How to play samba piano

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Growing up in Brazil, I listened to a lot of Samba, which is Brazil’s most popular style of music. To illustrate how to play Brazilian Samba properly, let’s take a typical jazz-ish melody and chords, and change them into Samba form. 

1. Jazz melody

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Ex. 1 is a standard jazz-style melody, similar to what you might find in a typical “lead sheet.” The rhythms are played straight and free of accents or syncopations.

2. Samba pattern

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Ex. 2 is a basic Samba pattern. Notice how Brazilian Samba music is very syncopated. It has a basic pulse of eighth-notes or sixteenth-notes, and an abundance of accents. It’s also usually written in 2/4 or 2/2 (also called cut time).

3. Samba melody

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Ex. 3 converts the melody from Ex. 1 into Samba form. The melody now contains numerous upbeats and anticipations, and it complements the Samba pattern from Ex. 2. Notice that the melody places an emphasis on the Samba’s rhythmic pulse, with the underlying eighth-notes working as “ghost notes” to propel the music forward.

4. Comping strategies

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Ex. 4 illustrates a typical left-hand Samba pattern to accompany our melody. Again, notice how the rhythmic underpinnings push the music along.

5. Samba chords and bass

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A great exercise for practicing and understanding Samba is to play chords and a bass line together, as in Ex. 5. Note: In the left hand, the second note of each bar should be played stronger and more legato than the first.

6. Soloing over samba

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Ex. 6 is a short solo over our chord progression in the Samba style. Practice your right hand solos by improvising over this left hand rhythm pattern. You can also practice soloing over a Samba bass line like the one in Ex. 5.

Listening list

“To learn the secrets of Brazilian piano, listen to masters like João Donato, Sergio Mendes, Cesar Camargo Mariano, Luis Carlos Vinhas, Tenório Junior, and of course, Antonio Carlos Jobim,” says pianist and composer Helio Alves“Also listen to guitarists like João Gilberto and Baden Powell.” Alves has worked with Joe Henderson, Yo-Yo Ma, and Paquito D’Rivera, and was also nominated for a Grammy for the album Forests, by his group Brazilian Trio. Find out more at