentence - that is, without it being distorted by the sounds around it. To me, these are all self-evidently the same sound, with minor variations of emphasis; it's not that they sound the same — they don't — but that they are the same. But to a native speaker of Mandarin (or presumably any tonal language with at least four tones) these four words are as self-evidently different from each other as the characters with which they're written.

In my language, pitch is meaningless, except in as far as it tells me something about how the speaker feels about what they are saying, or whereabouts we are in the sentence. It's not that pitch isn't there; it's just that it doesn't matter for deciding whether two sounds are the same word or not. Therefore, I don't listen for it, I don't know how to listen for it, and I only hear its emotional content. In Mandarin, it matters.

On top of that, I can't easily produce one of those sounds rather than another, at will. I might be able to do them in isolation, but if I attempt it with other sounds as well, I'll probably get the wrong one, and even if I hear myself recorded I may not be able to tell what I did wrong, and even if I can tell that something is wrong, I may not be able to correct it because I simply don't have precise control at that detailed level over the pitch of a sound that I produce in speaking. That is a physical skill, a skill which I have never learned. Obviously the pitch of my speech does vary quite a lot, and I may have some control over the overall pitch of a word or sentence, but within a syllable I don't think I can vary it deliberately at all.

I have quite a big problem to solve, close-enough, before I can reliably distinguish one word from another, and a bigger one to solve before I can utter the simplest sentence.

However, if I kept on trying through frustration and bafflement, I would probably get there in the end. Adult native English speakers do regularly learn to speak Sinitic languages correctly, when they have the motivation and appropriate teaching. People learn languages all the time, and have done so since the dawn of time. It's the kind of thing that's made very difficult at school, but isn't such a huge deal in practice when people have someone they want to talk to and a real, immediate, practical something to say.

The reason I say this here is that I think a lot of people who do have the relevant skills don't really believe or understand, and can't remember or imagine, that some people just have no idea at all how to go about starting to tell the difference between a milonga and a vals. They may sound ‘a bit different’, if compared immediately one after the other, even quite a lot different, as mā (‘mother’) and mǎ (‘horse’) sound ‘different’ to me — but what the difference consists of they may be wholly unable to say. They may certainly not be able to identify one or the other in isolation. They may look for the difference in completely the wrong place. They may construct, and use for many years, some rule-of-thumb that is apparently plausible, somewhat reliable, and totally erroneous. And the difference between milonga or vals and a tango may appear to be nothing more than speed.

I have frequently danced with people who have multiple years of tango experience and are totally unable to identify a vals. At least one of them simply danced it as milonga (a strange but rather interesting experience).

My analogy with language may not be valid, but I think it helps imagination. What I want to suggest is that it doesn't necessarily mean there's a defect of ear or brain. It's a matter of learning how to pay attention to the right things at the right level of detail; a matter of learning what part of the sound is important. At some point you have to do that, and not everyone has done it in advance.

35 comments:

Linda said...

So true. I love the vals but sometimes I have partners who can't identify it. To me, it has a rolling sort of feel to it, far beyond the 1-2-3. I've started using a little body English to tell 'em the rhythm, when they are open to it. And when I'm not dancing to it, I sway in time, hoping that, by osmosis, they might get it...

londontango said...

In my first year of Tango, Corrientes had invited a teacher, a musician/composer (whose name I can never remember)who taught a class on musicality, very rare in those days. He played three different songs and just asked people to dance them. Most everyone danced exactly the same except at different speeds. He played a Tango, a Vals and a Milonga. I thought he was going to cry. Then he tried to teach the class how to dance to the different types of music.
I think that there are men that know the difference, but they just stick to what they are comfortable doing. I have done what Linda does, but it is useless.
Now I really understand what one of my Argentine friends meant when he said that he chooses this one for DiSarli, or that one for a vals, and this one for milongas, or that one for....

ghost said...

In defence of the men - seriously listen to any piece of tango. There's a lot going on. How on earth am I supposed to recognise that the ta-da-bom-bom part of it means it's a milonga, without being told?! It's far more reasonable to go "Oh they're the fast ones". Wrong, but more reasonable.

I also think a lot of men feel hard done by with Vals and Milonga. We came to learn Tango. It's hard enough as it is! And now you want us to learn two more dances? If that wasn't bad enough, if you don't dance vals and milonga you can end up automatically sitting out for half the night!

msHedgehog said...

@Linda - yes, those things work sometimes, but not nearly as well as actually explaining.

@londontango - I can see why he'd want to cry. Not knowing where people actually were, he'd prepared a class at the wrong level. That's a very awkward situation. Of course you are right that some people don't want to know, so maybe there's yet another stage of explaining why it matters and persuading them that it does. That's an interesting thing to think about, how would you go about that? The teaching of musical awareness has moved on, but how do you convince someone to want it?

