Jobim's How Insensitive - A Study in Voice-Leading

“How Insensitive” by Antonio Carlos Jobim is an excellent example of how a great composer can generate new and interesting harmonic relationships through voice-leading. This piece was inspired and partially based on Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 Op. 28 as you can easily hear. Much of the harmony in this work falls into the category known as ‘nonfunctional’ or familiar harmonic structures that move and resolve in ways other than what is expected according to the rules of functional harmony. For example we all know that G7 will normally resolve to C (dominant to tonic) or maybe Am or Ab (deceptive) but what about a resolution to Bb? Although it may be possible to explain some of these moves by stretching the rules of functional harmony, the simplest and to me the most logical explanation lies in the voice-leading. When we examine the voice-leading in this piece it is very easy to see how all these chords are connected through the step-wise motion of the voices. Of course chromatic motion is permitted and desirable and Jobim uses it quite a bit here.

I reduced the harmony to three voices which I believe is enough to convey the fundamental harmonic structure minus some color tones. I placed the lead sheet chord symbols above the reduction for easy comparison with the familiar charts of this tune.

Open the pdf below and play through the reduction. Notice how the voices either move by step (mostly descending) or are suspended over into the new harmony (common tone) before moving by step. The chords formed through this motion of the voices can be analyzed as familiar harmonies for the purposes of a lead sheet but will not make a whole lot of sense until the underlying voice-leading can be determined.

The two most important features that tie these nonfunctional harmonies together are:

1) Step-wise voice-leading.

2) Common tones shared by two or more successive chords.

There are many instances of functional harmony in this tune as well. Generally this occurs where the bass moves by descending fifth (ii-V-i). I marked these fifth progressions with a bracket.

The final two-part reduction shows the fundamental structure. Play through this as you sing the melody. Each half note equals two measures in the original. Quarter notes equal one measure:

Soprano Line

The soprano line begins on A (dominant) in measure one and descends step-wise to D (tonic) through the course of the piece.

Bass line

The bass begins on D (tonic) and descends chromatically to the A (dominant) before returning to tonic three different times as shown in the two-part reduction. Again, follow the dotted lines. Tonic harmony is enclosed with a box.

I hope this little analysis will help you better understand how this tune works, at least harmonically, as well as giving you some insight into the genius of Jobim.


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