The initial releases by Gilberto and the 1959 film Black Orpheus brought huge popularity in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, which spread to North America by way of visiting American jazz musicians. The resulting recordings by Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz cemented its popularity and led to a worldwide boom with 1963's Getz/Gilberto, numerous recordings by famous jazz performers such as Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Abraça Jobim) and Frank Sinatra (Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim), and the entrenchment of the bossa nova style as a lasting influence in world music for several decades and even up to the present.
The first bossa nova single was perhaps the most successful of all time: The Getz/Gilberto recording "The Girl From Ipanema" edited to include only the singing of Astrud Gilberto (Gilberto's then-wife). The resulting fad was not unlike the disco craze of the 1970s. The genre would withstand substantial "watering down" by popular artists throughout the next four decades.
An early influence of bossa nova was the song "Dans mon île" by French singer Henri Salvador, featured in a 1957 Italian movie distributed in Brazil (Europa di notte by Alessandro Blasetti) and covered later by Brazilian artists Eumir Deodato (Los Danseros en Bolero - 1964) and Caetano himself (Outras Palavras - 1981). In 2005, Henri Salvador was awarded the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit, which he received from singer and Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil, in the presence of President Lula for his influence on Brazilian culture.
Though not as prominent as the guitar, the piano is another important instrument of bossa nova; Jobim wrote for the piano and performed on it for most of his own recordings. The piano has also served as a stylistic bridge between bossa nova and jazz, enabling a great deal of cross-pollination between the two.
Drums and other percussion are generally not considered essential bossa nova instruments. Nonetheless, there is a distinctive bossa nova drumming style like that of Helcio Milito, characterized by continuous eighths on the high-hat (mimicking the samba tambourine) and tapping of the rim or "rim clicks" in a clave pattern. The bass drum usually mimics the string bass by playing on "1-&3-&1" as the string bass usually does.
Lush orchestral accompaniment is often associated with bossa nova's North American image as "elevator" or "lounge" music. It is present in much of Jobim's own recordings, and those of Astrud Gilberto. Dusty Springfield would both feature and epitomize this element on her Philips (versus the Phil Ramone version she first recorded) recording of "The Look of Love" (written by Bacharach and David, the song is one of the most respected American pop interpretations of the genre). The unique aural "texture" of bossa strings, when used, is an important secondary characteristic of the genre. Bossa nova is at heart a folk genre, and not all bossa nova records have strings, but the authentic ones that do have them feature them in a most distinct manner.
In terms of harmonic structure, bossa nova has a great deal in common with jazz, in its sophisticated use of seventh and extended chords. The first bossa nova song, "Chega de Saudade," borrowed some structural elements from choro; however, later compositions rarely followed this form. Jobim often used challenging, almost dissonant melody lines, the best-known being in the tunes "Desafinado" ("Off-Key"). Often the melody goes to the altered note in the chord. For example, if the chord is DM7#11, the note sung in the melody line there would be G#, or the sharp 11.
In the early bossa nova recordings, in terms of lyrical themes and length of songs (typically two to four minutes), bossa nova is very much a "popular music" style. However, its song structure often differs from European and North American rock-based music's standard format of two verses followed by a bridge, and a closing verse; bossa nova songs frequently have no more than two lyrical verses, and many lack a bridge. Some of João Gilberto's earliest recordings were less than two minutes long, and some had a single lyrical verse that was simply repeated.
Brazilian author Ruy Castro, in his book Bossa Nova, says that "bossa" was already in use in the fifties by musicians as a word to characterize someone's knack for playing or singing idiosyncratically. He cites a claim that the term "bossa nova" might have first been used in publicity for a concert given by the Grupo Universitário Hebraico do Brasil (University Hebrew Group of Brazil) in 1958 for a group consisting of Sylvinha Telles, Carlinhos Lyra, Nara Leão, Luizinho Eça, Roberto Menescal, et al.
They were likely using the term "bossa nova" then as a generic reference to what they were doing in music at the time, which had no particular name yet. However, the term took hold as the definition of their own specific artistic creation, which became known as "bossa nova", and is often simply known as "bossa" today.
From this newer crop of artists came new singers like Bebel Gilberto, daughter of bossa nova co-creator João Gilberto and singer Miúcha, and new European bands like Nouvelle Vague and Koop to name a few, who used both conventional bossa nova style and modern views to further interpret this fabulously soothing style of music that originated in Rio de Janeiro-Brazil back in the 1950s.