@Ghost - my point exactly.

ghost said...

On wanting musical awareness.

I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the sequence paradigm of dancing is fundamentally flawed.

And that musicality actually delivers what sequences only promises. That I think is the way forward.

msHedgehog said...

@ghost - it's always seemed a bit backwards to me. Paradoxically, I think the normal kind of class is often more helpful to the followers than it is to the leaders, even though we think they're only talking to the leaders.

Game Cat said...

Okay - this is a rant.

Maybe in the first class, the teacher should just play a few songs and ask "Do you like this? Do you want to move to it? Does it move you? Here's a free CD of Carlos Di Sarli to take home. Listen to it this week and if you don't like it, don't bother coming back next week. It will save you money, save me time and save other men/ women whom you will never meet a lot of pain".

Results: less crowded milongas + better dances. Simples!

Self-selection at its best.

msHedgehog said...

Hehehehe. It does quite often grow on people, to be fair, and it can take a while. But it would certainly make sense to me to give some thought to the music used in week 1, and act like it mattered. It would save a ton of time and heartache. But depends what you think you're selling, I suppose.

Did you see Claire's nice little email today saying what the music would be for a class, and suggesting that people prepare? Things are different.

londontango said...

I know men that know the difference but prefer to dance to a Tango.
Ghost, there are more Tangos than vals or milongas and if the DJ is playing well, there will be 9-12 tangos to every set of vals or milonga as there really aren't many of those. So there is no reason to be sitting out much if you don't want to dance them. Either that or get a new DJ. I'm not buying your lazy logic. :)
I personally love the vals and get quite disappointed when there aren't many men who dance to them or dance them like a tango. It's a floaty dance and I feel like a princess when I dance it with a good partner.
Milongas are fun for different reasons, but most guys think that it should be a race around the dancefloor.
If people bothered to listen to the first few bars (or more) of the music before trying to dance straight away, then they would know what they are dancing to. I am surprised about how unaware of the music some people are.
For me, the music came before the dance. I guess with TV shows, the dance is before the music, and in my mind that would make things more difficult.

ghost said...

@LT I was pretty sure the pattern is
Tanda Tango
Tanda Vals
Tanda Tango
Tanda Milonga

hence 50/50. Though in fairness London DJing varies considerably.

NB Looking on the net it seems to be
"2 tango - 1 vals -2 tango -1 milonga"

but that's still a third of dances gone :(

Andreas said...

@ghost: The "accepted" method is indeed TTVTTM. On top of that, most DJs play only 3 milongas per tanda (some do the same for valses), while tango tandas typically consist of 4 tracks.
I suggest instead of having to sit out a third of the evening one could do something about the deficit: listen to vals and milonga a lot and practice. It is not that difficult really. Get to know the music.
Or you could just be ok with not dancing to every single tanda. But that should be a matter of taste, not of skill I think.
LT has a point with "listen first, then start dancing". I am always amazed when I see people enter the dance floor before they even know what the tanda will be. As if the music didn't matter...

LimerickTango said...

On setting out the music before the class: Great idea, fantastic even. I've always had problems in classes that were based around specific vals or milonga rhythm variations. It'll take a while for my ear to pick up on the variation that is being pointed out and another while for my body to catch up. Usually I manage to finally complete whatever was being taught later in the milonga completely out of the blue.

LimerickTango said...

"I think a lot of people who do have the relevant skills don't really believe or understand, and can't remember or imagine, that some people just have no idea at all how to go about starting to tell the difference between a milonga and a vals"

It's not just telling the difference. It's very had to find a dancer that can understand or remember what it's like to not know how to dance.

ghost said...

@Andreas

Good to know, though London DJing is I think too chaotic for that at the moment.

I agree it's a matter of taste
"I know men that know the difference but prefer to dance to a Tango." ~Londontango

My point was that if you wanted to learn tango and were then told sorry a third of the dances will be in different styles which you don't like, you might be a bit agrieved and spend time in nuevo rooms instead...

Imagine if wherever you danced tango a third of the tracks were by Michael Jackson....

ghost said...

Thinking about it some more, another fundamental problem is that Vals and Milonga are rarely taught in "standard" tango classes. So you have to go to workshops, unlikely if you don't enjoy them. The milonga workshops will most likely teach you sequences that take up huge amounts of floor space. Vals workshops will most likely teach you sequences that involve repeatedly stepping back against the line of dance. Both will often cheerfully ignore how the music works.

So how are leaders going to get the knowledge that MsH is talking about, assuming they even want it in the first place?

msHedgehog said...

