Choro (pronounced “shoh-roh;” “cho” as in “sho” of “show,” “ro” as in “ro” of “rose” when pronounced with a Scottish accent), popularly called chorinho, is an instrumental genre of the Brazilian popular music that has its origins in Rio de Janeiro in late 1800s. A choro ensemble is called “regional,” and a musician, composer or instrumentalist is called “Chorão” (literally meaning “weeper”). In spite of its name, this kind of music has, in general, a very vibrant and cheerful beat, characterized by the virtuosity and improvisation of its participants. Choro represents the most typical Brazilian instrumental formation, as well as the longest-standing musical grouping within Brazilian popular music.
The choro ensemble is traditionally formed of one or more solo instruments (flute, mandolin, clarinet or saxophone) and the cavaquinho, guitars and pandeiro as accompaniment instruments. The cavaquinho performs rhythm and harmony, one or more 6-string guitars (along with the 7-string guitar) perform the harmony and the variations/modulations, the 7-string guitar acts as bass, and the pandeiro establishes and keeps the rhythm of the music. The cavaquinho, despite its limited range extension, can also be used as a solo instrument.
Choro, in its essence, is a purely instrumental musical genre. In the very few cases of choros with lyrics we may say that a large part was written years after they were composed by the author, or even years after the composer’s death.
We could say that choro has its historical dawn in the city of Rio de Janeiro in the early 19th century, with the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil, fleeing from Napoleon’s invasion and bringing along between ten to fifteen thousand Europeans . As a direct consequence, the city of Rio de Janeiro undergoes unprecedented urban and cultural transformations. Musicians, new musical instruments and new European rhythms reach the city and are immediately accepted by local society. Before long, the city of Rio de Janeiro becomes known, as attested by the poet Araújo Porto Alegre, as “the city of pianos.”
Choro resulted from the exposure of Brazilian musicians to European musical styles, mainly the polka (introduced in Rio de Janeiro in 1845), in a musical environment that was already strongly influenced by African rhythms, principally the Lundu, that had been present in Brazilian culture since the end of the 18th century. Just like Ragtime in the United States, choro springs up as a result of influences of music styles and rhythms coming from two continents: Europe and Africa.
The first reference to the term “choro” is made in the 1870’s, when flutist Joaquim Antônio da Silva Callado, regarded as a pioneer in this merging process of European/African styles and rhythms, formed an ensemble called “Choro Carioca” (Choro from Rio de Janeiro). Maestro and Professor Baptista Siqueira , one of the biographers of Joaquim Callado, explains that when Callado formed the Choro Carioca, or simply “Choro de Callado,” (Mr. Callado’s Choro) “he organized the most out-of-the-ordinary small musical group in Brazil. Since its beginning the group had one solo instrument, two guitars, and one cavaquinho, and only one of the components could read music: all the others should improvise following the harmony.”
Where does the word “choro” come from?
The origin of the term choro is disputed and there is no definitive position among researchers about the question.
Ary Vasconcelos  presents us with some possibilities:
- The term may have derived from “xolo,” a sort of ball that would gather slaves of the farms, an expression which, based on the confusion caused by its paronym in the Portuguese language, started to be known as “xoro” and finally, in the city, must have started to be spelled with “ch.” This version is attributed to Jacques Raimundo.
- The origin of the term might be related to the melancholic feeling conveyed by the guitar’s improvised modulations played in response to the principal theme (also known in the Portuguese language as “baixarias”). This version is attributed to José Ramos Tinhorão.
- Another possibility had been apparently considered by Lúcio Rangel, associating choro to melancholy (since the noun “choro” in Portuguese means “weep”).
For Ary Vasconcelos the word choro derives from choromeleiros, group of musicians dating back to the Brazilian colonial period: “for the people, naturally, any instrumental ensemble should always be called choromeleiros, an expression that ended up being shortened to choro.”
What is the structure of choro?
With a 2/4 time signature, the traditional choro has three 16-bar parts (A, B, C) played in rondo. Inspired mainly by the polka style, the traditional form of choro appeared as AA BB A CC A and remained this way until the middle of the 20th century, when 2-part choros started to be accepted. “Apanhei-te Cavaquinho” (Ernesto Nazareth) and “Tico-Tico no Fubá” (Zequinha de Abreu) are typical examples of the 3-part form.
Interestingly enough Ernesto Nazareth adds a transition segment before part C in some of his compositions, deviating from the above rule: “Escorregando,” “Nenê,” “Ranzinza” and “Ouro sobre Azul” are examples.
When Pixinguinha launched his two-part choro “Carinhoso” in 1928, he was criticized and did not achieve success at first. The rule “choro must have three parts” was strongly in force at that time. “Carinhoso” only experienced success when lyrics were added to the tune in 1937.
“Brasileirinho” by Waldir Azevedo (released in 1949) was a stunning success in Brazil and overseas, and definitely cleared the way for breaking the taboo around two-part choros.
It is important to note that many old choro recordings do not literally follow the form AA BB A CC A due to technical restrictions of that era in regards to recording time (limited to around 3 minutes), omitting certain repetitions. Especially in the case of slow choros, many recordings followed the form A B A C A, or A BB A in the case of 2-part choros. So when you see a choro score that does not follow the traditional form, it might be that it is a literal transcription of an original recording. This is the case, most of the time, for the scores in all our books.
 Gomes, Laurentino: “1808” - 2. edição - São Paulo - Editora Planeta do Brasil - 2007;
 SIQUEIRA, João Baptista. Três vultos históricos da música brasileira: Mesquita, Callado e Anacleto. Rio de Janeiro: Sociedade Cultural e Artística Uirapuru/ MEC, 1969, pg.98;
 Ary Vasconcelos: “Panorama da Música Popular Brasileira na Belle Époque” - Rio de janeiro - Livraria Sant’Anna - 1977