I'm in the habit of writing lead sheets down for songs I learn, and the second chord of this stumped me. The notes are, starting at the bottom, G#, F, B E.

The context is

| Am6 | % | chord x | % |

| Gm7 | C9 | FΔ | % |

| Fm6 | % | E7(b9) | A7#5 |

| D6 | Dm9 | F6 | Fm6 |

(the 4 bar turnaround can be done a million different ways, but this is just to give musical context)

The voicing of the first 3 chords would be something like:

enter image description here

You could call it G#o7(#5) (the best option I've come up with), but this implies a sharpened five, whereas to me, the E sounds like an extension rather than a modification of the diminished triad (i.e, if you could have both a D natural and an E natural in the chord and it wouldn't alter the quality of it). You could call it G#o7b13 or G#o7b13, but that implies the existence of a 9, which you doesn't work, and in any case, what would a 9 even mean in the context of a diminished chord? Gm6(#5) is no good, because it loses that it's a diminished chord altogether.

And outside of the more technical question of how to name it. What actually is it? It's tempting to just chalk this interesting chord up to "good voice leading", but I think it's more than that: it sounds remarkably "stable" for such a "dissonant" chord, if that makes any sense. Obviously the context really helps it, but it is a really interesting and gorgeous chord just in its own right.


3 Answers 3


I learned two interpretations of that chord. First, note that the same or similar progressions are very common, e.g. in the key of C:

|| Em7 Ebdim7 | Dm7 G7 | Cmaj7 ||

That part of Corcovado temporarily resolves to Fmaj7, so you have to transpose the above progression to F:

|| Am7 Abdim7 | Gm7 C7 | Fmaj7 ||

which is basically the same as the original Corcovado progression.

I take one possible interpretation of the second chord in that progression from the book The Chord Scale Theory & Jazz Harmony by B. Nettles and R. Graf, used at Berklee College of Music. There they explain that diminished chord as a descending passing chord, which is one of three functions of diatonically functioning diminished chords. It is derived from chromatic resolution to the II chord (Gm7). The b13 in the chord is just a valid tension which comes from the melody.

According to this interpretation, you would call that chord A♭dim7 (or A♭dim7(add♭13) if you wanted to be really specific).

I've also learned another interpretation from my jazz teacher at university. According to that theory, that chord is a #IVdim7 chord, resolving to the V. We have to see this here in the key of F (which is where we resolve to), so the chord is a Bdim7 resolving to C7. Delaying the dominant by its related II chord is a common thing to do, so it's not surprising that the progression ... Bdim7 | Gm7 C7 | also works. The actual chord in Corcovado would then be a Bdim7(add 11)/Ab. Again, the tension is taken from the melody, and the bass note is motivated by the strong chromatic movement from A via Ab to G.

Note that the latter interpretation derives the diminished chord from a dominant resolution (Bdim7 functions as a dominant for C7), unlike in the first interpretation, where it is derived from a chromatic resolution.

What is important after all, is how you hear that chord. Those theoretical interpretations are only valuable as long as they can be heard when playing the music. It's a good exercise to try to hear the chord in the above interpretations and make a choice as to which interpretation appears more plausible to you. In such a case there is no right or wrong.

  • I cheated, looking at a real book. The quoted chord is G#o b13, close to your 1st example. But I think the bass line is just moving down chromatically, so it doesn't have to be a G# or Ab anything. The next Gm7 is a secondary dominant, followed by tts (Gb7) to the F.
    – Tim
    Sep 5, 2017 at 8:16
  • 1
    @Tim: Yes, in most lead sheets I saw you find it as a G#dim7 (usually even without the b13). That's not wrong of course, but it doesn't really explain much.
    – Matt L.
    Sep 5, 2017 at 10:58
  • How can it be G#dim7? That would be G# B D F, not G# B E F. But there is at least one typo in the OP's music example (G# in the third chord, not G natural) - are there more than one? Those who don't know the song can only try to answer the question as written, not what the question should have been!
    – user19146
    Sep 5, 2017 at 14:05
  • 2
    @alephzero: It can be called G#dim7, if the note E is considered a tension. The D is replaced by the E, that's common, just as in a 13 chord, where the 5th is replaced by the 13. I don't say it actually IS a G#dim7, but what I'm saying is that it could be considered a G#dim7.
    – Matt L.
    Sep 5, 2017 at 14:17
  • @alephzero: And yes, there is a typo, it clearly is G natural. Note that the song's title is in the title of the question, so I chose to answer according to what I know about the song.
    – Matt L.
    Sep 5, 2017 at 14:20

I have a much simpler solution to what others have posted:

The 2nd chord is just a good old fashioned dominant chord (in 1st inversion) with a b9, in other words:


This explains why the E sounds like a fundamental part of the chord, it is in fact the root. The G# is just a nice bit of chromatic bass movement through first inversion, and the F natural gives us that nice spicy chromaticism as a b9. If you play and sing the song without the b9, it still works.

By the way this chord is used quite often in Brazilian music (presumably thanks to Jobim). João Bosco and Paulinho da Viola are two musicians I can think of who like using this chord as a chromatic passing chord.

  • +1 That's what it feels like to me as well. But of course, when talking about harmony, in a way, all perspectives are "correct" in the sense that however you see the situation, then that is what you operate on and that's your reality. One might think about voice leading or texture, or in terms of tonic-subdominant-dominant. Or "what can I leave out and still make the tune recognizeable". Or "my guitarist only knows Am, Dm and E, so which one of those do I tell him to play." Nov 29, 2022 at 9:51

The traditional chord that appears in this place is G13b9, which totally fits what you see here: the b9 (Ab) is at the bottom, and you don't have the root of the chord in this voicing. A rootless G7b9 chord has the same notes as G#o7. On a diminished 7 chord, all notes 1/2 under a chord note are valid chord extensions, which is the case for E.

So my call is G13/Ab or Eb9/G#.

  • Could you elaborate on this a little, with examples?
    – Some_Guy
    Sep 5, 2017 at 15:56
  • 1
    My copy of The Real Book has A♭°7 here, but G13/A♭ seems entirely reasonable. What do you mean by "traditional chord" in your answer, and why would you choose to call this a 13/♭9 chord over a dim7 chord?
    – user39614
    Sep 5, 2017 at 22:13
  • Abo7 and rootless G7b9 have the same pitches. The interesting bit in the voicing is the E (the 13th from G) which is the lead, and is not part of the Abo7 pitches (but a valid extension to a o7 chord), hence my suggestion for 2 chords which include E. Sep 8, 2017 at 9:24

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