Monday Notes

Bons Amigos, the unpredictable music of Toninho Horta

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[Monday Notes No. 177] Bons Amigos is a song by Brazilian guitarist and songwriter Toninho Horta. The song has all the poetry and melancholy of bossanova, but the harmonies are decidedly daring, compared to the classics of this musical genre. Let’s listen to Bons Amigos, in the refined version by pianist and singer Leila Pinheiro.

Among Brazilian music composers, Toninho Horta is one of those most influenced by jazz music. His harmonic vision is sophisticated, and he is also a guitarist of great skill. So let us begin our analysis of Bons amigos by starting with the harmony, which is the most interesting and original part of this piece. Here is the score of the first part of Bons Amigos.

Bons amigos - Toninho Horta

In the first part of the piece we observe a series of key changes. The piece opens in F major, but does so on the fourth degree of the key, the chord of B flat major. In the second line, the piece modulates a tone below, to E flat major. It then descends a minor third, to C major, and finally ascends to E flat major. So the question arises: what is the key of the piece? F, E flat or C?

The answer is… none of the three! To find the true tonal centre, around which the various modulations gravitate, we must analyse the second part of the song.

Bons amigos part 2- Toninho Horta

In this second part we observe a concatenation of II V that finally leads to the tonic: B flat major. Em7(b5) A7, Dm7(b5) G7 and Cm7(b5) F7 are thus respectively #IV VII, III VI, II V of the target key. The key of B flat major is confirmed by the perfect cadence Cm7 F7 Bb, by the subsequent imperfect cadence II V III or Cm7 F7 Dm, and finally also by the backdoor cadence Ebm7 Ab7 Bbmaj7. The last two chords in fact lead back to the first chord of the piece.

At this point, returning to the beginning, we realise that Toninho Horta had already introduced us to the tonic chord at the beginning – it was the very first chord of the song! The chord Bbmaj7(#11) is the tonic of the tonality, although treated as a lydian scale since the melody contains the augmented fourth degree, E natural.

Perhaps those less used to this kind of reasoning will find it difficult to follow. However, I invite everyone to do an experiment: listen to the song a couple of times, trying to concentrate only on the chords. The harmony flows from one side to the other, without ever stopping. There is a sense of suspension, of incompleteness. Yet the song always takes us in a new direction. Isn’t this music fascinating and unusual?

The song is also original in terms of its form, in fact the first part consists of the classic 16 measures, while the second part is 12, bringing the total of the song to 28. Yet, we do not notice the 4 measures missing to arrive at the form of 32 measures, typical of much American music but also of many pieces by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Finally, a mention of the lyrics: the title Bons Amigos, ‘good friends’, suggests a juxtaposition with the famous jazz standard Just Friends. The subject of the song is also similar: it is about a love that has ended and has become just a friendship.

The lyrics of Just Friends are much more categorical about the end of the relationship. The singer says he is desperate, but does not really take himself too seriously. In contrast, Bons Amigos has more optimistic lyrics, the two are more than friends, and it seems that the love story is far from over.

Despite this, Toninho Horta’s song has that poignant saudade typical of much Brazilian music. The words and music of Bons Amigos, masterfully interpreted by Leila Pinheiro, arouse a very strong feeling of nostalgia, terrible and sweet at the same time.

Until next Monday!

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