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I've been trying to learn more about music theory by transcribing songs. I am not bad at writing down the notes, but have a lot of trouble understanding the chords/harmony.

Below is a sketch of one such transcription. I have written down my guess at the chord names (which may have errors) but I have no idea how to understand their function in relation to one another.

Any feedback/help would be appreciated, but here are a few specific questions I would like help with.

  • As a classical musician, I am not familiar with chord notation. Are there any errors in my chord naming?
  • I used slash chord for some chords I found more complicated to analyze. Is it appropriate here and/or how would one name these chords without slash notation?
  • I really need help understanding the function of the chords, especially the half diminished chords. I could not find any cadence to latch onto, so I am not even sure what key this song is in.

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    @Max has provided you with a very good answer which I agree with (except maybe the last bar is B7sus4b9 on beat one then B7b9 on beat 3?). I see a few other chord spellings which are incorrect as well, for example, bar 8 beat 1 is F#m7 (there is no A#) and beat 3 is more like a Bsus, that bar being an unresolved ii V to I. There are others but I would suggest posting a link to the recording or at least the song title and artist and the time where this excerpt occurs. – John Belzaguy May 12 at 3:24
  • If that's alto sax, the written key won't be the same as that of the piano. – Tim May 12 at 6:31
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While providing a full analysis would be off-topic for this site, I'll give you a few points.

Errors

In bars 2 and 6, the bass note is A, so this chord should be analyzed as Am6.

In bar 8, on beat 3 you have written C♯m7, but the bass has a B. I would analyze this as B7sus4.

Slash chords vs. altered chords

In general, I think you are writing too many slash chords and too few chord alterations. Jazz pianists often use a RH upper structure that looks like another chord, so it can seem intuitive to analyze such voicings as slash chords, but writing it as an altered chord instead can make the function more transparent. Examples:

  • In bar 4, I would call the chord on beat 1 a C♯7♭9♭13 (spelled enharmonically).
  • Bar 10: usually chords like B/C♯ and D/E can be analyzed as 7sus4, although the slash notation isn't uncommon either.
  • Likewise, in bar 15 E/A is just Amaj9. Notice C♯ in the melody.
  • Final bar: F♯dim7/B is B7♭9.

In my opinion, recognizing upper structure voicings is a valuable learning tool and may be useful when transcribing, but if I am writing charts for other musicians to read, I will favor the altered chord notation. Bassists in particular are notorious for hating slash chords, because it forces them to read the chord "backwards" as they search for their note. (A good bassist won't be tripped up by this, but it's still good to know their preferences.)

On the other hand, some musicians feel the opposite way, preferring slash chords because they can specify a certain upper structure voicing. So, it's a good idea to maintain a mental dictionary of chord "synonyms." For example, C9sus4 = Gm7/C = B♭/C.

Key of analysis

I agree with the choice of E major for this example. Bar 14 looks like a resolution point, and the song just happens to start on the IV chord, which is no problem. Notice also the occurrences of an Amaj7 Am6 sequence: IV iv iii and IV iv I are fairly common progressions.

There are several unusual things going on harmonically here, including a lot of descending-fourth bass motion (whereas descending fifths are more common). If you want to practice roman-numeral analysis, you might get more bang for your buck by working on a more linear tune like "I Thought About You."

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  • I can't thank you enough for taking the time to write this out. I appreciate you giving so much feedback specific to this example, as well as speaking about things at a more general level. Also, your use of certain terms (chord alteration, upper structure voicing) will help me with Googling things on my own; it's hard to do self-research when I don't know the terminology for certain concepts. – angryavian May 12 at 2:29

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