@Limerick - he shoots, he scores! I'm glad I actually managed to make that point and didn't imagine it. All more or less tangentially relevant, but ... I knew I was taking a risk, putting it so far down.

I think it's totally ok not to dance to what just doesn't work for you for the time being. In fact it's a good thing.

As far as skill's concerned I think milonga and vals are both easier than tango, but that's just my opinion. If I was learning to lead I'd definitely go straight for milonga. Bigger payoff for the effort to get competent.

Game Cat said...

Okay...rant no. 2.

Maybe tango classes should have homework EVERY WEEK for the lazy whining gits. "Right, next week - D'Arienzo. Failure to comply with at least 2 of the contra-tiempos in Corrientes y Esmeralda will NOT BE TOLERATED!!! You will dance to it until you hit them all, or the hour is up. Class dismissed. Have a nice weekend."

Re the 3 dances: Personally I like tango best. I think for the men, learning Milonga and Vals gives one useful skills that are applicable to Tango. M and V also have "easier" compas to pick up, so you can focus on other things. Like being deft, decisive and well balanced.

ghost said...

@Gamecat

Claire Lowe is more at the "Care Bear" end of the spectrum than the "Fascist Schoolmistress" end, but basically yesterday's and next week's classes were a kinder version of what you describe :o)

Game Cat said...

Ghost: LOL. Now that we're clear about Claire, where would you put Andreas in that very apt spectrum you just defined?

ghost said...

@Gamecat

Hee, i think we've found an essential missing element of MsH's reviews. In future, all teachers should be rated on that scale ;o)

LimerickTango said...

"If I was learning to lead I'd definitely go straight for milonga. Bigger payoff for the effort to get competent."

I am seriously considering changing my beginners classes to milonga for those very reasons.

ghost said...

@LimerickTango

Yeah but doesn't the
8Tango, 3Vals, 8Tango, 3Milonga

basically mean they're barely going to get any dances socially? I get a woman doing it because she's probably just going to lead one or two tanda for the evening. But for guys, ouch. Plus to be honest if I'd turned up to my first tango lesson expecting this zenlike viscous dance and got milonga instead, I wouldn't have come back.

Game Cat said...

I think introducing some milonga amidst beginner tango classs can have benefits.

1) It's less "serious", helps to alleviate stress and keep people interested.

2) Milonga is very rhythm-driven. If you don't get it, you crash and burn publicly. So they learn the importance of listening to and stepping on the beats.

3) As I said before, you learn to be deft, accurate and lead with a light touch. All applicable to tango and vals.

4) The above 'cross-training' benefits are less if you do vals imho. E.g. the 'floatiness' partly comes from keeping your centre of gravity higher than normal, while in my (limited) experience the majority of beginners need to learn to keep it lower.

LimerickTango said...

@Ghost: and that is why it is still at the serious consideration stage. Yes labelling a class as tango and then teaching milonga would lead to war. I'm a great believer in 'The description of goods and services' myself. But the benefits that Game Cat listed are there. If I knew how to package it properly I'd go ahead with it.

ghost said...

@LimerickTango

How about something like

"Tango Skills" - class suitable for all levels including beginners, focussing on important fundamental skills to improve your tango.

Based on that description, as a student I'd give you a lot of leeway on the methodology provided I felt at the end / over next few weeks that you'd delivered.

Chris, UK said...

Arlene wrote:

> there will be 9-12 tangos to every
> set of vals or milonga as there
> really aren't many of those.

The reason less vals or milonga is played has nothing to to with the fact that less is available. The evening's music is tango with short breaks of vals and milonga. /Breaks/ note. That (and only that) is why good DJs don't start or end with vals or milonga or follow vals with milonga.

Chris, UK said...

Ghost wrote:

> I was pretty sure the pattern is
>
> Tanda Tango
> Tanda Vals
> Tanda Tango
> Tanda Milonga
>
> hence 50/50.

That's a really sad indication of how little difference some people hear between tango and the others.

Chris, UK said...

Ghost wrote:

> So how are leaders going to get
> the knowledge that MsH is talking
> about

They could try the method that worked for the first 100 years of tango dancing, before classes were invented, and still works for every good dancer today.

Listen to the music.

ghost said...

@Chris
"That's a really sad indication of how little difference some people hear between tango and the others."
Nah it's a sad reflection on how chaotic the ordering of music is in London. The ratio I thought it was is based on is just something I remembered wrongly. If I didn't know what vals and milonga were, I wouldn't dislike them now would I ;o)?

