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The Story Behind the Tango Song " Por una Cabeza" by Gardel and Le Pera

“Por una Cabeza” is one of the most well-known “tango” music created in 1935. Carlos Gardel composed the music and Alfredo Le Pera wrote the lyrics. The title “Por una Cabeza” means “with a head (of a horse)” in Spanish. It is widely considered by listeners as an iconic piece and has been utilized effectively by the popular culture.

Painting of man & woman dancing Tango


The title offers reference to horse racing and laments a comparison between “losing a woman” and “losing at the racetrack.” It portrays the story of a man who lost everything after betting on a horse race, including the woman he admires. “Por una Cabeza,” i.e., “to lose by a head,” signifies the distance his horse lost in that race. It also carries a tragic story behind it, as both the composer/singer Carlos Gardel and the lyricist Alfredo Le Pera passed away on June 24, 1935 in a devastating plane crash.     

Tango Music

Originated in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this distinctive style carved its own niche among the African slave population and European immigrants of Argentina. It draws parallels to the evolution of the modern tango dance form. Tango music draws inspiration from the “milonga and candombe,” “valso criolo,” “contradanse,” “habanera,” “mazurika,” “polka,” and “flamenco.” These are famous musical dance forms. The instruments frequently used are double bass and flute, violin, piano, bandoneon, guitar, etc. Traditional tango music utilizes both solo instruments and ensemble orchestras; the latter usually comprises at least two bandoneóns and violins, double bass, piano, and flute. While usage of vocalists, clarinets and solo guitars are rare, they are commonly found as a part of tango music ensembles.

In the case of modern tango music, the rhythm holds either the 4/4 or 2/4 beats per measure with two upbeats and downbeats each. It also offers frequent usage of nostalgic lyrics and accented notes combined with the employment of “glissandi slides,” “staccato,” and sudden alteration of dynamics. It oozes an intense, albeit melancholic mood while offering ample freedom for improvisation stimulated by its jazz origins. Tango music consisting of only beats is unusual and sporadic. The traditional musical law in tango music states that – the more “sensual” or “romantic” the piece, the musical ensemble will provide a greater emphasis on melody, rather than the underlying rhythm and beat.


Carlos Gardel was the shiniest star in the stratosphere of tango music, and history would have been quite different without his contributions. His transformation from a folk singer to a reputed international sensation in tango music was captivating, and his subsequent death attracted even more fame. He served as the proprietor of tango music, which was considered as the music of the lower class, and successfully helped it gain apprehension among the middle and upper-class audiences.    

In “Por una Cabeza,” the mood on offer is more passionate and vivid, even when the chord hits G minor. The G major chord offers composure, while sudden subtle changes in G minor evoke the audience’s interest, offering the pungent side of the piece. The chords “C minor” and “G minor” both add sentiment and intensity to the music, eventually reaching its climax. It expresses femininity in abundance, transferring the delicate ardor directly to the listeners. 

In 1935, Carlos Gardel sang “Por una Cabeza” in the movie titled “Tango Bar.” It is a mellow side of tango that offers a distinct rhythm which makes it a suitable dance number. Due to this characteristic, it was prevalently utilized and recorded by the majority of the orchestras in the 1940s and 1950s.  

Usage in Popular Culture

  • “Por una Cabeza” has been utilized multiple times throughout the popular culture, particularly in Hollywood.
  • In the 1992 masterpiece “Scent of a Woman, the legendary actor Al Pacino can be seen dancing to this piece. In the film, "Por una Cabeza" is played by a violinist Stan Kurtis, pianist Michael Sahl, accordionist William Schimmel of the group The Tango Project. Stan Kurtis also appeared in that particular dancing scene with Al Pacino.  
  • In 1993, the piece is used in the movie “Schindler's List” to portray the protagonist’s “addiction towards women.” It offers a brilliant parallel to the film’s subtext.    
  • In 1994, it was used twice in the movie “True Lies” in separate dance sequences. At first, the protagonist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) dances to its tune with a woman who was a spy.  And finally, he danced with his wife in the ending. The fun fact is, the renowned actor struggled while performing the simplest of steps of this tango, as he was clumsy. So, the dance scenes were filmed from his waist up.   
  • In the 2002 film, “Frida” starring Salma Hayek, the character Gardel performs it on the radio.
  • In 2003, “Por una Cabeza” was used in a dance sequence in the movie “Bad Santa.”
  • In the 2006 movie “All the King's Men,” the protagonist watches on as a Ballerina performs the song.  
  • In 2008, actors Jessica Biel and Colin Firth danced the tango to this track in the film “Easy Virtue.”


Chords are extremely significant when it comes to the transference of mood, especially conveying them to the audience. The G-major chord in “Por una Cabeza” reminds the listeners of a butterfly and flower, while the shift to G-minor chord offers a delectable taste of love and a woman wearing red lipstick. The chords in this piece perform a magnificent job, crafting an entire world of imagination. This legendary tango is inspired by the polarity between the fiery passion in the minor chords and the fresh sweetness evoked by the major chords.


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