Brazilian Music and Culture:
An Internet Tour

Jeanne Tunks

Brazilian music — rich in instrumentation, vocal content and cultural context — enhances the world of sound with its exhilarating, syncopated rhythms, flamboyant melodies, and fast tempos. Dances such as the Samba, Lambada, and Carimbo grace the world with their exuberance. Carnival songs celebrate life, with its trials, tribulations, and triumphs. The origins of Brazilian music are primarily Portuguese and African sounds. These are the source of the whirlwind of sound, sight, and sensuality that is Brazilian music.

Reading about Brazilian music, while an interesting activity, provides a limited sense of the treasures in store. Hearing and seeing this country’s music, dance, and performing arts, brings the participant to a more meaningful context for learning and understanding. Introducing students to authentic music of different cultures around the world has not always been easy, particularly for social studies teachers in rural areas or small towns with libraries that may not have easy access to resources such as the Folkways Collection at the Library of Congress.1 Although this ethnomusicological treasure provides some of the finest recordings available of indigenous music, access to specific selections has been limited by their having to be available (on tape, LP record, or CD) and in stock. A new generation of musically/culturally authentic information is now available on the Internet.


Searching the Web

I wanted to teach a unit of study on popular Brazilian music for sixth grade students, and I was curious to see what the World Wide Web had to offer. My search with Microsoft Internet Explorer using the Boolean combination of “music” and “ Brazi#148; yielded several sites for exploration of music, ranging from aboriginal to modern. Screening these for appropriateness and usability for instruction in a social studies/music setting required paring down the list so that students could participate in meaningful inquiry using the site. To that end, the many available sites were reviewed, with one emerging as practical, stable, providing sound bytes, and presenting a readable history of Brazilian music.

The website provides the viewer with many links to sites about popular dances, dramatic dances, festivals, the history of music in Brazil, music reviews, musicians, people in Brazilian music circles, popular arts and crafts, and folk beliefs.2 Each link provides written descriptions, color photographs, and (in many cases) sound bytes. An exploratory tour of the site provides excellent background and an overview of current Brazilian performing and cultural arts. The unit of study that follows guides the student through a meaningful project with the use of that site.


A Meaningful Challenge

I wanted my students to do more than just read text off the Internet. When they are engaged in developing a project (as a culminating activity to a unit of study), students tend to use problem-solving skills and to engage with others who possess varying learning styles more readily.3 Some of the advantages in using projects include: personal formulation of questions, opportunities to use more levels of intelligence, interaction, motivation, application and transfer, alternatives for those with learning disabilities, and sharing with the community.

The time required for students to complete the search and prepare a presentation for the class is appropriately one and one half weeks. Students are encouraged to work in groups to complete the project. We used journals or working portfolios to track information for building various parts of the project. Students tend to get lost browsing through a maze of web pages unless they construct their own outline of what they are discovering by writing down which links they have chosen, and what sorts of information can be found at the different locations.


The greatest obstacle for teachers is the temptation to closely direct the final product, thereby removing the potential for creativity. The Inquiry Training Model of Instruction provides the student with the freedom to explore the data under the aegis of guided questions.4 In the unit of study described below, I have revised the model so that there are six phases. Providing parameters and guidelines and then trusting students to seek for answers at their own pace, in their own way, is difficult, but essential to learning basic research and inquiry skills. The unit provides a path for creative expression and cooperative interaction, and guidelines for success without dictating the specific details of the project’s completion, which will vary with each project. General rubrics for scoring the success of the project are included. I tell students in advance specifically how they will be scored.



Students will need some background information about music (the definitions of rhythm and tempo, for example), history (how the Spanish happened to come to Brazil), and geography (the terrain and climate of Brazil) before they are ready for this activity. Thus, it might be taught as a culminating exercise, or case example, within a larger unit of study about Latin America. It is a natural candidate for an interdisciplinary activity; art, music, and social studies teachers might cooperate in teaching it.


