How to Analyze Chord Progressions in Jazz Standards
Being able to breakdown the harmony of a tune is essential for any musician and/or improviser. Knowing the role of certain chords in the scale and why they do the things they do is what will make you able to navigate chord changes effectively. We will be discussing these things and more in this lesson on harmonic analysis for jazz guitar.
In this lesson, we will be discussing some of the nuts and bolts of this information so you can start breaking down your favorite standards and really gaining a comprehensive understanding of how they work.
Harmonic Analysis: Reference Material
In order to understand some of the material we will be discussing here, it is important that you have a good understanding of some of the fundamentals. Luckily, we have previously created all of the materials you will need for that very purpose.
Guitar Chords Theory – A step by step introductory lesson on the ins and outs of chord construction from building triads to adding upper extensions.
Guitar Scales Theory – Another step by step intro lesson, only this one is for scale construction and theory.
No Nonsense Guide to Jazz Harmony – Here, we are discussing some of the more common progressions, turnarounds, and so forth that can be found in so many popular jazz standards.
Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Chord Progressions – And lastly, this is the beginner’s guide to jazz chord progressions. This one touches more on modulations, and major/minor harmony.
It is important that you have a good grasp on these concepts and, additionally, form. Let’s talk about that.
Harmonic Analysis: Analyzing a Tune
In analyzing a tune, the very first thing I like to determine is the form and key signature. Key signatures are covered in our scales theory page, but form is basically the structure of a given tune.
In a form, each section of a tune is given a letter, and the sections are marked by the ends of phrases. In a typical 32 bar form, there are usually four 8-measure phrases. One of the more common forms is the AABA form.
Let’s take the popular rhythm changes progression.
Here is the first “A” section of the form. This section ends in what is known as a “half cadence”. A half cadence is a cadence to the V chord.
Next, we have the 2nd “A”. You will notice that the end of it is slightly different, but it’s really not enough to call it A1 because it is simply giving us the cadence to the I chord. The melodies are also tailored to fit the form, so only a few minor modifications are made.
This brings us to the “B” section of the form. Here, it simply cycles through dominant chords starting from the III to get back to the I in the last “A”.
And lastly, we have our last “A” section. Much like the 2nd “A” above, this one is “cadencing” back to the tonic chord to complete the tune.
Harmonic Analysis: Just Friends
This is a great tune to start with. Beginner students are often confused about the key signature because it starts on the IV chord. This is actually a pretty unusual way to start a tune. We will analyze the harmony as we talk about the form a bit.
In addition to starting on the IV chord, this tune also has a bit of an unusual form. You might think it’s ABAB, but the two B sections are different enough that we are going to call them B1 and B2.
When in doubt, be sure to look at the melody. The melody will always be the best indication of the actual form.
Here’s the first A section of the tune.
We are in the key of G, so the first chord here is Cmaj7 which is IVmaj7. Next, we have IVm to bVII7 – I prefer to call this the backdoor II-V to the tonic (G). It gets its “backdoor” name because the dominant chord approaches the tonic chord from a whole-step below. Some also like to call this II-V of bIII.
The next 4 bars start on the I chord and then goes to bIIIm to bVI7. I like to call this a chromatic II-V. We see this sort of thing happening in the “Bird Blues.”
Here’s the first B section.
The first 4 bars here are fairly simple to analyze, they all belong to the tonic key of G.
| Am7 – IIm7 | D7 – V7 | Bm7 – IIm7 | Em7 – VIm7 |
In the next 4 bars, we have a II7 dominant chord. This section will require a little bit of critical thinking.
A dominant II chord is usually an indication of secondary dominant to the V chord. In this case, it would be setting up a chord on D. However, to add a little bit extra harmonic flair, the composer added its related II chord which happens to be Am7. Then, to go back to the IV chord at the beginning of the A, there’s a tritone substitution (Db7 – Cmaj7).
In the next 4 bars, we have the same A section.
No further analysis required there.
And finally, the last B section.
The analysis of the harmony is more or less the same, but the harmonic rhythm changes and there is also a cadence to the I chord. The melody also changes significantly to reach the end of the tune.
Now let’s go ahead and put it all together.
The next step, now, is to take this method and apply it to any tune you know!
This is mostly a primer, but with this and the reference material provided at the beginning of the lesson, you should be able to tackle most obstacles with regard to harmonic analysis.
Really, you should make it a habit to learn tunes this way. It will be much easier to tackle playing them in different keys if you’re playing with singers.
Jonathan Orriols is a guitar player out of Miami, Florida with 20 years of experience. He writes and performs music in several groups spanning different genres such as jazz, blues, and rock. He also studied composition for film, tv, and games through Berklee’s online program.