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Working Out Chords

a.k.a. When Good Charts Go Bad!
By Warren Sirota
There are a lot of bad charts out there. When I was a teenager, the "urban semimyth" that circulated among the local garage bands was that all the wrong
chords in the charts that we bought were put there deliberately, to avoid
violating some obscure principal of copyright law (the "if you change a note, its
not copyright violation" theory. Hey, we were teenagers!) Anyway, we didnt
seem to grasp the fact that the authorized publishers of a song can hardly be
guilty of copyright violation.
But I digress. Charts that are close but have some questionable spots are not
only found in legitimate published sheet music, but also (no surprise) in
unauthorized collections of songs and also in the charts that musicians make for
each other.
So how do you correct a problematic chart? You get one or more great recordings
of the song in question and listen to what they did there. Then you decide
whether or not you want to do the same thing.
Its pretty easy to work out chords if you have any tool that facilitates repeating
a section of music over and over again. This might be an A-B repeat switch on a
CD player, an looping tool in an audio editing or playback program, or a tool
designed expressly for this type of purpose. I am the author of such a tool,
SlowGold, and I will use that to illustrate the technique, but the general
principles apply regardless of what tool you use.
Working out harmonies from recordings usually consists of several steps:
1. Figure out what the bass is doing
2. Transcribe the melody notes
3. Use logic to narrow the possible chords and trial-and-error to
discover the correct ones
Case Study
I will give a jazz example, but the technique applies equally well to many other
forms of music.
Felicidade is a great samba by the late Antonio Carlos Jobim, Brazils most
popular musical export. It was featured in the classic film, Black Orpheus, and
has become a standard played frequently by jazz artists the world over.



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It also has a very unusual form, as it doesnt follow the AABA structure common
to so many songs. In fact, there are no repeated sections. The only repetition is
a motif of descending half-notes that appears twice, effectively marking off the
two halves of the song.
I was lucky to have a pretty decent chart to start with. But a few of the chord
choices didnt quite work for me, and I wanted to see if I could do better, since I
like to play the tune fairly often at the gigs.
So I sat down with two excellent recordings Joe Hendersons recording from
Double Rainbow, with Elaine Elias, Oscar Castro-Neves, Nico Assumpcao and
Paulo Braga, and Astrud Gilbertos recording from the classic Look To The
Rainbow. The Henderson recording is a modern take, and the Gilberto cut
fortunately escaped the cheesy organ that mars several songs on that record. In
fact, Gilbertos recording has some rather muscular and appealing percussion
propelling it.
The first thing I discovered, naturally, was that the two recordings were in
different keys than each other, which were different still from the chart that I
had, so some transposition was going to be involved when mentally shifting
modes between the songs. But, since I had already taken the time to input my
chart for the tune into a notation file (my handwritten notation is really hard to
read), it was easy to print out versions in each of the keys to work with.
The next thing I noticed was that Henderson repeated the first 8 bars, whereas
Gilberto didnt (and neither did my chart). When that happens, you have to
consult your own judgement. I kind of liked Hendersons approach the
transition to the second phrase has always seemed a little abrupt to me, and this
seems to ameliorate that effect.
Bottoms Up!
The first thing to do when working out chords is to boost the bass. More often
than not, the bass will be playing the roots of the songs chords, at least on the
first beat of the measure. This helps, because it can be a little hard to
discriminate bass pitches. If necessary, use a looping tool to play a single full
bass note over and over again, and grope for notes on your instrument until you
find the bass note.
About groping for notes it doesnt sound dignified, and you cant be proud of it
like you can instant pitch recognition, but how do you think you develop better
pitch recognition? By practicing it like this.
As you play various notes on your instrument against a repeating chord or note,
you will identify some notes as being clearly dissonant with what is played, some
that are clearly in the chord, some that seem consonant with the chord but add
something to the flavor (these would be chord extensions). Hopefully, you will
identify the bass note. Perhaps in the process youll identify other notes that are
being played.
An overall, "common sense" listen serves to clarify the arrangement. How many
instruments are playing? What is each one doing? In Hendersons arrangement,



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the somewhat extended intro is played by bass, sparse drums and guitar.
Henderson enters on horn for the melody, while the piano craftily sneaks in
halfway through the head.
The intro looks like this:

(click here to listen)

How do you put chord symbols over these notes? Well, the strongest indication is
the first bass note of the 2-bar repeated phrase. Its an A. With that strong bass
note, you know its some "flavor" of A which basically means Am, Amaj, A7, A+
or A diminished (most of the other "flavors" of chords, like 11ths, 13ths, etc. are
essentially variations of 7th chords). You can immediately eliminate A+, if you
know the strong characteristic taste of an augmented scale, and A diminished,
since diminished chords are just about always passing chords no-one ever sits
for eight measures on a diminished chord.
But if you listen to the guitar part, you find it alternates between two pair of
open strings the G/B pair, and the B/E pair. Now the note E is part of all 3
chord candidates. G is the 7th of A, and is part of either an Am7 or A7 chord, but
is not consistent with any form of A major chord. So major chords are out. Also,
B is the 9th of either an Am or A major scale, so, on the evidence of the first
guitar and bass notes, the chord is either an Am9 or an A9. If the feel of the song
doesnt tell you immediately that the chord is Am9, the 2nd bass note, C, will. C
is part of Am9 but not A9.
So here you have 2 measures of static harmony, Am9. You could write it either
| Am9 | Am9 |
or, more accurately (including the bass) as:
| Am9 Am9/C | Am9/D Am9/E |
At the beginning of that 2nd measure, the bass note is a D. Its one of those
fairly unusual cases where the bass note on beat one is not only not the tonic,
but is not even really in the chord. You can view Am9/D as a suspended chord
(one where the 4th replaces the 3rd) with the 4th in the bass.



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The chord and bass pattern of Hendersons intro occurs at several other sections
of the song where the harmony is essentially a static Am for a couple of
measures. It a less-cliched substitute for the | Am Am/maj7 | Am7 Am/maj7 |
that you often find in bossas (and jazz as well).
The same chords and bass line constitute the first two measures of the head.
The Gilberto version also employs a very similar motion at this point, so maybe
its safe to consider that as part of the song rather than an idosyncratic
arranging trick. In measure 3 of the head, they diverge. You can very clearly
hear the bass in Hendersons recording going from C to G, meaning that the song
has gone from Am to the relative major key, C major (the B that was the 9 in the
Am9 is now the major 7 in a C major 7 chord) . It adds a distinctive lilt that is
very appealing.
General Principles of Deduction
Usually, you can get pretty far by knowing the bass note and melody note at any
given time (if theyre different, anyway. If theyre the same, they dont give you
much information). Its almost often enough to analyze the chords at beats 1 and
3; rarely do chords change in between those beats.
If you assume that the bass note is either the root, major or minor third, or fifth
of the chord, youll see that all the likely chords are based on C, Ab, A or F.
Heres a table that shows you the chords to try for any bass/melody combination
where the bass is C. You can transpose this principle readily to other keys.


Implied Chord(s) in order of




C Maj or C7


Cm, C7#9

C7sus4, F/C


C7b5, C dim, G#7

C7, C, Cm


Fm, Ab, C+

C6, Am, F


C7, Cm7




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