Counting and Notation for Brazilian Rhythms

To set up a language for describing rhythms, we’ll explain the syllables for counting rhythms, and then introduce some notation.

We’ll start with samba as an example. But this will lead us to the tools needed for talking about Brazilian music in general.

Syllables for counting a measure of samba in 4

As described in this post from the previous series, one can count a measure of samba as four “big” pulses, each broken into four subdivisions.

We can count this measure with these syllables: 1-e-and-a 2-e-and-a 3-e-and-a 4-e-and-a.

Let’s see how this count is connected with the movement of the shakers, which is basic to the samba groove. Take the first beat, broken into four subdivisions, which we count as 1-e-and-a. This corresponds to the following movement of the shaker: Forward-Back-Forward-Back. In other words, the first Forward is on the ‘1’, the next Back is on the ‘e’, the next Forward is on the ‘and’, and the next Back is on the ‘a’.

The measure as a “number line” with 16 places

We can compactly show the measure like this: 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a.

We can think of this as a kind of “number line,” a uniform time line, with sixteen discrete points. Each point has a name:

  • 1
  • ‘e’ of the 1
  • ‘and’ of the 1
  • ‘a’ of the 1
  • 4
  • ‘e’ of the 4
  • ‘and’ of the 4
  • ‘a’ of the 4

Notation for drawing rhythms

Think of this timeline as a kind of “canvas” on which rhythms can be drawn.

A rhythm consists of a series of hits, which fall on certain points in the timeline – we show the rhythm with marks at those points.

For example, consider the simple rhythm with four hits per measure, all landing on the main beats (so no hits on the subdivisions). This can be represented by the following “drawing” over the uniform timeline:


Here we’ve used ‘*’ to show a hit that belongs to the rhythm, and ‘.’ to show an empty time slot with no hit.

A way to practice these rhythms

  • Count the syllables out loud: 1-e-&-a 2-e-&-a 3-e-&a 4-e-&-a 1-e-&-a … continually in a loop that doesn’t stop. Keep the flow of the syllables even and metronomic. There should be no pause between the completion of beat 4 and the start of beat 1 of the next measure.
  • Tap your foot steadily on the main beats 1, 2, 3 and 4.
  • Clap where the ‘*’ appear in the timeline.
  • Optionally, introduce a metronome, which either clicks once for each beat 1, 2, 3, 4, or twice in each beat. I.e. the metronome will either make 4 clicks per measure, or 8 clicks per measure.

Notation for rhythms with multiple instruments or types of hit

In the sample rhythm above, we used ‘*’ to represent, say, a clap. We can also use other letters to show different instruments or types of hit. For example, we could use ‘O’ for an open tone and ‘C’ for a closed tone.

To illustrate, here is the basic rhythm arrangement for the first and second surdos in samba. What is called the first surdo is a big drum playing a bass tone, and the second surdo is smaller and plays a higher tone. The first surdo plays on beats 2 and 4, and the second plays on 1 and 3. (Yes, the measure starts with the second surdo.)

Let’s write ‘S’ for the first surdo (bass), and ‘s’ for the second surdo (mid-range). Then, using our notation, the standard arrangement gets written this way:


In posts to follow, we will explore more complex and interesting rhythms.

Counting and notation for other forms of Brazilian music

The counting and notation we have introduced here is not limited to samba. It works for any form of music with the same meter as samba, with four beats, each subdivided into four. This structure applies to many types of Brazilian music. That includes Bossa Nova, which, under one interpretation, can be counted this way. For the sake of uniformity, in this series we will apply this counting structure wherever possible.

For more information on the theory behind this counting structure, see these posts in the series Time in Music:

  • Time characteristics of samba
  • Cut time Latin music

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