Jan 23

“Take The A Train” Chord Changes

by Anton Schwartz

Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A Train” was the signature song of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and remains a hugely popular jazz standard. Musicians often notice that Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic “The Girl from Ipanema” has the same chord changes. Their bridges (middle sections) are different, but if you play the two songs in the same key, the “A” sections, which account for three quarters of each song, follow almost exactly the same sequence of chords.

These two songs are far from alone. Strayhorn’s 1939 “Take The A Train” actually took its A section chords from the 1930 standard “Exactly Like You” by Jimmy McHugh. And Jobim penned the Brazilian classic “So Danco Samba” in 1962, the same year as “The Girl From Ipanema,” using the same A section chords.

Ever notice that most of 'Bernie’s Tune' is just 'Take The A Train' in minor? #musictheory #jazzstandards Click To Tweet

A Look at the “A Train” Chord Changes

Here are the chords of the A section, slightly simplified:

C | C | D7 | D7 | Dm7 | G7 | C | C

Let’s look at them two bars at a time:

Bars 1-2: C
The tonality of the song is established as C major.

Bars 3-4: D7
Chord progresses to the V7/V (“five of five”) — a brighter sound than where we started. V7/V is way of referring to the II7 chord that highlights the chord’s function as a secondary dominant — II7 is the dominant chord not of the tonic but of the V chord. In this case, D7 is the dominant chord (V chord) in the key of G, and G7 is the dominant chord in the key of C.

Bars 5-6: Dm7 – G7
The sound darkens from the D7 to its parallel minor chord, Dm7, which becomes the beginning of a ii-V-I progression that leads back to C.

Bars 7-8: C
We arrive back home where we started.
(In practice, bar 8 is often a passing chord or ii-V sequence leading to whatever comes next – another A section or the bridge.)

If you look at “Exactly Like You”, “The Girl From Ipanema” and “So Danco Samba,” and transpose each into the key of C, you see the same chord changes. Where the chord changes differ slightly, as they do in some versions of the songs, we see that they still function in exactly the same way. (For instance, “Exactly Like You” often uses simply G7 for bars 5-6, instead of the functionally equivalent Dm7-G7.)

Listen

Have a listen to the songs and see if you can recognize the chord changes they share in common:

“A Train” in Minor: “Bernie’s Tune”

These aren’t the only songs written of the “A Train” chord changes. There are others that stick very close to the changes, such as Dexter Gordon’s “Dextivity.” And still others use the progression in a more abstract and interesting way…

Look at Bernie Miller’s 1952 song, “Bernie’s Tune.” (Here’s a recording by Gerry Mulligan, who made the song famous.) The tune is D minor, but if we write it in C minor instead, for comparison to “A Train,” we see a very close chord-by-chord parallel to the “A Train” progression:

Cm | Cm | Ab7 | Ab7 | Dm7b5 | G7alt | Cm | Cm

Again, let’s look at the progression two bars at a time:

Bars 1-2: Cm
The tonality of the song is established as C minor. A darker version of A Train’s C major.

Bars 3-4: Ab7
This chord could be written out more fully as an Ab13(#11), which takes the lydian dominant scale. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Ab13#11 is the same sound as D7alt: they take the same scale (Ab lydian dominant and D altered are modes of the same Eb melodic minor scale) and any voicing of one chord is a voicing of the other. You may know that D7 is called the “tritone substitution” of Ab7. We can say more specifically that D7alt is the tritone substitution of Ab13.

Thinking of these two bars as D7alt, we can understand them as simply a darker version of A Train’s D7. That’s in keeping with Bernie’s tune’s use of the dark Cm tonic instead of C. In place of the D7’s bright notes—the natural 9, perfect fifth, natural 13—the D7alt has the dark flat 9, sharp 9, and flat 13.

Bars 5-6: Dm7b5 – G7alt
Once again, these bars have the same function as the “A Train” changes (Dm7-G7), but each chord has been darkened to reflect the minorness of the destination, which is Cm instead of C.

Bars 7-8: Cm
We arrive back home. And, Just as for A Train, bar 8 is often played as a ii-V leading to whatever comes next – another A section or the bridge.

In short, the A section of “Bernie’s Tune” is simply the A section of “A Train” in minor, with each chord darkened accordingly.

Listen to the two sets of chord changes and see if you can hear the similarity:

Take the A Train
(“A” section chord changes)

Bernie’s Tune
(“A” section chord changes)

Ever notice that most of 'Bernie’s Tune' is just 'Take The A Train' in minor? #musictheory #jazzstandards Click To Tweet

Like the “A Train” changes themselves, the “Bernie’s Tune” variation is used in other songs as well. For instance, Gerry Mulligan’s own “Idol Gossip”. Or Ralph Bowen’s burning “ Soul Proprietor ” off the CD of the same name. “Soul Proprietor” doesn’t even bother to include a bridge; the entire form is the 8-bar A section!

Other Uses

The trick of going from the tonic (C) to the V7/V (D7) and then returning to the tonic by way of a ii-V sequence (Dm7-G7) is actually used in countless standards. “Take the A Train” and the other songs we’ve discussed are unique in that they make an entire A section out of the trick. But if you listen to the following songs… or look at their changes… you’ll notice the same trick. See if you can spot where:

  • All of Me
  • Cherokee
  • Confirmation
  • East of the Sun
  • I Can’t Give You Anything But Love
  • I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
  • If I Were a Bell
  • In a Mellow Tone
  • Indiana / Donna Lee
  • Just Friends
  • Mood Indigo
  • On the Sunny Side of the Street
  • Our Love is Here To Stay
  • There Will Never Be Another You

These are just a few examples. If you keep your ears & eyes peeled, you’ll find the trick used all over!

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5 Responses

  1. Claude Yoder says:

    Excellent discussions of the backdoor 2 5, as well as the A-train changes. I just found your site, but plan to “tune in” as much as possible and buy the your app.

    Many thanks

    Please keep me in the loop

  2. I have shared your post with my swing jazz band and they really appreciate the knowledge you have shared. Keep posting more!

  3. Julian says:

    Hi Anton,

    great post, very high quality, great web design! Thanks for your insights!

    I was playing “Take the A train” and then another tune came to my mind – “Sonderzug nach Pankow” by Udo Lindenberg (german). Maybe you heard of it? At least, they are quite similar.

    Best, Julian

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Julian!
      “Sonderzug nach Pankow” is actually an old American swing song called “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” I don’t see any harmonic similarity. Perhaps what subtly suggested the connection is that both songs are about trains? :)

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NEWS FLASH!

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