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notes on ...

Notes on "Things We Said Today"


Notes on ... Series #24.1 (TWST.1)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: a minor / A Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                          | Verse | Bridge |
                          | Verse | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "A Hard Day's Night", Track 10 (Parlophone CDP7 46437-2)
  Recorded: 2nd June 1964, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 19th July 1964 (B Single / "A Hard Day's Night")
US-release: 20th July 1964 (LP "Something New")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note "Things We Said Today" is one of the earliest and best-ever examples of the innovative Harmony stunts which The Beatles were capable of, being uninhibited as they were by any schoolbook knowledge of the so-called rules. On the lyrical side here, there's a correspondingly precocious ambiguity over the exact scenario in which the song, on the surface just a plain old love ballad, takes place.
  Next note The one thing that does seem fairly clear is that it's about the imperturbable constancy of true love in the face of logistical challenge, or perhaps more precisely, the fear of challenge. As you might expect, one of the most exciting discoveries to be made in an analysis of such a song is the way in which the details of the music assist the words in the evocation of an otherwise difficult to verbalize complex of emotions.
  Next note Our friend Macca, in an interview clip from the "Put It There" video, suggests that he chose to revive this song for the 1989/1990 tour because it "says something nice, ... it's a simple song, ... easy to play." What do you think? Is it that he doesn't give himself enough credit, or perhaps, are we hearing just a small note of false modesty?
  Next note The form is the standard two-bridge model with a single verse intervening. In context it achieves a delicate balance between the rambling and the forthright. The inclusion of two bridges is in the interest of conjuring a somewhat relaxed mood. But the omission of an instrumental solo section, which would have probably appeared either in place of the third verse or as an additional verse section preceding the second bridge, keeps the proceedings from becoming too relaxed. After all, we need to keep focused with some urgency on the fact that the protagonist has a lot that he must say right now lest this moment pass.
  Next note The lyrics of the four verses contain a refrain-like final couplet based on the title phrase, and they create a pattern of ABCC. The AB verses feature a characteristic "I / we" swap, and they, along with the two bridges, rhythmically begin right on the downbeat. The CC verses are each more tightly integrated with the bridges that precede them so that they rhythmically begin well ahead of the downbeat, with the phrase "and that's enough;" the downbeat falling in this case on the final syllable.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The song is primarily in the modal-sounding "natural" minor key of a; you'll note how in the verse sections, the minor v7 (e-min7) chord with no G# is used in place of the more tonally functional Major one (with the G#, of course.) In contrast, the start of the bridge sections features a shift to the parallel Major key of A, a trick reminiscent of what we saw in "I'll Be Back".
  Next note The liberal inclusion of the relatively foreign note of B-flat throughout the song adds even more spice to both the melody and harmony.
  Next note Melodically, this B-flat in the context of a minor is suggestive of the exotic Phrygian mode; think of it as the white note scale starting on E. Try the following little exercise if you doubt what I mean about the piquant effect created by this mode: first play the melodic fragment of A --» B --» A over a sustained a-minor chord and then alternate it with A --» B-flat --» A over that same chord. Although this phrase never appears explicitly in the top-voice melody of "Things We Said Today", its alternating presence is definitely there throughout the song, hidden in the inner voices of the chord changes.
  Next note On the harmonic side, a B-flat chord is used in both the verse and bridge as part of a gambit in which what has started off as an aggressive excursion away from the home key is abruptly aborted with a return to that very same firm, secure home base. The B-flat chord in any mode of A is the unusual "flat-II" or "Neapolitan" chord (so-called because of its overly frequent use in 17th century opera of said venue), and what makes its use especially far out in a Beatles song is the fact that they resolve it directly to the I chord rather than via the V chord as is more customary in classical usage. Note how the Boys were so pleased with themselves over this that they recycled the exact same magic trick in "You're Going To Lose That Girl".

