Often known as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Carnival is an annual celebration that takes place in mid-to-late February or early March. Typically commencing the Friday before lent and running through Ash Wednesday, this Catholic tradition involves public celebrations like parades, street parties, and various other forms of entertainment. As a part of this event, people come together wearing colorful masks and costumes and to partake in extreme levels of indulgence before their great Lenten sacrifice. Things that are typically prohibited during lent, like alcohol and junk food, are often consumed in vast amounts. Attendees are encouraged to go wild and enjoy the party atmosphere, often satirizing or celebrating things that are normally viewed as socially unacceptable.

Arguably the most famous carnival is annual celebration in Rio de Janeiro, where nearly two million people flood into the streets each day. Their parades contain beautiful floats, choreographed dances, and elaborate costumes meant to tell a unique story. Of course, this type of party would be incomplete without the right music, and Samba songs are the essence of Rio’s Carnival celebration.

Rio Carnival 2018 by Terry George

Also known as samba urbano carioca, Samba is a style of Brazilian music and dance that originated in the late 1800’s. With its syncopated rhythm and often sensual dance moves, samba has become one of the world’s most popular musical styles to emerge from the South American continent. In fact, many believe that Samba is the best representation of the Afro-European blend that can come to define Brazilian culture.

Other musical genres that can be heard at the Carnival of Brazil include:

  • Marchinha – Simple and joyful melodies, frequently accompanied by comical lyrics
  • Frevo – Derived from the word ferver (meaning to boil), this is a fast-paced and highly energetic musical style often featuring loud brass instruments and colorfully dressed dancers performing incredible acrobatic feats.
  • Maracatu – Typically composed of a small percussion orchestra, the maracatu often features a wide-variety of drums in addition to agogo bells, dancers, a chorus, and a lead singer. This genre is more popular in northeastern Brazil, and emerged from the music and tradition of African rooted slaves.
  • Axé – Originating in Salvador, this genre is influenced by several different Afro-Caribbean styles including marcha, reggae, and calypso. In the Candomblé religion, it is described as “the imagined spiritual power and energy bestowed upon practitioners.”
Carnival 2010 – Photo: Roberto Viana

Carnival is the most popular holiday in Brazil and has become an event of gigantic proportions. However, there are epic carnival celebrations all around the world including in Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In fact, past Encore groups have enjoyed the festive celebrations in Venice during their performance tours. Every country has its own unique variation of Carnival, but music is a major part of all aspects of the celebration.

We encourage all musicians to experience Carnival for themselves, and appreciate how each country’s celebration is influenced by their unique musical history.


This blog post is part of a series linked to our Music Celebrations Around the World calendar. Download the calendar for access to information about musical celebrations and holidays with strong musical components to share in your music classroom or with your ensemble members! 

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