(8) Time Characteristics of Samba

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David A. Tanzer, October 2023. Unit: Time in Music – All PostsPrev Post

To close out this series, let’s look a bit further into the time characteristics of samba. It’s an interesting case study in the concepts that have been covered so far.

As explained in the previous post, Samba has cut-time structure, i.e., it is based on a double pulse. And each double pulse is split into four subdivisions.

Uneven subdivisions and the samba swing

It is well known that the subdivisions in samba are not exactly equal – some are slightly longer and some slightly shorter than an exact quarter of a double pulse. The details of this uneven spacing, which vary from one regional style to another, give to the music its characteristic sense of “swing.”

Comparison to jazz swing

The samba swing is rather different from the jazz swing, and they shouldn’t be confounded. In jazz the swing is based on a significant delaying of the straight eighth note – up to 2/3 of the way through the beat. In samba, there are four subdivisions rather than two. Moreover, the deviations from equal subdivisions are more slight, and involve anticipations of the beat.

This presents a challenge for musicians coming to samba from jazz, as the instincts towards jazz swing will tend to disrupt the flow of samba. So it’s better to play the subdivisions straight and equal at first – which is a pretty good approximation to the real thing – and then to absorb the fine points of the samba swing through listening and experience.

Elements of shaker technique

These subdivisions are most clearly expressed in the playing of the shakers.

Shakers come in all sizes, from the small eggs, to the cylinders, to the loud chocalhos used in a Bateria ensemble. For purposes of illustration, we’ll take the cylinder. Details aside, the underlying rhythmic principles for cylinder technique also apply to the other shaker types.

Note: the following account of the basics is from lessons with Fabiano Salek.

In the basic position, you hold the cylinder horizontally, with your palm facing you and close to vertical. Hand, wrist and arm should stay relaxed. Reason: if the cylinder were tiled, then the internal beads would bunch up at the bottom end. By keeping the cylinder level, the beads get spread uniformly, resulting in a longer line of beads for sound production.

The shaker is played with short horizontal forward and backward movements, driven by your wrist. To move the cylinder forward, you open your wrist somewhat, so that the palm is no longer vertical. A backward motion is produced by reversing this, closing your wrist and bringing the palm back to vertical.

Each forward and each backward movement results in a sound. In the forward movement, the beads are moving forward with the cylinder. Then when the cylinder comes to a stop, the beads crash into the front inner wall of the cylinder, making a percussive sound. Similarly, in the backward movement, the beads are traveling backwards and end up making a sound when they crash into the back inner wall.

One can economize motion and energy by leaving the arm out of the motion. The “C shape” motion, in which the forward motions alternate up and down, is completely optional. The main point to aim to have each subdivision clearly articulated – both on both forward and backward movements. Further, the four subdivisions should be equally long – without any triplet-like swing that would be produced by delaying the backward pulls.

Shaker accents and the samba pulse structure

There will naturally be some accent on each of the forward motions, due to the way that the hand muscles work.

Furthermore, in the most basic way of playing, there is an additional emphasis placed on every other forward motion.

Here is how one double pulse gets played: forward, back, forward, back. These give the four subdivisions of the double pulse. The first forward gets a stronger accent, and the second gets a lighter accent. However, the accents are not extreme – one should clearly hear an even flow of all the subdivisions a major component of the groove.

So if we count four double pulses to a samba measure, here is how it gets played on the shaker:

1: Forward back forward back
2: Forward back forward back
3: Forward back forward back
4: Forward back forward back

In this measure you will hear four double pulses, as marked by the strong forward accents, and eight single pulses, as marked by all of the forward accents.

Size of the shaker beats

How big is a shaker beat? It is one quarter of a double pulse, which equals half of a single pulse. That is a complete answer, from an analytic perspective.

This is pretty clear and straightforward. But as we will soon see, the various names for the size of a shaker beat can be contradictory and confusing.

Methodology for naming the beat sizes

In this series, I introduced a term “double pulse” for the size of a cut-time pulse, in order to give a way of talking about beat sizes which doesn’t get bogged down in confusing, pseudo-mathematical questions about “eighth notes” etc.

To understand the hierarchy of beat sizes, all we need are the concepts of double pulse, single pulse, and the two tiers of subdivision of a single pulse (see this previous post). Then “eighth notes.” etc. are just synonyms, more or less confusing, for specific beat sizes in this clearly defined hierarchy.

Conflicting names for the size of a shaker beat

So a shaker beat is a quarter of a double pulse. Now let’s look at the names for the size of this beat.

Technically and logically speaking, a shaker beat is an eighth note, and this is how it gets written in sheet music. That’s because it is quarter of a “double pulse,” i.e., it’s a quarter of a half note, which equals an eighth note. Since samba generally has a fast tempo, which involves rapid double pulses, these shaker beats will tend to be fast eighth notes.

However, in the general vernacular of music practice, we refer to the shaker beats as sixteenth notes. Then two shaker beats are called an eighth note, etc.

These are two conflicting naming systems for the beat sizes.

Reconciling the names

We can reconcile these conflicting naming systems by amending the vernacular terms to become “cut sixteenth note,” “cut eighth note,” and “cut quarter note.” The idea is that:

  • Whereas a standard sixteenth note means a quarter of a single pulse, a cut sixteenth note means a quarter of a double pulse.
  • Whereas a standard eighth note means a half of a single pulse, a cut eighth note means a half of a double pulse.
  • Whereas a standard quarter note means a complete single pulse, a cut quarter note means a complete double pulse.

Then, in the practice of samba, where everything is in cut time, it would be tedious and redundant to always be saying, e.g., “cut sixteenth note” – so in this context one could naturally abbreviate to just “sixteenth note,” etc. And this is exactly how we speak in practice!


We’re reached the end of this series on time in music. Here’s a recap of the concepts that we have covered: beat, pulse, subdivision, tempo, double and single pulses, cut time, the hierarchy of beat sizes, standard names and symbols for beat sizes, measure, phrase, meter, time signature, forms of cut-time Latin music, time characteristics of samba. Taken as a whole, this should give you a good theoretical foundation for further explorations of rhythm.

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