“La Paloma” — a Beautiful Spanish Tango for the Mountain Dulcimer

I first “discovered” the Spanish love song, “La Paloma ” (meaning the dove), several years ago while searching for a sassy Latin tango to play on our mountain dulcimers. We needed a tune to illustrate a dance beat for a book which children’s librarian, Bonnie, was narrating. The book included songs with various rhythms and moods and included a waltz, reel, polka, tango, a sad song and a happy song.  We were having a difficult time coming up with a tango which we could all play. Eventually my research led to “La Paloma,” a Spanish tango. I became fascinated with the tune and history and learned that it dates from the 1850’s. It is one of the most well-known Spanish tangos known around the world. It is a beautiful tune and I am pleased with the arrangement for mountain dulcimer that I eventually was able to accomplish — and play! I hope you like it, too.

“La Paloma” History

“La Paloma” means “The Dove” and it was written and composed in the 1850’s by the Spanish composer, Sebastián Iradier (1809-1865) from the Basque region of Spain. He later became known as Sebastián Yradier and this name is used as a credit on most sheet music. The song is in the style of music known as “Habaneras”, a contradance type of music which appeared in Cuban in the early 1800’s. It was brought back by Spanish sailors returning from their travels. In fact, Yradier visited Cuba in 1861. The song is written in the 2/4 time meter. It has an introduction and then several 16 measure sections played in AABB sequence. The rhythm is a tango rhythm with a dotted eighth note, a 16th note and then two eight notes. The first section if a habanera is typically minor and the second is major — although this particular song does not have a minor key section.

“La Paloma” quickly became popular outside of Spain, especially in Mexico, and is known around the world.  In fact, it is probably the most recorded Spanish song including well-known singers,  musicians and orchestras in many styles of music — vocal, string quartet, orchestra, guitar and even ukulele. It has been recorded by Elvis Presley (known as the song, “No More”),  Julio Iglesias, Billy Vaughin and Pepe Romero (guitar).  In Zanzibar the tune is played at the end of weddings, in Romania the song is sung at the end of funerals, in Mexico it is known as the “second anthem” and in Germany as a sailor’s lament.  I even found a U-Tube video of the Moscow orchestra and an opera singer performing the song. Unfortunately, Yradier died in obscurity before he knew how popular his song would become. But. great songs endure the test to time; and this one has succeeded.


I found many versions of lyrics associated with sheet music for “La Paloma.” It seems that the song’s lyrics have been adapted over time. According to Wikipedia, white doves were found on Persian war ships and were used as homing pigeons. In 492 BC, during Persia’s invasion of Greece,  the Persian fleet was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Greece. The white doves were released from the sinking ships — birds which the Greeks had never seen. So the lyrics reflect the theme that love overcomes death and separation.

“La Paloma” Sheet Music

Since the song was composed in the 1850’s, it is in the public domain. There are several versions registered for copyright status with the Library of Congress dating to the late 1800’s. Some of these have been microfilmed and are available in Library of Congress internet music collections. So it is possible to find and download very early versions of the song! I was able to purchase a version on Amazon which dates from 1920 for a nominal fee. This sheet music is true to the melody of the song, although the lyrics differ from some of the other versions.

Playing the tune of the dulcimer

I first arranged this song for the mountain dulcimer several years when our small dulcimer group, “Gator Girls,” played various songs to illustrate the children’s book, “Giraffes Can’t Dance.”  We recently got out our music again and made a recording for the internet of Bonnie narrating the book. This time I tweaked the tune just a bit as a solo piece for an individual dulcimer player.

So, here is my newest version of the song. It is a beautiful love song, a tango. It is very melodic — no drones, please — and smooth. Play with emotion. I could play it for hours!  The tune and my arrangement are intended for an advanced players — with practice, it is achievable.  The dulcimer plays all the parts of the “orchestra” — melody, harmony and rhythm. The tablature is intended as a guide — fill in notes on the middle and bass strings to achieve a balance.

Tempo: The song is a tango. The rhythm in my tab is a dotted quarter note, eighth note followed by two quarter notes. However, many of the U-Tube videos which I watched, such as the string ensemble, didn’t have a dominant beat.  The song is played at a moderate tempo which is  “allegretto” at a rate of 96 to 108 beats per minute (use a metronome). This is not a fast fiddle tune. Although it has a “tango” tempo, the song should be played smoothly and evenly. There are lots of triplets in the song which adds to the challenge, especially for a group of players trying to stay together.

Tuning: I found the song noted in sheet music in many different keys including the Keys of C, D and G. It fits well in the Key of D in DAD tuning. And it does not use a 1-1/2 fret!  There is one note the middle string at the 6-1/2 fret, but most contemporary dulcimers have this fret.

Meter: Although this tango is found in sheet music in the 2/4 meter, I changed the dulcimer tablature to a 4/4 time signature. It is just much simpler for most dulcimer players to read the notes this way. However, there are no “bum-diddy” strums in this song.

Strum or Fingerpick: I like to fingerpick the notes/frets and fill in the measures with additional notes on the other strings. You may prefer to flatpick or strum the song — either is okay. However, the tab is intended as a guide.  Since this is an advanced level song, it is assumed that the dulcimer player will fill in the notes/measures with additional strums to create a pleasing arrangement.

I added harmony notes on the middle string and I think this adds to the appeal of my arrangement. This song does not lend itself to “drones” on the other strings, so play all the notes. However, there are only two chords in the song — D and A — so it is simple from that standpoint. Part C has a challenging section run of notes, so for these measures, I fingerpick only on the melody string. I don’t strum across the strings at this point. You will see.

Triplets: This song includes many triplets. This means that three quarter notes are played in the time span of two quarter note beats. You must squeeze or crowd in the notes — play them just slightly faster than a usual.  Triplets are different than a 3/4 or 6/8 time meter where the notes are played on the beat. With triplets, they are played slightly faster than the beat. Use a metronome to see where the beat falls.

Intro, Parts A, B and C and “Refrain.” This song has an introduction which sets the mood with the typical tango (almost) rhythm.  This song has a Part A, B and C. Parts A and B both repeat. However, the Part C melody is slightly different in several measures and doesn’t repeat. The sheet music I used as a guide had an unusual refrain at the end of the song. I think it adds to the climate of the tune and so I included it. The song ends with a “bang” at the end of the refrain.

This is a beautiful tune. It does take a while to learn but it is the type of tune that you don’t tire playing, so play it for hours!  Enjoy!

Here is the tune, following these images is a PDF file that you can download.

Here is a PDF file that you can download.


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