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notes on ...

Notes on "Free As A Bird"


Notes on ... Series #194 (FAAB)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse (guitar solo) | Verse | Outro
        CD: "Anthology", Volume 1, Track 1 (Apple 8 34445-2)
  Recorded: circa 1977, Dakota Apartments, New York;
            February, March 1994, Sussex, England
UK-release: 4th December 1995 (CD Single)
US-release: 4th December 1995 (CD Single)

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note I'm pausing in our otherwise order-driven studies to acknowledge and celebrate the extraordinary events of this past week. Can you dig it? — new Beatles' songs! In spite of all the hype, I wouldn't allow myself to quite prepare for this eventuality until it actually came to pass. Even then, it took me a few days and more than a few listenings to relax and open myself up sufficiently to the point where, beyond gentle and passive enjoyment, I was really hooked. Allright then, so you got off on it right away; and maybe I'm just a jealous guy :-)
  Next note At any rate, this deliberately slow and serious anthem cast in neo-classically pop music terms and form is apparently not what some people were expecting or hoping for. But heck, it's a Beatles' song, no question. Look at how it is replete with so many familiar compositional trademarks of the group:
  • The form is creatively derived from the classic two bridge model.
  • The verse chord progression is creatively drive from the I -» vi -» IV -» V cliché.
  • The high-level tonal key scheme plays creative tricks with relative as well as parallel Major/minor relations.
  • The lyrics are paradoxically strong in terms of both enigmatic ellipticality and broad/universal applicability.
  • The lyrics of the bridge elide into the verse which follows them.
  • And, of course, the outro is extended by surprise.
  Next note "Creative derivation" is an important, operative phrase here. Adding novel twists to familiar patterns or nouvelle-cuisine-like combining of disparate stylistic ingredients were always a hallmark of the Beatles. In the case of "Free As A Bird", I am particularly impressed by the way in which they spike up the form, the chord progressions and the key schemes. And here, as always, they throw in these mold-breaking variations so effortlessly and casual like; more often than not, serving subtly expressive, not merely clever, ends.
  Next note The form is capacious:
  • The intro is the length of a complete verse.
  • The verse sections are thrice doubled up; something I don't think you ever find before now in a Beatles' song.
  Next note It is also somewhat complex:
  • The bridge is halved in its second appearance.
  • The guitar solo appears so late in the proceedings that many other songs would be starting to pack it in by that point.
  Next note The harmony is unusual on the micro level:
  • The replacement of the third chord in the I -» vi -» IV -» V progression with one of two chords (iv and flat-VI), both of which contain a dissonant, minor-flavored cross-relation (F-natural) with respect to the chord that they are preceded by (F#).
  And on the macro level as well:
  • The song winds its way in, around, and amongst the keys of A Major, C Major and a minor. (A and a are parallel Major/minor keys; and a is the relative minor of C). While the Beatles often played with this group of keys, in "Free As A Bird" I'd swear they tell a story with them that operates at a subliminal yet supportive level with respect to the lyrics. I'll trace this below, though not without trepidation that I'll be taken too literally or my metaphors be found too far fetched.
  Next note The song divides into three major sections: the first four verses, the two bridges which overlap them, and the guitar solo plus final verse and outro. And these sections complement and contrast with each other exquisitely in terms both music and words. With its cyclical, downward chord progression, the early verses convey a sad droopiness which conjures for me such visual images as Dali's melting clocks and musically enervated echoes of "I'm Only Sleeping". By contrast, the bridge features a upward-bound, potentially open-ended chord progression that conveys optimism strongly guarded if not undermined by serious uncertainty. The guitar solo and final verse, while obviously a direct variation on the opening verses, demonstrate how sadness is transfigured sometimes by deeper understanding.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune stays within a narrow range. Although the verse eventually spreads out over a full octave, it is characterized in your mind by its much repeated opening phrase which sits within a very small melodic space. The manner in which the first note of the melody is sustained all the way into the second measure before showing any sign of movement reminds me very strongly of "I Should Have Known Better".
  Next note In context of the A Major home key, that opening phrase (E -» F -» G -» E) sounds heavily inflected by the mode of the natural minor scale. When the guitar solo gets its turn with the tune, the song has momentarily modulated to the key of C Major, giving a very different feel to the otherwise identical phrase. Brahms (not bombs) plays a very similar trick in the second movement of his fourth symphony with the exact same melodic phrase on E! (Check it out — he plays the game between the keys of E and C.)
  Next note Harmonically, the song is characterized by a tricky variation upon one of the most hackneyed chord progressions of rock and roll. You're used to hearing a Major IV chord as the third one in the I -» vi -» IV -» V series, but here the Beatles consistently break the rule by placing one of the following in its place: either the minor iv chord ([this is] d-minor), or a Major chord on the flat sixth degree (flat-VI; here F-Major).
  Next note The d and F chords provide an ongoing measure of pathos to the song, and on a technical level, they set up the possibility for easy pivoting over the key of C Major parallel minor. The G-Major chord also serves a pivotal role; being both the V chord of C Major and the flat-VII of the A Major home key.


