How to Play Brazilian Rhythms

Learn how to master Brazilian rhythms on piano with step-by-step tutorials and in-depth discussions. 

Brazil is a multicultural musical hotspot combining elements of African rhythms, European harmony styles, and Amerindian musical forms. 

The rhythm is an important part of Brazilian music, and the signature beats make your feet want to dance. 

So what sets Brazilian rhythms apart from other types of music? 

Stick around and find out!

What are the Brazilian rhythms?

Brazil has many different music styles that capture hearts worldwide. A recent study shows some of the most popular genres of endemic Brazilian music are the Sertanejo, MPB, Samba, and Forro

While there is a lot of overlap in Brazilian rhythms, each genre has unique characteristics. The following rhythms are iconically Brazilian.

Sertanejo

While samba is often associated with Brazil, Sertanejo is more popular than Samba.

Sertanejo is a type of Brazilian country music that started in the early 1900s and only grew in popularity.

It’s been the most popular genre of music in Brazil, topping even rock and pop on radio charts. Sertanejo is usually a duet between two singers with 10-string Brazilian guitars. 

MPB

MPB is short for Música Popular Brasileira, which translates simply to Brazilian Popular Music. This Brazilian rhythm came out in the late 1960s and was heavily influenced by its forerunner, the Bossa Nova. 

Brazilian Popular Music doesn’t use electric instruments, but its contemporary style has close ties with jazz and rock. Historically, since this style of Brazilian music is associated with artists, intellectuals, and student groups, the MPB is also known as “university music.”

Samba

Samba may not be the most popular rhythm in Brazil. However, it probably gets the most international recognition. Its  African and Brazilian roots emphasize the melody line using simple harmonies and an off-beat, syncopated rhythm. 

Usually, traditional African percussion instruments are responsible for keeping the beat in a Samba.

Bossa Nova

The Bossa Nova emerged in the 1950s as the new face of the Samba. This Brazilian rhythm is softer, and more sensual-sounding thanks to the influence of  American jazz. 

The lyrics focus more on love and loss, nature, and freedom.

Bossa Nova uses many of the same rhythms as the Samba. However, these rhythms are usually a much slower tempo. While Samba uses simple harmonies, Bossa Nova’s harmonies are more complex. 

Forro

Forró is a Brazilian rhythm in Northeastern Brazil that incorporates many beats and dance styles, including salsa and samba-rock. Because Forro uses a mix of so many different styles, it sounds less Brazilian than many other rhythms. 

No one is exactly sure what the name “Forro” even means. Some say that the word Forro was an abbreviation of the word Forrrbodo which means commotion or big party. The fiddle, accordion, and triangle are central to this rustic rhythm. 

Choro

Choro in Portuguese means cry or lament. This music genre was developed in Rio de Janeiro in the 1800s and is considered the first endemically Brazilian urban popular music. 

Like other types of Brazilian music styles, the Choro uses quick rhythms, syncopation, and an upbeat sound. It relies heavily on improvisation around the melody line and counterpoint

The Choro’s main instruments are flute, guitar, and a cavaquinho (a  four-stringed instrument). But you may also see a mandolin, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, or trombone in the mix.

How to play Brazilian rhythms on the piano.

Now that have a sense of some popular dance rhythms in Brazil let’s look at some of their rhythm techniques. Keep in mind that while the piano may be the number one instrument in the US, drums are the most popular in Brazil. They even have a music style, Bateria, that’s only for drums. 

So how do you translate that percussion beat to the piano? 

If you are familiar with other Latin rhythms, you know that most follow a set standard of rules–a clave. This clave sets up a pattern for rhythmic accents that you can apply to different music pieces. Latin genres such as Rumba, Mambo, Conga, Son, Salsa, Timba, Songo, and Afro-Cuban jazz all use the clave. 

However, Brazilian rhythms don’t follow a clave or any specific rules. This can make it challenging to put your finger on precisely what a Brazilian rhythm is and is not. On the other hand, this lack of rules means that Brazilian rhythms are more flexible and open to personal interpretation. 

There are a few key elements that Brazilian rhythms have in common. When you get a Brazilian tune, you should take note of the time signature, syncopated beats, the key signature and check for chord inversions. 

Time signature

Most genres of Brazilian music have a lively, upbeat sound. While most pop music in the US keeps the beat in 4/4 time, Brazilian music most often uses a 2/4 or 2/2 time signature (also known as cut time). 

So instead of having four beats to complete one musical idea, you only have two beats to get the job done. The difference in time signatures is so subtle that you may or may not hear it.  But, the 2/4 and 2/2 time signatures are one way of telling you to pick up the pace! 

Syncopated beats

Most Brazilian tunes rely on syncopated rhythms. Often in Brazil, the drum section carries these rhythms. This will give you that classic uneven or off-beat sound.

As you translate this rhythm to the piano, you should place a slight accent on the second beat in your cut time measure. Often, you’ll see an accent mark above the second note, which is a reminder to emphasize this uneven rhythm. Usually, a samba rhythm places a larger accent on this downbeat, while a Bossa Nova usually uses a lighter touch.

Key Signatures

When you listen to Brazilian rhythms, you usually notice an upbeat and bright sound. So it may surprise you that many Brazilian tunes are in a minor key. Especially in the Bossa Nova rhythms, you see minor key signatures and minor seventh chords. Some rhythms (like the Choro) use a different key signature for each section.

Chord inversions

Many Brazilian tunes also depend heavily on chord inversions. This is when you take a basic chord and play the notes in a different position than the root chord. Although you may use the same notes, often chord inversions will lend a smoother sound to a piece of music. These inverted chords will also give your fingers a workout!

Get with the beat!

Brazilian rhythms are known for their quick tempos, sixteenth notes, and chord inversions. So when you play a Brazilian piece on the piano, your fingers are sure to get a workout! 

You’ll want to warm up your fingers beforehand to be ready to fly across the keys. The SimplyPiano app can help you find any trouble areas and help keep your fingers on the right keys by giving you visual aids. The instant feedback can help you play these Brazilian tunes like a pro!

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