Highlights of Musical
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
A MISTAKEN ANALYSIS OF A BRAZILIAN RHYTHM
Diário de Notícias
– Salvador, November 19, 1950.
– 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.