A Scarcity Of Songs In Minor Keys

  Next note As a sort of sidebar digression, it is worth noting how "Things We Said Today" is one of the very few early Beatles songs to be so fully grounded in the minor mode. Through July 1964, they had recorded 51 songs for official release — 15 covers, 1 by Harrison, the remainder by Lennon and McCartney — the great majority of which are clearly in Major keys.
  Next note While there is a sizeable group of songs which arguably contain some greater or less degree of minor "flavoring", when you get strict about it ("you'll have to be strict, Paul ..."), you find only 7 songs that are distinctively and pervasively minor:
  Next note A truly uncanny consistency is the fact the last 5 songs in the list above all make conspicuous use of the trick of switching back and forth between Major / minor phrase or section endings. As I've asked before in other contexts, is this style or mannerism?
  Next note The songs that contain only hints of the minor mode are also interesting. I'd say there are at least dozen or more of them in our sample study, but you might find more or less of them yourself depending on how picky or sensitive you are to this sort of thing. These "hints" are actually the result of a couple of different compositional techniques used frequently by the Beatles. For now, just some bullet descriptions with a few examples for further study:
  Next note Beyond a point it becomes difficult to draw the clear line between what I'm labeling as "pervasively" minor songs and those in the "just a hint of the minor mode" category. For example, you might say that "Not A Second Time" and "All I've Got To Do" more properly belong in the same class since they both are based on the I and vi chords. But the critical distinction for me between these two songs rests on the ordering of the I and vi chords.
  Next note "Not A Second Time" is characterized by I moving to vi. "All I've Got To Do" is the other way around; it moves from vi to I. To my ears the chord that is the "destination" or "target" has a tendency to assert itself. Hard to know for sure if this is a valid distinction rather than a rationalized inconsistency.


  Next note The vocal arrangement of "Things We Said Today" is neatly organized around the novelty of using only Paul throughout.
  Next note The first verse is primarily single tracked with two exceptions: the third phrase (as in every verse) has Paul harmonizing in parallel thirds with himself, and the second half of the last phrase of this verse — on the words "Things we said today" — suddenly shifts to double tracking.
  Next note The remaining verses and both bridge sections are consistently double-tracked in unison with a few similar exceptions as above: the third phrase of each verse uses the same parallel thirds as in the first verse — each voice of which is single tracked — and the second half of the last phrase — again, on the title phrase — has Paul harmonizing with himself in rather early-Beatles-sounding open fourths. Just as a teaser, this same harmonization appears still one place else, at the end of the second phrase of the final verse; yet again, we encounter the aesthetic of avoiding rote consistency.
  Next note By the way, this track is at least one example where the real stereo mix which may be found on the American vinyl pressing, "Something New", provides more easily discernable detail than the mono CD version of "A Hard Day's Night". In stereo, the overdubbed second vocal is separated very far to the right.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note We have just a brief two measures in which the backing texture of the verse is established. The even strumming and stroking of acoustic guitar and drums sets a predominantly tranquil mood, yet two details belie it, keeping you braced for possibly tenser times ahead.
  Next note First off, the opening sixteenth-note rhythmic fanfare (di-di-dum) calls you to attention with a bigger, more ominous bang than you'd think you might need given the supposedly gentle nature of the song to come.
  Next note Secondly, in the syncopated electric guitar part, the chords are stressed on the half beat in between beats 3 and 4 of the measure.
  Next note On the official recording of this song, the a minor chord is the only one used in this intro, whereas on the "Beeb" recording of July 1964, you hear them changing to e-minor seventh on the offbeat.


  Next note The verse is a standard sixteen measures long, and contains four phrases of even length. Three of these phrases — the first, second, and fourth — are musically very similar. Harmonically too, they are quite static featuring in every measure either the lone a-minor chord, or with a change to e-minor seventh on the offbeat. While you'd expect to find a strict pattern as to which measures sustain the chord versus changing it, a close look reveals some internal inconsistencies throughout the official version, as well as between the official and the "Beeb" version cited above.
  Next note It is, of course, in the third phrase of this section — "Some day when I'm lonely ..." — that the mood noticeably darkens, largely as a result of a momentary tonal ambiguity. It's clear right at the beginning of this phrase that the music is suddenly headed away from the home key, but the future course is kept uncertain. By the time we reach the B-flat chord in the last measure, it is uncertain to our ears whether we might soon stabilize in the new key of F, or perhaps keep moving along the circle of fifths to the even more remote E-flat chord. And yet, at this moment of most extreme tension, the B-flat chord resolves surprisingly-yet-comfortingly back into the home key. I notate it below as though a modulation to F is the "correct" answer, but I think my prose description above is more faithful to one's internal experience:
      |C           |C9/7        |F           |B-flat      |a
   a:  III                                    flat-II      i
   F:  V                         I            IV

   [Figure 24.1]
  Next note Details such as the broad arpeggios in the electric guitar on the downbeat of each measure and the free-form way in which the words are scanned over the underlying rhythm in slow triplets and syncopation, not to mention the harmonized pseudo-duet also help set off this third phrase from the other three.

