Analysis of Stella by Starlight

Posted by on Aug 3, 2023 in Jazz, Jazz, Jazz Standards, Music Theory | No Comments
Analysis of Stella by Starlight

An Analysis of Stella by Starlight

In this lesson I am going to do an Analysis of Stella by Starlight, a harmonically sophisticated Jazz Standard which forms a cornerstone of “The Great American Songbook” In order to dispel some of the confusion surrounding Stella by Starlight,  I’m going to compare the tunes original changes with the more modern re-harmonisations you might find in the Real Book.

To quote wikipedia:

Stella by Starlight” is a popular song by Victor Young that was drawn from thematic material composed for the main title and soundtrack of the 1944 Paramount Pictures film, The Uninvited. Appearing in the film’s underscore as well as in source music as an instrumental theme song without lyrics, it was turned over to Ned Washington, who wrote the lyrics for it in 1946. The title had to be incorporated into the lyrics, which resulted in its unusual placement: the phrase appears about three quarters of the way through the song, rather than at the beginning or the end.

Here’s the Mile’s Davis version from “Kind of Blue”


There are a couple of difficult aspects regarding the Stella by Starlight.

Firstly, the harmonies of the song are through composed, that is the song structure lacks the repetition of harmonic progressions which is so typical of jazz – regard the AABA structure of a tune like Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”.

Secondly, it is difficult to analyse the tune using Functional Harmony, that is, relating the chord to the home key (in this case Bb) to determine it’s role. There are a lot of non-diatonic chords, which don’t relate to the home key. Many of these form small blocks of harmony which relate to other keys – the so-call ii-V-I. The confusing thing in “Stella” is that many of these ii-V-Is are interupted before resolving to the I. This is especially confusing if you consider the typical “Real Book” Changes shown below:


Analysis of Stella by Starlight: The “Modern” Changes


Stella by Starlight in Bb - Modern Changes


We notice many abrubt changes from one set of ii-Vs to another in an unrelated key. Consider bars 1-4, first we have a minor ii-V leading to Dm (Em7b5-A7b9) which fails to resolve to Dm and instead we find Cm7 in bar 3, which is the start of a major ii-V in Bb. This in turn never resolves to Bb because in bar 5 we find the F7b9 chord has changed to an Fm7.

The issue here is that it becomes difficult to identify the pattern in the chord progression which is one of the things a Roman Numeral analysis allows us to achieve. The key changes between the ii-Vs seems highly arbitrary and forces us to memorise the tune chords of the tune on a bar-by-bar basis.


Analysis of Stella by Starlight: The ‘Vanilla’ Changes


Stella by Starlight in Bb - 'Vanilla' Changes - Harmonic Analysis



As you can see it’s still a fairly complex tune but at least some of the changes have been thinned out. The usual culprit for added changes are iim7 or iim7b5 chords inserted in the first part of a bar prior to their respective V chords. For example in bar 1, the ‘modern’ changes adds an additional iim7b5 (Em7b5) to precede the V (A7).

I’ve included a double analysis – the top line relates all the chords to the home key of Bb. It’s a bit tenuous, but as a tool to memorise the changes it serves a purpose. The bottom line identifies the functional units of ii-V-I, / ii-V-i, ii-V & V-I / V-i. This should provide you with some hooks to hang your licks on.


Analysis of Stella by Starlight: Comparing the ‘Vanilla’ & ‘Modern’ Changes


Stella by Starlight in Bb - Comparing 'Vanilla' Changes with 'Modern' Changes


Now we can see the two sets of changes side by side – most illuminating! Obviously, it’s very useful knowing the original changes which the chords substitution and additions derive from. This is the missing bit of info which a new student of jazz tackling the Real Book Standards might be oblivious to! (Check out Ralph Patt’s Vanilla Book for the original changes to more standards.)

Here is a list of the additions and substitutions.

bar 1: Em7b5 replaces A7 (ii of V)

bar 3: Cm7 replaces F7sus (ii of V) – the F7sus functions as a ii, this is a trick derived from classical music

bar 8: Ab7  replaces Ebm (V of ii) – the Eb to Ebm move must have started to seem too corny to the hipper jazzers of the 50s

bar 10: Em7b5 precedes A7 (ii of V)

bar 14: Em7b5 & A7 replace Gm7 & C7 (common tone substitution) – this is an interesting one. The Em7b5 is an inversion of Gm6 so the shared tones of G minor (G Bb D) are the basis for the substitution. In the case of A7, whilst it does share E & G with C7, this is a bit tenuous and it probably makes more sense to consider it as following on from the Em7b5 as the V of the ii.

bar 21: Ab7 replaces Ebm (V of ii)

bar 25: Em7b5  replaces A7 (ii of V)


Vocal Version: Ella Fitzgerald

Another trick not to miss when learning standards is to check out a vocal version of the tune. Personally I like to learn the lyrics to avoid treating each song as a interchangable block of harmony. Think like a storyteller..


The song a robin sings,
Through years of endless springs,
The murmur of a brook at evening tides.
That ripples through a nook where two lovers hide.

That great symphonic theme,
That’s Stella by starlight,
And not a dream,
My heart and I agree,
She’s everything on this earth to me.



Attentive listeners may have observed that this version is in the key of F. If you’re feeling really diligent, make your own chord chart and transpose the tune into the new key – it will really test how much you’ve made sense of the progression!


Download the Lead Sheets

Stella by Starlight in Bb – Comparison 
Stella by Starlight in Bb – Vanilla Changes Lead Sheet
Stella by Starlight in Bb – Modern Changes Lead Sheet

Ralph Patt’s Vanilla Book

To find out the original changes to more standard songs, Ralph Patt’s Vanilla book is an invaluable resource.

More Jazz Lessons

If you’re interested in learning more about jazz, check out the following lessons:

Basic Jazz Chords for Guitar
Altered Dominant Theory
Jazz Transcription Resource

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