  Next note Yes, the thick backing track of acoustic and electric guitars combined with steady mezzo-forte drumming does sound a lot like the Traveling Wilburys. But then again, didn't you used to say that the Traveling Wilburys sounded a lot like the Beatles for the same reason? As much as you might complain that Jeff Lynne placed too heavy a thumb on the scale, I think there's also an element at work here of "what goes around comes around". So stop complaining, would ya'!
  Next note John's ethereal vocal is a great example of how to make a poetic virtue out of a logistical necessity. No slight at all is intended by my putting it this way.
  Next note The tight harmonies of the other three pick right off where "Because" left off, so nice to hear again. The stereo mix of their singing is extremely wide and separate as if, unlike those 1963/'64 concert performances of "This Boy", they no longer cared to huddle around a single mike. The switching of George for Paul in the second bridge is a nice example of avoiding foolish consistency.
  Next note A small touch of the typical Beatles' layering is found in the addition of an arpeggio-playing guitar part in the middle pair of verses.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro exposes the entire chord progression of the verse and sets a measured pace for the outspread form that will develop. The steady harmonic rhythm of two chords per measure so strongly reinforces the deliberate pace that the final measure, with its "4-3" suspension over a single chord, feels very long, indeed:
      |A      f#      |F       E       |A      f#      |d      E       |
   A:  I      vi       flat-VI V        I      vi       iv     V

      |A      f#      |d       G       |C      a       |E              |
       I      vi       iv                      i        V
                   C:  ii      G        I      vi       4 ---» 3

   [Figure 194.1]
  Next note The verse contains an extremely short-lived modulation to the key of C which returns back to the home key at the beginning of the next verse via the parallel minor key of a. Given the several iterations of this section, I poetically react to the gesture toward C Major as the momentary raising of hope or yearning that "things" might change, only to have such hope dashed by the immediate reassertion of the not just the home key, but first its infinitely sadder parallel minor. And, as in a good detective novel, such early appearing and seemingly inconsequential details bear watching for in the later going.
  Next note Two loud drum shots call you to attention, as if you needed it; and be honest — you did. George's singing slide work deserves an honorable mention and is applied sparingly; besides the intro, it is appears elsewhere only in the solo section and during the outro.

First Four Verses

  Next note The verse is eight measures in length and features two roughly parallel phrases of equal length.
  Next note In true Beatles' style, the many repetitions of the verse feature a pattern of some variation at the detailed level. The second of each paired vocal verses features a ornamented flipping figure at the beginning of the tune. The second appearance of this flip (in the fourth verse) provides variation on top of variation — John sings the flip and one of the other Boys echoes him. The later verses, starting with the guitar solo to the end, feature a significant change to the chord progression; you'll see.
  Next note The second bridge is setup by a variation in the chord progression of the verse which precedes it; this allows the second bridge to be entered more directly and naturally than via the deceptive cadence used for the first bridge. That augmented chord on A-flat doesn't get an roman numeral, by the way; think of it as the a-minor chord sustained but with the bassline slipping in a chromatic passing note on the way down to G.
    |C           a           |A-flat      G           |
     I           vi           augmented
                                      C:  V

   [Figure 194.2]


  Next note The phrasing of the first bridge is very similar to that of the verse, but the harmonic shape makes an enormous difference. In spite of the chromatic trick with the minor chord, the verse section remains tonally crystal clear. Tonality wise, the bridge is extremely unsettled. The first bridge, especially, is entered by way of a so-called deceptive cadence (i.e. the V of A resolving to its flat-VI chord instead of I):
   |F              |f#-dim         |G              |A              |
    flat-VI         vii-of-flat-VII flat-VII        I [?]

   |F              |f#-dim         |G              |E              |
    flat-VI         vii-of-flat-VII flat-VII        V
                                                    8 --»  9 -» 8
                                                    4 --»  3

   [Figure 194.3]
  Next note This chord progression has the positive-feeling virtue of being on the rise, but it really gives you no clear feel of home key until perhaps the V chord at the end sets up the obvious return to the home key, and this lends a positively unsettled anxious feeling to it. My choice of roman numerals for the chords is somewhat arbitrary. It might be more honest to describe the progression as the harmonization of a rising chromatic baseline on its way toward some key not yet clearly determined.
  Next note The best proof of how unclear your sense of home key is during this bridge is the extent to which the A-Major chord at the end of the first phrase does not sound convincing at all as a I chord; indeed, that A-Major chord, sitting under the question left hanging ("can we really live without each other?"), is the most extreme moment in the song. Think of it as the ironic paradox of you're being literally "at home" in one sense yet not being able to feel that way at all! This sense of mounting suspense and anxiety is heightened by the slower harmonic rhythm of the bridge compared with the verse.
  Next note The repetition of the bridge is half the length of the first one. Musically, it is built out of the second phrase, though in terms of lyrics, it splices together the first half of the first bridges first phrase with the second half of its second phrase. Beyond just clever, it importantly lowers the anxiety quotient of the second bridge by eliminating the most trying of both the chord and lyrics.
  Next note Yet another example of consistency-avoiding variation is the way that George places just a tad more body English on his E9-making vocal flip than Paul does the first time.