As for learning musicality by listening to the music. Times change. Just because something worked ina set-up 100 years ago doesn't mean it works now. Think someone who could drive one of the first cars could handle one of todays?

http://www.learningtango.com/TangoOfZero/NativeMusicality.html

Chris, UK said...

> As for learning musicality by
> listening to the music.

The skill under dsicussion is simply "telling the difference between a milonga and a vals".

> Times change. Just because something
> worked ina set-up 100 years ago
> doesn't mean it works now.

It does work now. Just about anyone today having a feeling for music can tell milonga from vals ... despite that so many trying to learn to dance cannot.

> Think someone who could drive
> one of the first cars could
> handle one of todays?

Think milonga and vals have changed as much as cars? I don't.

ghost said...

The skill under dsicussion is simply "telling the difference between a milonga and a vals".

*shrug* I'd call that musicality -
from the almighty Wikipedia
"Musicality is a noun that means sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music"

"It does work now. Just about anyone today having a feeling for music can tell milonga from vals ... despite that so many trying to learn to dance cannot."

Doesn't really gel with

"They may sound ‘a bit different’, if compared immediately one after the other, even quite a lot different, as mā (‘mother’) and mǎ (‘horse’) sound ‘different’ to me — but what the difference consists of they may be wholly unable to say. They may certainly not be able to identify one or the other in isolation. They may look for the difference in completely the wrong place. They may construct, and use for many years, some rule-of-thumb that is apparently plausible, somewhat reliable, and totally erroneous. And the difference between milonga or vals and a tango may appear to be nothing more than speed.

I have frequently danced with people who have multiple years of tango experience and are totally unable to identify a vals. At least one of them simply danced it as milonga (a strange but rather interesting experience)."


"Think milonga and vals have changed as much as cars? I don't."
I think tango dancers have though.

msHedgehog said...

I think yous are discussing a couple of different things which I conflated a bit in my post.

People who aren't interested in music are one thing; an adult who is not sincerely interested in a thing will not learn it.

People who *are* interested rarely have trouble *telling* the difference, and that's where I conflated things with a somewhat irrelevant example that just happened to be in my mind. My (intended) point was that even being able to *tell* the difference doesn't mean you *know* the difference in a directly useful way, and doesn't automatically mean you can figure out how to dance to it, especially under the fairly confusing conditions of London. You may or may not get that knowledge eventually, by Chris's immersion method, and that is an interesting question, but the question I am presently curious about is, can intelligent and conscientious teaching do better, and achieve success with at least some students who would otherwise have achieved it far more slowly or not at all?

My observation in life is that it can, and my observation in the post is that it ought to be thought about in an imaginative way, and tried, even in cases where there is reason to suspect the person is not interested, because I am not convinced it's possible to know that that until you try at least some proven methods, or at least ask them if they are interested or not.

So there are at least two ways in which yous could disagree with me; either you might think it is *not* possible, or you might think it is undesirable - just a bad and wrong thing to do.

If you think it's wrong, there are at least two different reasons why you might think that. You might think that it harms the student in some way; or you might think that it harms you, or someone else, or the community as a whole. Or you might even think that it's wrong in some absolute or aesthetic sense without harming anybody. And there are variations on all those; but since this comment is too long already, the interested reader had better amuse herself.

NYC Tango Pilgrim said...

Interesting that you compared Tango music with Mandarin. If you think learning Mandarin is difficult, try Cantonese, which has eight tones. I think it would drive everyone crazy. :-)

And I agree with you that if one is interested in learning, one will be able to distinguish the difference, in language and in tango music. The question is that how interested one is.

Chris, UK said...

Ghost wrote:

> Doesn't really gel with
> [stuff including]
> "I have frequently danced with
> people who have multiple years
> of tango experience and are
> totally unable to identify a vals."

It gels fine... when "years of tango experience" includes no feeling for the music.

> I think tango dancers have [changed] though.

Only to the extent that so many newcomers hereabouts believe they're tango dancers, having been mislead by commercialisers who've redefined 'tango' to mean the steps they peddle in classes - often regardless of the type of the accompanying music.

Chris, UK said...

MsHedgehog hedgingly :) wrote:
You may or may not get that knowledge eventually, by Chris's immersion method

"Immersion method"?? What Chris suggested was just the experience itself, like say learning red wine from white by tasting.

but the question I am presently curious about is, can intelligent and conscientious teaching do better, and achieve success with at least some students who would otherwise have achieved it far more slowly or not at all?

Can intelligent and conscientious teaching do better for learning red wine from white, with some students who by tasting would have achieved it far more slowly or not at all??

Thing is, intelligence and conscience would advise such students to switch to a pursuit better aligned to thier abilities. We so rarely see this in tango only because intelligence and conscience is so rare in its teachers.