Verse Variations

  Next note The first verse is the only one that is followed immediately by another verse and as a result, it includes a one-measure "reprise" of the intro including the little rhythmic fanfare. Similarly, the final verse connects directly into the outro which also is just a reprise of the material heard at the outset.
  Next note Verses two and three connect to bridge sections and feature a surprise ending on A Major instead of the minor chord you'd otherwise expect. It's worth noting how in these verses which adjoin the bridges, the "noisier" texture of the bridge-proper (see below) begins right in the final measure of the verse itself.


  Next note The bridge sections provide sudden contrast in virtually every category: the harmony shifts entirely and optimistically to the Major mode, the percussion gets much noisier including the addition a tambourine, and the bass line features a different rhythmic and melodic pattern. More to the point, the gambit of harmonic excursion and sudden return which we saw in the verses is now even further developed.
  Next note These bridges are each eight measures long and contain two phrases of even length. There is melodic parallelism between the two phrases which is made bitter sweetly ironic by a difference in their harmony. The melody too is difficultly chromatic and adds to the emotional intensity of the section; in addition to the usual chords, I've chosen to notate below what I consider to be the structural backbone of this melody:
 Melody: |C#         |D          |D#         |D-natural   |
 Chords: |A          |D          |B          |E7          |
      A:  I           IV          V of V      V7

         |C#         |D          |D#         |D-natural   ||C-natural
         |A          |D          |B          |B-flat      ||a
          I           IV          V of V      flat-II       i

   [Figure 24.2]
  Next note Harmonically, the first phrase is "functional" in a relatively traditional way, although you'd sooner expect the D# in top voice of measure 3 to resolve upward to E rather than downward, as it does to D. And though the D fits quite logically on top of the E7 chord upon which it finds itself, the melodic descent conveys some small sense of emotional deflation, especially as it follows the first three measures of rising, happy-Major-mode expectations.
  Next note It's in the second phrase, where this same melodic backbone is suspended over an extremely unexpected substitution of the B-flat chord for the E7 that the sun chillingly goes in for a brief moment; especially when this half-stepwise descent continues in a second surprise move to the a-minor chord for the start of the following verse. As with the verse above, labeling the B-flat chord a flat-II maybe doesn't even fairly match your experience of the phrase. Perhaps, it's more like an unhinging sensation of harmonic free-fall, which is brought to a merciful end by the sudden return to the home key.


  Next note As is common in songs of this period, the outro presents yet another reprise of the introductory material repeated into a fade-out. It would almost be an anti-climax except for the ingeniously unifying stroke of adding in the tambourine part from the bridge section. In spite of the fact that the steady reliability of the a minor backing riff extends as far as you can see to the horizon, this ending also suggests that little pangs of anxiety will also remain a permanent part of the tour.

Some Final Thoughts


Future Fear

  Next note Without the clues from the music itself, you might mistake this song for one of a time-honored and slightly hackneyed genre: sentimental words of parting between lovers overhead at a railway platform or baggage carousel. But I think it's a tad more complicated.
  Next note For one thing, the notion of a parting is mentioned only once, and even then, in hypothetical terms only. Even the rest of the lyrics, which on the surface can easily be read as sweet, simple, besotted gratitude for a love that is requited can easily be re-interpreted as containing more than just a suggestion of head-shaking skepticism and concern about the viability of love's lasting till the end of time; especially "if" one is so far away. This is what I mean about how the hot flashes of uncertainty in the music help elucidate the text.
  Next note But the ultimately "nice" message of the song is to be found in the repeating line which ends each verse, in which all fear is revealed to be an illusion. The transcendence of the background accompaniment and the ease with which the steady carrier frequency of the a minor key may be accessed again in spite of momentary free-falls and loss of contact vividly underscore the meaning of the words: that in spite of the potential-yet-inevitable strains upon it, be they tangible impediments or the one of times passing, love can and will persist, oftentimes though it has little more to sustain it than the memory of things we said today.
  Alan (010501#24.1)
Revision History
010591 24.0 Original release. H.B. Fran G&K.
010501 24.1 Adapt to series template. 
Copyright © 2001 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.