Guitar Solo and Final Verse

  Next note The guitar solo fills a verse-like section, but its opening is cast as a full fledged arrival in, and celebration of the key of C Major. Musically and poetically, this provides a critically needed affirmation that the earlier, incompletely successful yearnings in this direction can indeed be fulfilled:
      |C      a       |A-flat G       |C      a       |f      G       |
   C:  I      vi      flat-VI V        I      vi       iv     V

      |C      a       |f      G       |A
       I      vi       iv     V
                          A:  flat-VII I

   [Figure 194.4]
  Next note Visually speaking as an avid hiker of New Hampshire's taller Whites, I experience this moment of the song the same way I do that moment when, after arduously trekking upward through thick forest for three or four hours with only an infrequent tentative open view to the surroundings, I come suddenly out of the scrub face to face with the 360-degree glory of the summit's view. The eighth-note movement in the backing voices in this section nicely enhances the feeling of ecstasy over-brimming.
  If you'd like an more musically oriented analogy, compare this to the way JS Bach in a fugue that is otherwise in a very deep minor key somewhere late in the proceedings introduces the subject for the first time in a Major key.
  Next note In light of this understanding, the shortening the second bridge is more than a clever compositional hack. Rather it can be seen as motivated by a desire to most properly set the stage for the wondrous climax which follows it; i.e. the half-length bridge steps around what was in the first bridge the strongest moment of doubt in both lyrics and music.
  Next note This section is destined, alas, to return eventually to the home key of A, but this time it's not via a minor; instead, it uses the G chord to pivot directly from C Major to A Major as a flat-VII chord. Technically, in order to make this work, the guitar solo verse is shortened by two measures.
  Next note The substitution of the flat-VII -» I in place of the erstwhile pass toward C Major with return via a minor is continued in the final verse and all the way through to the outro. This variation makes the end of these sections feel not just less sad but serenely, even optimistically accepting of how things are after all because things are seen differently now in light of the emotional ground traversed over the course of the song.


  Next note The first part of the outro is cast in a classically Beatlesque once-twice-three-times reprise of the final phrase eventually coming to a clean, complete ending:
    -- last two measures of final --
    --      verse and outro       --
   |A       f#      |d       G       |A               |-               |
    I       vi       iv      flat-VII I

   [Figure 194.5]
  Next note As the final A-Major chord fades away, you hear as though for the first time that an organ sits on one of the foundation layers of the backing, and wonder if it's been there all along and you didn't notice it, or if perhaps, that's only an illusion.
  Next note The outro features a uniquely appropriate instant in the song where John, George, and Paul perform in some kind of euphonious counterpoint. Throughout the rest of the song they either appear singing or playing solo, or singing in block harmony. Here, at the very end, John's lead vocal is heard simultaneously with George's lead guitar licks and an almost sotto-voce scat lick from Paul. Come Together, indeed.
  Next note The second part of the outro with its rising sounds of indeterminate pitch followed by the ukelele finish in D Major, and the backwards message from John, all played over a fading out vamp over the A-Major chord is suggestive of many another "experimental" ending from earlier Beatles' songs, but this one is also quite tentative and not fully formed. This reminds one, after all, that these kinds of endings were very much John's provence, and the sketchy stage in which this one is left is as though Paul, George and Ringo were willing to rough it out but still left it for John to complete when he returns from "holiday".

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note This same preoccupation with the keys of A Major, a minor, and C Major turns out to be a conspicuous factor in (and you should not be at all surprised by this) the "Abbey Road Medley", and this bears some scrutiny.
  Next note Five of the eight tracks running from "You Never Give Me Your Money" through "The End" are in one or more of the three keys mentioned above; the three that are not ("Sun King", "Mean Mr. Mustard", and "Polythene Pam") are all in the key of E Major — i.e. the V of both flavors of A. (They are also presented in a straight sequence and they're all obviously songs by John, but that's a separate issue.)
  Next note Furthermore, note the extent to which those five tracks with the three keys, both internally and with respect to the overall sequence of songs:
  You can get a feeling of what I'm driving at by, instead of listening to the actually medley, listen to just the sequence of the chords as I've laid them out above; the medley stripped down to its stick-figure outline.
  Next note You'll note how the medley ends literally in a different place from where it begins; it is worthy somehow or destined to end in the blazing sunshine of C Major after having started out in the melancholy key of a minor. After shuttling in around some of the same keys traversed by the medley, "Free As A Bird" ends up in exactly the same place it started, A Major, though the way the music is fashioned, that same A Major feels somehow different than it did at the beginning. Compared to the medley, you might say "Free As A Bird" is not as lucky in some respects, though I dare say in most other respects it is infinitely more wise.
  Alan (112895#194)
Copyright © 1995 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.