Analyzing The Beatles Chords and Harmonies
The Beatles are arguably one of the most influential music groups of all time. Whether referencing record sales, sold out concerts or catchy tunes, the rockers from Liverpool have achieved more than almost any other band in the history of westernized music. Yet underneath the fame and fortune, there are rich, complex chords and harmonies that to this day still baffle musicologists. This article aims to provide a brief introduction to the complexities of The Beatles tonal language, chords and harmonies, and in doing so provide the reader with a new perspective on some of the most well known songs of pop music history.
Music Before the Beatles
With how famous and influential The Beatles are now, it is quite easy to forget that they initially started as a small band with their own musical idols. Despite being English, the band was primarily inspired by American Blues and R&B musicians such as Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran Little Richard and Elvis. Elvis in particular helped pave the way for helping The Beatles become such a hit. He also served as a huge inspiration as well with John Lennon being quoted as saying, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
The Tonal Changes: Were They Intentionally Complex?
It is often said that each Beatle’s album utilizes tonal language that is unique from any of their other albums. Although some artists intentionally make changes in efforts to appear more towards a certain demographic, members of The Beatles have been quoted numerous times as saying they often changed musical tones and styles out of sheer boredom – they were simply interested in exploring a different musical language.
Intentional or not, the tones and chords of the Beatles are both beautiful and unorthodox, often to such degree that, on paper, the chords don’t appear to work on any level, let alone on a pop radio hit.
For instance, albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road combine musical styles and inspirations from Baroque to Romantic to basic Rock N’ Roll, sometimes all in one song. For an example of this, look at Abbey Road’s “You Never Give Me Money,” which utilizes styles of common rock to blues to doo-wop, to produce a 21 chord song. Now, it is natural instinct for any music lover is to frown at the idea of a 21 chord pop song, especially considering that even to this day, most pop songs generally consist of 3-4 chords. But somehow The Beatles make it work, unconventional chords and all.
For instance, lets quickly look at the intro tonal progression of “You Never Give Me Money.” Starting out with the tonic focus of Am7, the song moves to Dm7 (add9), D major, G7, Cadd9, C major, Fmaj7, Dm, E, then finishes on Am. Now, for this same song, a typical pop band would probably have a chord progression consisting of Am, Dm, D major, G7, C major, F major, Dm, E, and finish back on Am. This tonal progression is not only completely understandable, but it is also very logical. What The Beatles do by moving tonics and augmenting chords shouldn’t technically work, or at least it shouldn’t sound well. But with the songs vocal melody overlapping, The Beatles unconventional additions not only work, but they make the song memorable and enigmatic.
The Beatles: Musical Experimenters
The wide array of tonal changes within one of their later songs “You Never Give Me Money,” is quite the change from their early work. Take their first massive hit “She Loves You” as an example. The musical style of this piece is a basic rock and roll song featuring a few chords within the basic verse chorus verse chorus structure. The change between their early work from the latter work shows just how much The Beatles were willing to experiment within the studio and how much they loved to explore past musical eras.
Another Uncanny Progression, Another Pop Hit
As mentioned above, almost every Beatles’ song features an unconventional tonal progression, and granted, a band doesn’t need a masters in music education to write a complex chord progression. What is so fascinating about The Beatles, though, is that they create not only popular songs, but genuine all-time greats songs with these unorthodox chords and melodies.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a great example of this. Even the modest music lover has heard and can probably sing the lyrics to this legendary pop hit. But tucked underneath this catchy tune are a variety of harmonic tricks that most bands couldn’t pull off. For example, in the middle of the eight measure, Lennon and Harrison quickly shift the song’s key from G to C, then soon shift back to G, but do so by repeatedly riffing between C and the original key’s dominate – D major. By continuously riffing back and forth between the changed key and the original, The Beatles build sonic tension that is soon released in the fourth measure when they sneak another unconventional chord (a minor third) into the song. As much of a surprise as it may be, the latter chord is considered by many to be what makes the song work so well.
For as unconventional of a chord progression that music scholars consider “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to be, there is, in fact, a theoretical explanation for why these chords work so well (if there wasn’t, the songs wouldn’t make any logical sense to the human ear). The relationship between the song’s basic chord progression (F to C to G to D) follows a mutual pattern with the chord’s relative minors (D to A to E to B), thus making a diagonal shaped pattern if sketched out. What this means is that the chords are basically dependent upon the key’s third and fifths, whereas even when The Beatles sneak in an unconventional chord, they always leave and return back to these thirds or fifths.
As you may begin to see, although The Beatles are well known across the globe for their catchy melodies, these rock music legends from Liverpool have plenty of complex music theory packed underneath these pop songs. And although there have been plenty of rock bands since The Beatle’s era, no band has been able to simultaneously capture music theorists and teenage fans in quite the same fashion. Considering this unparalleled diversity of attraction, The Beatles may very go down as the greatest band of all time.
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Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/Beatles_ad_1965_just_the_beatles_crop.jpg