I know that there are questions on samba chords, samba rhythm, samba shapes and samba melody but, as far as I am aware, this site does not have a question about the tonality and harmony of samba music.

More specifically, my question is aimed at bossa nova style guitar (I am composing this for my GCSE music coursework).

I understand what sort of chords I should be using and how to use those chords rhythmically, but I could use a hand with learning how to piece these together.

I know that samba is based around major II-V-I progressions, but that's about it. I can't just make a song out of a repeated pattern like that.

I don't want to plagiarise other artists by using their progressions. I want something original, but I am not sure how to do so.

Suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I need a 3-4 minute piece, so I need plenty of ideas!

  • 2
    Everyone plagiarises chord progressions, even the greats.
    – slim
    Jan 7, 2014 at 9:32

2 Answers 2


To expand on my comment - don't be afraid to plagiarising chord progressions. Most of the blues canon is based on the same three chords in the same order. There are hundreds of classics we just wouldn't have, if people had been unwilling to duplicate chord progressions.

A great deal of Samba is just as formulaic.

You said: "Samba is based around major II-V-I progressions, but that's about it. I can't just make a song out of a repeated pattern like that."

People have written successful songs with only one chord (e.g. The Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows). There are loads of great songs with only two chords (Paperback Writer; Memphis Tennessee, ...).

It's tempting to think that you must do more than loop through three chords over and over again -- Amy Winehouse's Back To Black proves that it can be enough. Or, to drag us back to Latin America - La Bamba.

My suggestion is to try writing a Samba based on a II-V-I progression. It's OK if it's a bad song -- writing a bad song is better than writing no song. You can expect to write lots of bad songs for every good song you come up with.

Then see if you can improve it by adding some different chord progressions. Maybe the same chords in a different order, for a chorus; maybe introduce one more chord. Decide whether what you've done is an improvement, or not. La Bamba wouldn't be improved by the addition of another chord.


You want samba or bossa nova? These styles are quite different, almost as distinct genres. I assume you are talking about some "ready-to-export" samba music made throughout the 1970-80s (which culminated into some crappy lounge music for couples making out). That said, I suggest you listening to some samba music more extensively (in historical order, if you can; the following are subgenres of samba): Samba de Roda, Samba de Barracão, Samba-Enredo, Partido Alto, Samba-Canção (this last one is where Bossa Nova comes from). Then you will see that samba goes far beyond "II-V-I" (a rather simplistic way for analyzing it), and has rather approached such proggression very sparsely.

That said, samba has been deeply developed, explored, exploited and abused. The worst way to start at it is by trying to be original. You learn by mimicking the greats, unless you are an utter genius ahead of your time (I am not saying you are not one).

Side note: lyrics are a great part of the construction of samba. Such genre was born as song-oriented, and has a distinct prosody, vocabulary and phraseology. That's why samba appears to be so plastic-ish and snubbish when translated/versioned to anglo-saxonic languages.

Good luck. You are diving into very deep waters!

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