Texts

 

 

Highlights of Musical
Development



About the works


The Coming Decline of Frevo


Tambourine Playing in Brazil


The African Influence in Brazilian Music


Frevo Steps and Music


Art and Artists


In Terms of Music from São Paulo


A Mistaken Analysis of a Brazilian Rhythm


Scales in Brazilian Folk Music


The Indians of Petrópolis


Índios or Cabôcos of Petrópolis


Notes on Playing Marbles


Variations on the Boi

Variations on the Baião


Variations on the Maxixe


Zabumba

 

 

A MISTAKEN ANALYSIS OF A BRAZILIAN RHYTHM

 

                       

Diário de Notícias – Salvador, November 19, 1950.

 

          Recife, November – There is something they say about a Brazilian folk rhythm that - ever since I really began studying music -  I can’t quite accept, no matter how much I consider the observations of the most eminent figures in folk music. Although I don’t think it has ever been published, it has been widely circulated in music circles, mainly in Rio de Janeiro.

          It concerns a heavily accented clap [or hit] on the bass drum, or “surdo,” in some folk music, especially the Rio marcha, the samba and similar forms.

          Folk music specialists are almost unanimous in saying it is not unique to us in terms of other folk traditions. I don’t know to what point this can be confirmed given that what we know about folk music from other countries is as sketchy as what they know about ours. In any case this detail doesn’t influence what follows.

          In fact there is a very sensitive accenting that characterizes the accompaniment of the aforementioned percussion instrument in the dances noted. This accenting is so striking that players often eliminate another clap that serves as contrast – it not being accented – to give the former complete emphasis. However, this systematic and often seemingly exaggerated accenting is not grounds for saying that in some Brazilian music “the second beat of the measure is stressed...”.

          I will explain. Let’s look at what music theory, which is universally accepted, considers the “stressed” beat: Ancient Greek music borrowed from dance the words arsis and thesis to indicate connecting points within measured time.

          This measure was divided into two or three parts. Arsis was the count when the foot was raised in movement, and thesis when the foot was lowered in a moment of rest; this was a temporary rest, as the final rest came at the final thesis.

          Vocal polyphony was also done with the dancing, and as music advanced, it advanced. Soon composers found they needed to write their works the way they wanted them performed; previously the polyphony had been improvised. For the scores containing their melodic inventions they created vertical dividing lines, which we now call bars. These dividing lines are still used to divide the rhythm into measures, facilitate reading and consequently for the voices or instruments to connect in certain places.

      Composers would put the “bars” in the same places where the theses corresponding to the dance’s theses were. Later, however, development of music notation itself, with new and shorter duration of notes, led composers to put the “bars” of a measure just before each thesis; later studies would call these “fundamental theses.” The thesis,  corresponding to each resting point in the measure, also came to be known as the “stressed beat” due to certain relationships with the melodic motifs, while the arsis was called the “unstressed beat.” This classification is universally accepted as correct, with a few qualifications that do not affect the basic idea.

          Therefore, the first beat of each measure became known as the “stressed beat, and the second as the “unstressed beat,” which helped tremendously the study of music theory and the interpretation of works.

          In measuring the duration of the musical notes there is a very important factor with regards to the shape of the rhythmic motif: the ictus. This word ictus helps us understand the places where [...] the rhythmic motif, or arsis and thesis, are to the measure what ictus is to the motif. The first divide the time, while the second indicates the motif’s supporting point.

 

          This leads us to imagine more specifically the first count in the measures as pseudo-stressed. This pseudo-stress is not due to greater intensity, but to the idea of measure that imparts rhythmic sense. The “ictus,” however, does require some accenting [a sort of repauso] each time it comes, sometimes lighter, other times heavier, depending the specific case.

          In addition to these time elements, there is another one that is very important, especially for Brazlilan music and all music influenced by African syncopation: It is the “expressive accent,” which while being played is characterized by greater intensity upon articulating the som, giving dynamic contrast. Herein lies the key issue of this article.

          This kind of accent can be executed in the timing but has nothing to do with “arsis,” “thesis” and “ictus,” except of course its timing with regards to the measure. However, the “expressive accents” are heard in constant repetitions within a strict measure, isochronously. This is not at all rare, and actually becomes a rhythmic characteristic of some songs. This is the case with the accents on the bass drums, especially those with deep “tonality.” During the evolution of Brazilian popular music, this characteristic was also applied to string instruments, like the guitar in certain accompanying forms. In more recent years we have seen this practiced even among dance orchestra pianists. Moreover, amateur musicians who want to perform pop music give the “expressive accent” just enough intensity that we recognize its roots in the bass drum slap.

          Therefore, the misunderstood accent heard on the unstressed count of the measure is not, as some suppose, the “emphasis on the second beat of the measure.” It could not be, unless Brazilians had a different rhythm instinct than the rest of humanity. [...]

          What we are looking at is symmetrical repetition of the “expressive accent” on the second beats of the measures, with the 2/4 being the most common, in accordance with the way Brazilian popular music with African influence is written.

          So different is the “expressive accent” just described that I must add: “Thesis” in the accompanying rhythm, “thesis” in the melodic rhythm, “thesis” in the harmony, “thesis” in the word, “thesis” in the dance, is always “thesis.” In the same cases “ictus” is always “ictus,” even though it can be in any number of positions. All of this can be played with or without an “expressive accent.” But the “expressive accent” that has become a regular feature of the Brazilian popular music noted above can occur or not. It can be placed anywhere in the measure, meaning at any point in the timing; except for aesthetic reasons, it would not be missed.

          The “expressive accent,” like we have seen in Brazilian popular music, does not allow us to say that the second beat of a 2/4 measure is “strong,” in some kinds of music, despite all of the rhythmic persistence of this incredible isochrony. I don’t suppose there is intention to create a special theory for this. I don’t even think it would be possible.

          As I see it, this kind of issue comes up because our brightest and most capable musicians have not committed time to rational study of our folk music. This task has been taken up by men who are educated, true, but who do not have the music background that would allow them to approach the subject more deeply with regards to theory and aesthetics. The result has been generalization of a huge number of mistaken ideas that others who do not look more deeply accept. We have only to note that our music folklorists always have to resort to the research of sociologists, while the latter [as far as I know] never or virtually never refer to the research of music folklorists.

          Music folklore in Brazil has not yet reached its core. We are in an almost amateur period, with only few renowned figures committed to this extremely important area of specialization.