Phase I: Confronting Research Questions

The teacher proposes questions for the students to research and study. The questions can be provided in a handout which spells out the phases, procedures, and performance expectations. Our research questions include the following:

A) What is the origin of Brazilian music and how has it evolved since 1500?

B) How is music incorporated into Brazilian life?

C) How does instrumentation, rhythm, melody, and tempo in Brazilian music represent the Brazilian culture?

In small groups, students begin to ponder the questions Question A is rather concrete, question B is less so, and question C is a rather sophisticated question that children might be baffled by, at first.


Phase II: Gathering Data

Direct students to visit the Maria-Brazil website,, and suggest that they begin to collect data to resolve the problem and questions using the site. (The clearest path to answering the questions is to choose, from the home page, links to “Music and Folklore,” then “Music,” and finally “Roots of Brazilian Music Parts I-III.” There are sound bytes and documented information to guide the students as they search to answer the questions and resolve the problem. However, this path could differ for students who prefer a more circuitous route in the inquiry process.) During this phase the teacher serves as a facilitator. Students have release time to search, collect, catalog information, explore sounds, and begin to gather the information they need to begin to address the questions and to create new questions of their own as they progress.5


Phase III: Hypothesizing and Experimenting

Encourage students to take all the data they have found and begin to experiment with which parts connect to which questions. At this point, students will exchange information, cull through their journals or folders of information, and experiment with what the data suggest in terms of resolving the questions. This phase is difficult for many students because they simply want the right answer, but there may be many ways to address the three research questions. The teacher’s job is to support and facilitate students’ discovery process. Difficult though it is, it is best for the teacher not to simply give students answers or show them exactly where to look.


Phase IV: Organizing and Explaining

During this phase, the students take the information they have found, then organize everything into a project format. The format should a) lend itself to both a display of research and understanding, b) answer the three research questions, and c) provide an outlet for communicating with fellow students about their understanding of Brazilian music and its tie to the culture. The project suggested here, although there are many possible projects, is a “tour” of Brazilian music and culture. This tour could include things students have found during their research (sound clips from the website, or illustrations and quotes from books) as well as things they create (a poster showing Brazilian costumes or instruments, or a report or “interview” with a “musician.”)

Phase V: Assessing the Project

The students’ work is assessed in six areas: a) accuracy of information; b) quality of writing, c) quality of any student art, d) quality of oral presentation, e) organization of the presentation, and f) use of classroom time. I use a four-point scoring rubric for each of these criteria (good/adequate/fair/poor). I share the rubric with students on the first day of the unit of study so that they know by what standards their work is to be judged.


Phase VI: Analyzing the Inquiry Process

Now the teacher engages students in a discussion regarding their research/problem-solving process. Questions could include: a)What process did you use to answer the questions? b) Did the original path you chose yield the outcomes you anticipated? c) What might have been a different path to take in the research process? d) How effective was using journals to collect, catalog, and collate information? What other questions emerged as you searched? Essentially, this phase allows the students the time to reflect on the process and consider alternatives for the future.



To increase student interest in cultures unfamiliar to them and to provide authentic sounds, sights, and experiences, without plane tickets to foreign ports, teachers have a new resource, the Internet. The tour, guided through one website, lends credence to the world of possibilities for social studies teachers. A careful search through the many available websites may take considerable time initially, but once found, quality websites can be used as the basis of inquiry and discovery.



1. Many public and universities have recordings from the Folkways Collection, which includes songs, stories, and sounds from the 1900s, captured from locations all over the world. Information about that collection, which is now part of the American Folklife Center, can be found at a Library of Congress website,

2. Sheila Thomson, Music and Folklore: Maria Brazil, on the Internet at This website has hundreds of pages on Brazilian music, folklore, crafts, foods, and customs. “Maria Brazi#148; is the pen name of the creator of the site, Sheila Thompson, who works in the publications department of the Wolfsonian Gallery at Florida International University in Miami Beach. The website, which is her personal creation, first went online in 1995. She was born in Brazil.

