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How Much Rhythm Do I Got?

An analysis of the chord progressions of jazz standards

Andrew Horwitz
The term contrafact has come to describe jazz songs that are built using the chord
progressions of other standards. (The New Grove) This process found greater popularity during
the bebop area, where chord progressions were mutated frequently in late-night clubs: two
notable examples include Back Home Again in Indiana (1917) being repurposed for Miles Davis
and Charlie Parker's Donna Lee (1947), and Charlie Parker adding many ii-V-I turnarounds to
the standard 12-bar blues progression in Blues for Alice (1951). Claims have been made about
the most common chord progressions, usually including the 12-bar blues and the changes to I
Got Rhythm, but little analysis has been done to confirm these claims. This project will be an
analysis of the information provided in the database discussed by Pachet et al. (2013), to which I
have been granted limited access to relevant API calls.
Past work on this subject is limited. Mauch et al. (2007) analyzed 244 songs from the Real
Book (one of the definitive collections of jazz standards) and the collection of 180 original
Beatles songs from studio albums. The researchers focus on progressions of 4 bars at a time and
found some sequences with enough correlation to be considered idiomatic, and also provide
some information on the frequency of the most common chord progressions for both corpora. I
hope to go more in-depth and provide wider and deeper analysis on this data, both on a section
level and a 4-bar chord progression level. Burgoyne et al. (2011) analyze a set of Billboard Top
100 songs, but their analysis is limited in both depth and breadth as the paper focused on the
creation of the dataset more than the analysis. A paper by de Haas and Burgoyne (2012) focuses
on writing an automatic parser of these songs but focuses more on timing; Van Balen et al.
(2013) focus on spectral analysis of the choruses to these songs.
I will approach my analysis from three relatively original directions: the first, which is
already almost complete, will be an analysis similar to that which Mauch et al. undertook, except
that I will also look at entire sections of songs for overlap and seeing how frequently certain
large scale progressions reoccur. My next focus will be short-scale progressions, counting every
three or four chords, to see how often certain tunes contain certain idiomatic sub-progressions;
Mauch et al. limited their definition of idiomatic at a maximum of four chords, but also
explicitly claimed that a ii->V->I progression was idiomatic in jazz. I am not yet certain what
my minimum will be, but my eventual goal is to gather raw frequency data both transposed
(treating each 3/4-bar phrase as independent of the key) and untransposed (considering each
phrase as part of its section's key). This will be my next focus after a majority of my other work
for the semester is complete, and should take a few days and be completed by the end of March.
My final means of analysis, given enough time, will be to look into how frequently and at
what point in chord progressions certain chord alterations and extensions are used; while a
majority of these are left to the performers' discretion, the original Real Book versions (and thus
the database of Pachet et al. ) include a significant amount. This will be done on an as-

accomplishable basis; I am not sure how deep the above two research directions will go nor how
much time I will use on them. I may also look into analyzing what progressions/alterations are
used more frequently in which time periods/jazz styles, though this will likely be done through
printouts from the database and manual analysis some of the information in the database I was
given access to is incomplete or incorrect; looking through my own copy of the Real Book or
searching online for recording information may be easier and more reliable, albeit slower. While,
for now, my research sample is limited to the original Real Book due to server constraints, I
intend to at least try to run a simple test on the full dataset if the database's owners allow it.
My motivation for this work is that, as an aspiring jazz composer, I do not yet know what
is, to use Mauch's term, idiomatic. I understand and know some of the basics; I can write a 12bar blues or can write a contrafact over the I Got Rhythm changes, but I would like to know
more of the other frequently-used chord progressions for inspiration. I also am interested in
contrafacts in general as an arranger hearing different melodies over familiar chord
progressions is sometimes an inspiration for further new arrangements. I hope that whatever I
may end up finding may also inspire future generations of jazz composers.

Absolu, B., T. Li, and M. Ogihara. 2010. Analysis of chord progression data. In Advances in
Music Information Retrieval, 16584. Berlin: Springer.
van Balen, J. M. H., J. A. Burgoyne, F. Wiering, and R. C. Veltkamp. 2013. An analysis of chorus
features in popular song. In Proceedings of the International Society for Music Information
Retrieval Conference, Curitiba, Brazil, 10712.
Burgoyne, J. A., J. Wild, and I. Fujinaga. 2011. An expert ground truth set for audio chord
recognition and music analysis. In Proceedings of the International Society for Music
Information Retrieval Conference, Miami, FL, 6338.
de Haas, W. B., and J. A. Burgoyne. 2012. Parsing the Billboard chord transcriptions. University
of Utrecht, Technical Report, Utrecht, The Netherlands.
Mauch, M., S. Dixon, and C. Harte. 2007. Discovering chord idioms through Beatles and Real
Book songs. In Proceedings of the International Society for Music Information Retrieval
Conference, Vienna, Austria, 2558.
The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed. s. v. Contrafact, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.
com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J543100 (accessed 17 March 2014).
Pachet, F., J. Suzda, and D. Martn. 2013. A comprehensive online database of machine-readable
leadsheets for jazz standards. In Proceedings of the International Society for Music Information
Retrieval Conference, Curitiba, Brazil, 27580.