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How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?) (1932)

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Origin and Chart Information
“…[Irving Berlin] followed Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lead in ‘How Do I Love Thee’ by spinning a series of questions into a children’s riddle …”

- Philip Furia

Rank 49
Words and Music Irving Berlin

In 1932 Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra with vocalist Jack Fulton were the first to make the pop charts with their recording of “How Deep Is the Ocean?”

The song would spawn four hit recordings that year:

In 1945, with Peggy Lee’s growing appeal, Columbia released a 1941 recording:


More on Paul Whiteman at JazzBiographies.com

More on Jack Fulton at JazzBiographies.com

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

Preceding the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, life for Irving Berlin had been both productive and profitable. His life, however, was not without its troubles. In 1928 Berlin’s three-week-old son died, precipitating a bout of depression that would last for several years. Also, in the latter half of the 1920’s, Berlin had let up on what had been non-stop songwriting and began to doubt his viability as a composer. In Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin’s book Song by Song: The Lives and Work of 14 Great Lyric Writers, Berlin confesses, “I was scared ...I had had all the money I wanted for the rest of my life. Then all of a sudden I didn’t. I had taken it easy and gone soft, and wasn’t too certain I could get going again.”

Discouraging experiences with early Hollywood musicals gave Berlin further reason to despair, and while he continued to write songs he lacked the self-confidence to promote them.

In 1932 when the rest of the country was sunk in the depths of the Great Depression, Irving Berlin embarked on the second half of his career. Unwilling to accept Berlin’s professional demise, Max Winslow, a friend and employee, retrieved a song Berlin had filed and presented it to Rudy Vallee. “Say It Isn’t So” became a number one hit and one of only a few Berlin songs to be introduced on the radio. The song endures to this day as a jazz standard.

A reenergized Berlin then borrowed four lines of the chorus of his “To My Mammy” (1920), including the querying phrase, “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and created a new song whose lyrics are a succession of questions, “How deep is the ocean? (How high is the sky?)”


More on Irving Berlin at JazzBiographies.com
Berlin begins the refrain with

How much do I love you?
I’ll tell you no lie.

The second line, “I’ll tell you no lie,” is the only line that does not ask a question. Philip Furia, in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists depicts the lyrics as

Another slang formula--the Yiddish penchant for answering a question with another question...

More information on this tune...

Allen Forte
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design
Princeton University Press
Hardcover: 336 pages

(Authoreducator Forte devotes four pages to the song’s history and an analysis of the music.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

The melody of “How Deep Is the Ocean?” requires little more than a one-octave range, making it an easy vehicle for vocalists. Its form can be diagrammed as A-B-A-B’ or A-B-A-C with no formal bridge. According to Allen Forte in his book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design, “What momentarily appears to be the bridge proves to be the second period of a double contrasting period.” -JW

Musical analysis of “How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?)”

Original Key One flat, beginning in D minor and ending in the relative major with a false key change to A minor in mm 4-7.
Form A - B - A - C
Tonality Primarily minor, gradually moving toward major
Movement Arpeggios with lower neighbor tone embellishments and descending scale patterns.

Comments     (assumed background)

A descending bass line in section “A” creates a harmonic progression that is at once unique and firmly grounded in tonal tradition. The only unusual sounding spot is the modulation in mm 4-5, in which Berlin goes directly from iiø7 to i in A minor (the V7 [E7] would clash with the melody at this point). The shift from Am up to C7 (as a V7 of F major) is also unusual but not jarring to the ear because of the close relationship between the tonalities involved. The “B” section uses what sounds suspiciously like a “blue note” – a flatted third in the key of F major played over the IV7 chord (Bb7). This note alternates with a lower F over a G bass, creating a V7(b9)/V7 in the key of F. However, there is a deceptive resolution to the V7(b9) in the key of D minor– that is, A7(b9). Again, this is not completely jarring to the ear. It works because of the diminished triad shared by C7 and A7(b9).
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

“How Deep Is the Ocean” has a lovely melody, and I always associate it instrumentally with Bill Evans. The lyrics express warmth and deep love and ask what would happen without that love. I like “question” songs—“What Is This Thing Called Love,” “If I Should Lose You.” You can swing this tune like Miles (Davis) does because the beat gives emphasis to the lyrics.

Jay Clayton, jazz vocalist

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Soundtrack information
“How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?)” was included in these films:
  • Blue Skies (1946, Bing Crosby)
  • Meet Danny Wilson (1952, Frank Sinatra)
  • Unconditional Love (2002, Dan Aykroyd)
And on television:
  • I Love Lucy (1954, Desi Arnaz) Episode 88, "Ricky’s Hawaiian Vacation"
Reading and Research
Additional information for "How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?)" may be found in:

William G. Hyland
The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950
American Philological Association
Hardcover: 336 pages

(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: history.)

