Why Portuguese is the Best Language for Music

A forró party in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of and copyright by the illustrious Johanna Thomé de Souza.
A forró party in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of and copyright by the illustrious Johanna Thomé de Souza.

[Em portuguès aquí.]

It’s safe to assume that, oh, about three-quarters of the world’s best vocal music is from Portuguese-speaking lands. There’s marrabenta in Mozambique, samba rock and samba hip hop in São Paulo, fado in Portugal, bossa nova in Rio, forró and frevo in Brazil’s northeast, música capira in the Brazilian south’s countryside, semba in Angola… We’ll stop there, but a full taxonomy of the wondrous sounds from lusophone lands could go on and on. If you’re not convinced that Portuguese speakers are responsible for most of the world’s best music, spend some time with at least the above shortlist, and report back to me.

The real question is: what makes Portuguese so perfect for music? I’ve got a few theories.

1. Portuguese employs an enormously rich range of vowel sounds. Recall that a vowel is what happens when you’re pushing sound out of your throat, without blocking it with your tongue, teeth, lips, etc. (Blocking or constricting creates a consonant).

To start, there are a lot of basic single-vowel sounds (“monophthongs”). Compare what your open vocal tract can do, for example, when speaking Portuguese, to what happens when you’re employing its less-interesting cousin:

Portuguese vowels (São Paulo)
Portuguese vowels (São Paulo)
Spanish vowels
Spanish vowels

And these basic single vowels are really just the beginning. Some of these are occasionally pronounced through the nose (i.e., nasal vowels). Some of them are pronounced in both “open” and “closed” versions (this can be very difficult for English speakers to master). Finally, Portuguese also uses dipthongs (two vowels stuck together) and even tripthongs (a gang of three, very fun). For an example of the latter, try to say following (the tripthong is underlined):

ele delinquiu — EH-lee day-leen-KWEEew[he got in trouble]

Vowels are very important for singers because that’s when they get to open their throats wide. And, when they wish to extend a word, most choose to do so on the vowel.

If you could sing in any language, wouldn’t you prefer the wide range of vowel options that Portuguese provides? And, wouldn’t you suppose that a singer who grew up speaking with this variety of vowels would have a more intimate and flexible relationship with her vocal tract?

2. Conversely, Portuguese has limited set of consonants to get in the way. Cléa Thomasset, a French singer who performs samba and chorinho, has explained to me her theory that the Portuguese consonants that do exist are particularly percussive-sounding compared to her native tongue; one can employ them to very effectively to mark rhythm. For an example, check out Elis Regina’s consonantal theatrics in the chorus to “Nega do Cabelo Duro“:

3. On a related note, Portuguese consonants tend to come at the beginning of words and syllables, and rarely at the end. This leaves your vocal tract open to extend the ends of syllables, and in no rush to close things off to get to the final consonant (to fully comprehend a syllable in many languages, you must wait for the consonant at the end). Not closing the vocal tract also lends an airy lightness to lyrics.

4. The ão sound is relatively rare in languages, but quite common in Portuguese. It is beautiful, strange, and fun: like “ow”, but with the middle bit of the expulsion forced out through your nose. Most of Portuguese’s Latin-descended words end in -ão (comparable Latinate English words end in -tion or -sion). This makes -ão a quite common word-ending and available for rhymes, as in this classic song by Armando Fernandes, performed by Clara Nunes:

Vai manter a tradição

Vai meu bloco tristeza e pé no chão

[Go on with the tradition

Go on with the samba parade, sadly, with your feet planted in reality]

5. Unlike Mandarin Chinese and some African languages, Portuguese is not a tonal language; at least, tones (variations in pitch) are not used within words to communicate meaning. This seems very useful in its absence, because a songwriter who has to take tone changes into account is necessarily more limited in word choices that will fit her melody.

6. At the same time, like many languages Portuguese does use shifts in tone at the phrase level to indicate some types of meaning (surprise, questions, etc.) and to my anglophone ears at least, these shifts are extremely pronounced. It’s common to hear even the most masculine Brazilian slide up into a falsetto range on a few syllables for emphasis. Does this meaning-enhancing and varied pitch range lead Portuguese speakers to get some of the same benefits in musical intelligence as speakers of true tonal languages? I’m getting into wild conjecture here, but maybe…

7. Saudade: Portuguese speakers claim that this word doesn’t exist in any other language. It’s actually more translatable than they claim (in Bosnian, for instance: sevdah is pretty similar, in English it can be most frequently translated as nostalgia) — but that’s beside the point. This feeling of nostalgia is uniquely celebrated in Portuguese-speaking cultures, and especially in their musics. Who else would relish lacking something or someone, nearly to the point of ecstasy? Saudade seems to come up almost constantly in lusophone music, whether explicitly invoked or not. Take, for example, this masterpiece by Dorival Caymmi and Jorge Amado, sung by Cesária Evora and Marisa Monte.

It must be so sweet to die in the sea’s green waves, the women sing, in what appears to be odd jealousy for a sailor who never returned.

Or, take this masterpiece of samba rock:

Carolina is a very difficult woman to forget, Seu Jorge sings, and lists the ways she’s lovely. But, she’s not returning his calls, and he’s feeling lonely. Of course this must be love. And of course it’s motivated by the absence of the one loved. That’s the essence of saudades.

Dominguinhos’ forró classic “Só Quero um Xodó” [“All I Want Is a Sweetheart”] takes it one step further: the saudades are not for a particular person, but for anyone at all who would be willing to love the plaintive singer back. Here’s Gilberto Gil’s version:

Yes, this is the stuff of pop and folk songs anywhere in the world. But Portuguese has a vocabulary and attitude built right in to celebrate this idea of longing more than anyone.

8. Gostoso/gostosa is an adjective that can mean lovely, tasty, fuckable, beautiful and/or sensual. A search of lyrics sites turns up hundreds of examples of its use, but it’s the attitude that’s important. I have never once heard the term employed ironically. In its use of unabashedly exultant words like gostoso, the Portuguese language seems like it would never tolerate, say, American hipster culture’s incessant irony, or the acidic dry wit of the French. And in music at least, that’s a great thing. Irony and humor in pop songs tend to get old, fast. When we speak Portuguese, we compliment our beloved with wet, sensual enthusiasm. (The only wrinkle is that they rarely return the favor — see the previous point.)

9. The geography of the lusophone world touches the Americas, Europe and Africa, and these historical exchanges (though muddied by slavery, genocide and war) have given its musicians access to some of the world’s strongest musical traditions. (The same influences apply to the nearly-as-great musical styles created by Cubans, Americans from the United States and black Peruvians.) Lusophone countries, particularly Brazil, are quite adept at absorbing musical influences from far abroad, and making something totally new out of them.

Those are my theories for now, born of years of listening to and loving this stuff. I’ve made the effort to learn Portuguese simply in order to understand my favorite songs. But I remain just a fan, and would love to hear opinions from Portuguese speakers, musicians, and others. Feel free to add your thoughts or corrections in the comments, and I will of course update this post as new ideas come my way.

We’ll close with a song from Angola about — what else? — saudades for a better time and place.

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