3. Kay Burke, How To Assess Thoughtful Outcomes (Palatine, IL: Skylight Publishing, 1993).

4. Bruce Joyce, Marsha Weil, and Beverly Showers, Models of Teaching (Needham Heights, MS: llyn and Bacon, 1992).

5. To hear sounds at, one will need a computer with at least 64 MB RAM and an audio program such MP3 or Real Audio.


Appleby, David. P. The Music of Brazil. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Chernela, Janet. The Wanaano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon: A Sense of Space. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press: 1993.

Robertson, Carol, ed. Musical Repercussions of 1492. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press: 1992.

Suzel, Ana Reily. “Macunaima’s Music: National Identity and Ethnomusicological Research in Brazil,” in Martin Stokes, ed. Ethnicity, Identity, and Music. Providence, RI: Berg, 1994, 121-145.


Jeanne Tunks is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Administration and Education in the College of Education at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.


A Short History of Brazilian Music

Brazilian music originates from three sources: Aboriginal Tamoios, Portuguese, and African cultures. Although today only limited traces of Tamoios’ music are evident in popular Brazilian music, their contribution to the chronicle of Brazilian culture can be traced to the 16th century. The Portuguese arrived in Brazil in 1522 with an entourage of clerics who documented the native culture. In 1578, Jean de Léry, a French Calvanist pastor, wrote Viagem à Terra do Brasil and depicted, with illustrations, the dances and rituals of the Tamoios. The book also included musical refrains. Nine years later Gabriel Soares de Sousa, of Portugal wrote descriptions of songs, dances, and musical instruments in his treatise Tratado Descritivo do Brasil. Both accounts mention instruments such as rattles, drums, flutes, whistles, and horns.

For centuries following the colonization of Brazil, Jesuits, noblemen, and citizens brought Portuguese music to the country. These contributions included traditional and dramatic dances and poetry. Instruments commonly used in Portugal during the 16th through the19th centuries, such as the flute, clarinet, cavaquinho (a small four string guitar), guitar, violin, cello, accordion, and tambourine, were introduced. Eventually the cacaqhinho was converted into the ukelele. When the entire Portuguese court fled in 1808, following Napoleon’s invasion, pianos were added to the musical instrument collection. Courtly dances and small ensembles brought a new dimension to the musical scene.

Around 1538 African slaves were brought to Brazil and with them came the complex rhythms, chants, and dramatic dances of the African continent. Africans also influenced the language, adding a smoother flow to original Portuguese speech patterns. The instruments introduced by the African slaves included: a myriad of drums, the agogô (two metal bells played with metal sticks), and the cuíca (a small metal barrel covered with leather in one end, with a short stick in the interior, which is rubbed with a piece of wet cloth). The berimbau de corpo, a bowed instrument which generates its sound by resonating through the cavity of an attached gourd, is still used today among performing groups who demonstrate capoeira, a folkloric martial art. In the 19th century, the dances of Africans were practiced by both slaves and Portuguese nationals alike. Rugendas, a German artist, rendered the movement of these dances in a 1835 publication.

Brazilian classical music, choro, emerged from African slave interpretations of European waltzes and polkas of the 18th century. The música de barbeiros, a name attributed to slaves who were trained as barbers, entertained with two guitars and a cavaquinho. Eventually flute, clarinet, and mandolin were added. This musical form that imitates weeping or crying is known as the “essence of the Brazilian musical soul.” Many choros have been composed and are played frequently today.

Questions for Discussion and Investigation

1. What two cultures contributed the most to modern, popular Brazilian music?

2. Find Brazil, Portugal, and the West Coast of Africa on the globe. Find the scale on the globe.
How far did people have to travel over the Atlantic Ocean to arrive at Brazil?

3. Name two instruments that came to Brazil from Portugal.

4. Name two instruments that came from Africa.

5. Who created choro, Brazilian classical music?