Allen Forte
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design
Princeton University Press
Hardcover: 336 pages

(4 pages including the following types of information: history and music analysis.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: film productions, lyric analysis, music analysis and performers.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
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Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research
Free Chord Changes

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

Benny Goodman’s 1941 recording of this number no doubt brought it back to the attention of the jazz world. But it wasn’t until Coleman Hawkins’ 1943 version that the tune really caught on with jazz players.

Hawkins had probably played the number with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in the early 1930’s when it was initially popular. Using an approach similar to that of his 1939 hit “Body and Soul,” Hawkins is accompanied by a rhythm section of Ellis Larkins (piano), Fats Waller’s guitarist Al Casey, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Shelly Manne, a group he would make several successful recordings with. The results are astounding; Hawkins outdoes his own version of “Body and Soul” and plays an unaccompanied coda that is brilliant.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Coleman Hawkins
Classics 807

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?).” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Benny Goodman’s recording of “How Deep Is the Ocean” (The Complete Recordings 1941-1947) is an all-time classic and is historically significant for documenting the early days of his partnership with vocalist Peggy Lee. Charlie Parker’s ballad rendition from 1947 (Complete Dial Sessions Master Takes), meanwhile, helped legitimize the song as a standard relevant to modern jazz. Meanwhile, the common modern-day approach to the tune can be well heard in the wonderful trio rendition by pianist Tommy Flanagan (Sea Changes).

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Peggy Lee & Benny Goodman
The Complete Recordings 1941-1947
Original recording 1941
This recording documents the beginning of Lee’s long and prosperous career as a vocalist. She radiates warmth throughout the performance while Goodman’s big band swings gently.
Charlie Parker
Complete Dial Sessions Master Takes
Definitive/Disconforme SL
Original recording 1947
Parker delivers a classic ballad performance on this track. At times he is subtle and lyrical, while at other times his horn cries with unbridled emotion.

- Noah Baerman

Tommy Flanagan
Sea Changes
1997 Evidence 22191

Tommy Flanagan is well-known as a remarkably elegant pianist, and this performance is a sterling example of his touch and his wonderful rhythmic sense.
Curtis Counce
You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce
1991 Original Jazz Classics 159
Original recording 1957
Bassist Counce led a wonderful though underrated quintet, and this album is one of their classics. The featured soloists here are tenor saxophonist Harold Land and pianist Carl Perkins.
Billy Holiday
First Issue: Great American Songbook
1994 Polygram 23003
Original recording 1954
Holiday shines on this mid-1950s performance with an all-star band anchored by Oscar Peterson’s piano. The swing here is gentle but unmistakable, and Holiday sounds truly invigorated.
Ben Webster With Oscar Peterson
Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (20-Bit Master)
Polygram Records
Original recording 1959
A warm, romantic version, courtesy of Webster’s breathy tenor sax and support from pianist Oscar Peterson, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Ed Thigpen.
Harry Edison
2005 Verve 393602
Original recording 1956
Harry “Sweets” Edison is surely one of the most swinging trumpet players in jazz, and his relaxed but grooving performance here is proof positive.
J.J. Johnson
1992 Concord 4523

This remarkably tender performance features sparse, melodic solos from Johnson on trombone and Ted Dunbar on guitar.
Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, John Coltrane, Zoot Sims
Tenor Conclave
1991, Orig. Jazz Classics 127
Original recording, 1956
While there are four great tenor sax men on this track, it is more about camaraderie than competition. Mobley, Cohn, Sims and Coltrane trade solos with reserve on this sentimental reading.
Diana Krall
Love Scenes
Grp Records

Canadian pianist/vocalist Krall does a wonderful job on this melancholy rendition of the song. Joined by bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Russell Malone, Krall dazzles with her deft piano and sultry voice.
Joshua Redman
Timeless Tales for Changing Times
1998 Warner Bros 47052
Original recording 1998
Saxophonist Joshua Redman’s explorations lead to some intriguing places in this mid-tempo version. It is packed with soul and originality.
The David Friesen Trio
1994, Burnside Records 17

This sensitive and interactive trio, comprised of bassist Friesen, pianist Randy Porter, and drummer Alan Jones, exemplifies the art of jazz, improvising everything on the spot with magical results.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Irving Berlin

Year Rank Title
1932 49 How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?)
1927 129 Blue Skies
1935 187 Cheek to Cheek
1925 302 Always
1946 345 They Say It's Wonderful
1925 362 Remember
1940 404 White Christmas
1927 469 Russian Lullaby
1911 578 Alexander's Ragtime Band
1927 598 The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)
1935 616 Let's Face the Music and Dance
1932 639 Say It Isn't So
1933 662 Easter Parade
1924 751 What'll I Do
1950 789 The Best Thing for You
1928 838 Marie
1936 884 I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket
1937 904 I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
1937 912 This Year's Kisses
1924 918 All Alone
1937 926 Change Partners
1933 959 Heat Wave
1938 970 Now It Can Be Told
1921 986 All By Myself

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