Harmonic Analysis of a Classic Brazilian Tune

by Joe Mulholland

Joe Mulholland, a professor in the Harmony Department, is a pianist, composer, and recording artist. He coauthored The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony with fellow faculty member Tom Hojnacki.

Of all the diverse and beautiful popular song traditions worldwide, I believe that of Brazil stands head and shoulders above the rest. The amazing variety, subtlety, and depth of the music are evident in all aspects of the repertoire: harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and lyric. At its best, the music transcends its commercial context and rises to the level of art song.

I have happily taught “The Harmony of Brazilian Song” for over 15 years, a course that surveys and analyzes the best of Brazilian popular music from 1920 to the present day. I am indebted to Matthew Nicholl for his extensive work in creating the conceptual framework and repertoire collection of the original course, including the transcription of the song “A Mais Bonita” shown below.

I will use harmonic analysis of the tune to point out some techniques that are widely used by Brazilian songwriters. Rhythmic and melodic analysis would reveal similar creativity and innovation.

We can identify three very broad historical and stylistic categories for Brazilian popular songs: classic samba, bossa nova, and “MPB” (musica popular Brasilieira or Brazilian popular music). It’s as diverse and inclusive as referring to “American Popular Music” from the 1960s to the present. In both countries from the mid-sixties onward, there was an explosion of stylistic diversity and a hunger for experimentation. “A Mais Bonita” was penned by perhaps the greatest songwriter of the MPB era: Francisco Buarque de Holanda, popularly known as “Chico” Buarque.

Like all the great MPB songwriters, Chico had roots firmly in the samba and bossa nova traditions. He and his contemporaries extended this vocabulary considerably. He is a master at creating long, colorful progressions linked by linear bass lines, deceptive resolutions, and common tones in a way that often obscures traditional tonic, subdominant, and dominant functions. “A Mais Bonita” is just one example of his harmonic skills.

The song is divided into two parts: the introductory verse and the chorus, or main body of the song. The tune is nominally in the key of B-flat, but the tonic chord appears just four times in 37 bars, for a total of only 10 beats! Chico uses a wide variety of harmonic strategies to create a harmonic narrative that stretches the limits of the tonality, yet still sounds natural and flowing.

 Bbmaj7 in bar one immediately gives way to V7/IV that resolves not to the expected Ebmaj7, but to Eb-6 and Ab7 instead. These are common cadential modal-interchange chords that typically return to the I chord. Here they “dissolve” gradually to G7: Eb-6 and Ab7 both share a tritone with D7 (V7/VI), so all three of those chords direct the listener to the G7 goal. Along the way, D-7b5 is interpolated as a subdominant partner to the G7sus4/G7. The effect of these cumulative resolutions and suspensions in several voices is unpredictable, but subtle. They set the stage for continuing unexpected outcomes.

The chromatic bass line continues in bars 6 through 8. G-7 appears to be an interpolated “dual function” chord: tonic function in Bb, but acting locally as a related II-7 (subdominant preparation) of C7.  However, the secondary dominant potential of C7 (V7/V) is not fulfilled, so G-7 finally acts as IV-7 of the D- /A in bar 7. Bb-6 and A7 also share a common tritone, and resolve directly to D-.  After the restless opening bars, its relatively stable tonic function is underlined by its duration of a full measure. It immediately evolves into D-7b5, the related II of G7, V/II in bar 8. The G7 does not resolve per se, but is still followed by the alternate subdominant IV chord in bar 9. Just as in the prior phrase, G- sets up A7, but this time, F in bar 11 is substituted for the D- that was heard in bar 7. 

At this point, I abandon Roman numerals temporarily until bar 17. The lack of dominant resolution and other tonicizing factors give this region a sense of transitional, overlapping tonalities. Multiple implied key centers are an important stylistic feature of Chico’s music. The tonal ambiguity is part of the appeal of his songs.

As the V of the key, the F chord in bar 11 would usually have strong dominant function, but the inverted triadic voicing, and parallel phrase position and duration with the earlier D- obscure the typical harmonic imperative. Instead, it progresses to the bIII of the key of Bb, a darkly colorful tonic modal interchange.  With a chromatic alteration, Db becomes the related II chord of G7, which again progresses to the “other” subdominant: IV instead of II In bar 12. Raising the fifth of the Eb chord in bar 13 sets the stage for the appearance of Abmaj7 in the next bar. The Abmaj7, Ab7, and A-7 in measures 14 through 16 make a fascinating six-beat root pattern across three bars: Ab, Ab; A, Ab; Ab, A. The three chords have strong functional identities in G major, but the melody implies otherwise. The bass motion ends back on A natural, the leading tone of Bb, underpinning a V chord, which finally resolves as expected to Imaj7 in bar 17, the start of the chorus.

The melody in the verse is vintage Chico; severely restricted in scope. The first half of each line is a lightly decorated workout on a single pitch (see bars 1, 5, 9, and 13.)  Taken in sequence, they also form a pattern: 5 – 3 – 6 – 4.

The chorus melody, by contrast, is sweepingly lyrical. The relentless half-note harmonic rhythm continues, starting in bar 17 with a chord progression similar to that of the song’s opening two bars. The phrase structure is unusual here. Starting in bar 17, the melodic phrases are in groups of three, two, two, and then one bar.  Measure 24 serves as a pickup measure to the next phrase, (bars 25-27) which is a modified restatement of measures 17-19.

In bars 25 through 28, we hear a pattern of whole step bass motion: E-F#, Eb-F, G-A and Bb Ab. Using the bassline as a powerful organizing force is found in other tunes Chico has written. He creates progressions that have clear forward motion, but transcend typical functional patterns. In this phrase, I suggest that he touches on G minor and Db as briefly implied tonalities. Other interpretations are possible, but there is a subtle suggestion of symmetrical organization of tonic keys (G/Bb/Db, with E being absent). Chico and other Brazilian writers often exploit parallel and relative relationships to great effect.

From bar 31 onward, the harmony becomes more familiar and less searchingly ambiguous. It’s a fitting way to bring clarity and closure to an astonishing popular song.  Seek out the recording and listen repeatedly. Different facets of beauty emerge with every listening.