The bridge from the tune “Girl from Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994) has long been a source of discussion concerning the workings of the harmony. I have often wondered myself about how it works and decided to take a crack at an explanation. I and others have probably played this tune thousands of times throughout the years and managed to do a decent solo as the scale choices are clear enough, but how do these chords function harmonically? What is their relationship to the home key? They seem at first to be a rather random harmonic progression but as you will see this is not the case.

Melodically it is clear that we have four four measure phrases. The first three phrases are simply transposed restatements (sequential repetitions) of the material in the first four measures:

1) Measures 1-4 (F# Major)

2) Measures 5-8 (E Major)

3) Measures 9-12 (F Major) 

The last four bars are a turnaround based on a second two bar melodic sequence. 

So, no problem so far melodically. What makes this section so compelling is the harmony. Here is what I think is going on:

Jobim simply decides to move up one half-step to begin the bridge (F major to F# major). 

He then, as is fairly typical of many tunes, converts the tonic (F#Maj7) to minor (F#m7) creating what is now a functional ii chord as is confirmed by the move to the V (B7).  I did take the liberty of introducing the F#m7 early as shown with parentheses to make the harmony clearer. This was a missing part of the puzzle for me and may be in the original since we all know the jazz changes we are accustomed to can sometimes be different. 

This now moves the key to E major and is the start of a common variation of the turnaround progression: 

F#m7 (ii) Am7 (iv) D7 (bVII) in which two “borrowed chords” (iv and bVII) are utilized. These are referred to as “borrowed” because they are borrowed from the parallel minor key of E minor in this case. These are two of the most commonly found altered chords and occur in many tunes. 

Jobim could have completed the turnaround as follows: 

F#m7 (ii) Am7 (iv) D7 (bVII) G#m7 (iii) C#7 (V/ii) F#m7 (ii) B7 (V) EMaj7 (I) 

But, he needed to get back to the home key of F major and in order to do that he cut short the turnaround at the point of the D7 chord, changing its function from a bVII to a true dominant function (in this case a secondary dominant, V/ii) in F major to begin the completed turnaround progression he had earlier cut short:

Gm7 (ii) Bbm7 (iv) Eb7 (bVII) Am7 (iii) D7 (V/ii) Gm7 (ii) C7 (V) 

This of course brings us back to the home key and the restatement of the “A” section. 

Please download the pdf below as this should help clarify things. I would be very interested to know if anyone has the original score to see exactly how Jobim wrote this bridge. The chords in parentheses may or may not be in the original. This shouldn’t change my analysis in any way as it is quite common for harmonies to be present through implication only.

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August 12, 2017 @01:27 pm
carlos campos
La veo como una pequeña progresion I- IV, que se va moviendo primero un tono 1/2 arriba, y luego un semitono ( de F# a A y luego a Bb). cada una hace I tonal y IV modal (F# B7 / A D7 / Bb Eb7 ) ,,,en lugar de A puso F#- , y en lugar de Bb , G- .
November 16, 2016 @02:51 pm
Mucea George
I think that this bridge has a clear direction if we make one single substitution. Substitute the first chord F# with D#, and all the harmonic structure become a simple sequential repetitions on descending thirds: D#m-B7, F#m-D7, Gm-Eb7....and then the turnaround. And the substition is typical.
March 23, 2016 @11:02 am
David Robinson
I made a mistake in my comment. It should read "BbMaj7 to Eb9 (not F9)." So I am thinking of revising my arrangement and doing the AbMaj7 to Db9, Abm9 to Fb9, then Am9 to F9 going back in the key of G Major. Then I will doa bridge of BbMaj7 to Eb9, Bbmin9 to F#9, the Bmin9 to G9 and finish the song in A Major.
September 05, 2015 @09:31 am
David Robinson
I did a string orchestra arrangement of it for my youth orchestra in the key of G. Instead of having the bridge begin with AbMaj7 to E9, I had it begin it BbMaj7 to F9, then Ab-9 to Fb9, then A-9 to F9, then finish with Bm7 to E w/flat9 and #5, then A-7 to D w/flat9 and #5.
August 13, 2015 @11:13 am
Jeff Bridge
Fantastic analysis mate! Just what I needed.
July 30, 2015 @02:15 pm
I don't hear the bridge particularly centered around Fmaj -- I think of each four-bar phrase as a distinct little unit that moves from a major key to its parallel melodic minor. F#maj moves to F# melodic min at the B7. Amaj (F#m7) moves to A melodic minor on the D7. Finally, Bb maj (Gm7) moves to Bb melodic min over the Eb7. This relies on interpreting the m7 chords as vi rather than ii, but to my ear, conserving all but one note in the scale is a very pleasing effect. Cheers!
January 03, 2014 @06:29 pm
Much obliged for the clear explanation. Love Jobim's work.
December 11, 2013 @01:55 am
Aaron Wilson
Most helpful analysis I've ever come across. Thanks for finally clearing this up.
November 27, 2013 @05:06 pm
Kevin Hindle
I am a ukulele player, lately become interested in deepening my understanding of harmonic structure. 'Ipanema' has always baffled me - mostly because there are so many different variants of several of the chords written as though they were gospel. Also many of these variants are given wrong names (See for instance the Jim Beloff '60's Uke-in book. The last chord in the bridge is actually a c7flat 9flat5 but it is called only a c7 flat 5). Anyway, your ianalysisis a revelation. It provides insights that transcend the specifics of the song. Thanks mate.
July 02, 2012 @09:47 am
james seaberry
I like that.

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