How to Play: Latin piano

01 October 2022
By John Geraghty
Songwriter, pianist and music producer John Geraghty presents Part 4 of his series: ‘How to Play’. In this lesson, he takes a look at Latin piano, and gives a step-by-step guide on creating a 'Montuno' – a popular Latin groove.

This series covers many piano genres including Contemporary Classical, Rock n Roll, Country, Blues, New Orleans, Jazz, Pop, Funk, Boogie Woogie, Ragtime, Rock, Gospel and Ballad style. Each article will demonstrate plenty of playing techniques and tips to help broaden your musical knowledge and repertoire of different genres!

Let’s jump straight in and look at the history of Latin music first.



Famous Latin pianists and composers

There are many… Where do we begin? Antônio Carlos Jobim, Sérgio Mendes, Eddie Palmieri are a few to name. Antônio Carlos Jobim was known as the ‘Father of the Bossa Nova.’ His most famous song, The Girl From Ipanema, is one of the most recorded songs to be covered of all time. Sérgio Mendes played bossa nova piano and merged it with Jazz and Funk style. His Oscar-nominated song was Real in Rio. Eddie Palmieri is a Grammy award-winning pianist as well as bandleader, arranger and composer.


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Styles of Latin Music

Mambo, Chachacha, Cumbia, Bachata, Rumba, Bolero, Bossa Nova, Salsa, Tango, Son Montuno, Merengue to name a few. In this lesson, we will be focusing on the Montuno style.



What is a Montuno?

Translated to mean ‘from the mountains’, a Montuno is a two-bar ostinato figure using syncopated rhythms. Playing a Montuno will make your piano playing sound like it’s coming from the streets of Brazil!

The main groove is shown below. It starts with a crotchet before moving on to a quaver, which marks the start of the syncopated rhythm. Try playing the example below. Play along with a metronome to get a better feel for the syncopated rhythms.


We can use this rhythm over any chord. Let’s use C major as an example. Start with the C major chord in root position. Use the root note of the chord, C, as your starting note and then use the other two notes of the chord, E and G, alternating between the two. Remember to repeat the two-bar rhythm.

Once you have a good feel for the rhythm, the next step is to add in the left hand, duplicating the right hand an octave lower.

Next, create octaves in the right hand by doubling up the single C notes.


You can also change from the root position of the chord to either the first or second inversion.

First inversion: Play the left hand an octave higher.

Second inversion: Play the left hand an octave higher.


What is a Tumbao?

The left-hand rhythm is called a Tumbao, which roughly translates to either ‘groove’ or ‘swing.’

One way to play a Tumbao in the left hand is shown below. You’ll notice that the first note is tied over from a previous bar. To start the bass line off, ignore the first tied note. Then, when you repeat the two bars, add in the tied note into bar 1 again.


Now, add it with the right-hand Montuno that we learnt earlier.


How does rhythm and harmony vary in Latin piano music?

Latin rhythms use a lot of two-bar syncopated rhythms, often overlapping bars between each bar. The harmony often uses chromatic notes in the right hand descending and ascending following syncopated patterns.


Variation 1 

Arpeggiate any chord by breaking up the root, third and fifth note. Shown below in brackets is a C major arpeggio.


Variation 2

Using the second inversion chord shape, start with the fifth note of the chord in the right and left hand, this being note G shown below. Follow this by adding in the sixth note of the chord - note A, using octaves.


Variation 3
Descending line. Starting in the root position, descend down the major scale from C - B - A octaves in the right hand and single notes in the left hand, and back up again.


Variation 4

This one uses the second inversion starting position and leads the octaves chromatically up and down two semitones: G - G# - A - Ab - G in the right hand and uses single notes in the left hand.



How do we play minor chords in a Latin style?


Up to now we’ve focused on only using a C major chord. All the examples above can be repeated in exactly the same way, using minor chords. 


Variation 1

Below shows the same chromatic ascending and descending line (G - G# - A - Ab - G) as the previous example, except we are using a Cm chord when playing thirds.


Variation 2

Another popular variation on minor chords is to take the octaves lower by two semitones. Below shows the octaves going from C - B - Bb - B - C.


Latin chord progressions


Shown below are some popular Latin chord progressions. Try them out using all the techniques above.


C - Cmaj7 - C7 - C6 - C7 - Cmaj7 - C

Cm - Dm7b5 - G7 - Cm

C - Cmaj7 - C7 - Cmaj7 - C


Now that we know how to play over a chord in root, first and second inversion and have some popular chord progressions to choose from, let’s use the last chord progression and create some Latin piano!


Things to remember...


  • Use root, first and second inversion chords
  • Play octaves, thirds and fourths in the right hand and single notes in the left hand
  • Repeat top-line melodies in the right hand with single notes in the left hand
  • Use syncopated rhythms in both hands

Next up in the How to Play series, we take a closer look at Ballad piano.


About the author:

John Geraghty is a songwriter, music producer, pianist, author, teacher and entrepreneur. Although John is a classically trained pianist, his passion lies in songwriting and music producing. He has studied most genres of music including pop, jazz, gospel, country, and blues piano.

He is the author of The Complete Classical Piano Course and Playing By Ear – A Songwriter's Way and has his own online music school. His teaching method is simple and direct: "Leave out everything that is not necessary and teach the student what they really want to know."