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notes on ...

Notes on "Yesterday"

 





Notes on ... Series #75 (Y)
  by Alan W. Pollack
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       Key: F Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Bridge | Verse | Outro
        CD: "Help!", Track 13 (Parlophone CDP7 46439-2)
  Recorded: 14th, 17th June 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 6th August 1965 (LP "Help!")
US-release: 13th September 1965 (A Single / "Act Naturally")
 
1

General Points of Interest

 

Style and Form

  Next note This song is so well established in the pop-cultural subconscious that it's difficult to relate to it objectively, no less say something new and insightful about it, but we'll try.
  Next note As is often the case with the over-exposed war horses of any artsy genre, whether or not you "like" this song, there's some good reason why it became so over-exposed in the first place. (hint) It's a fine piece of work with something going for it in virtually every department: the unique arrangement, an attractive tune, even some asymmetrical phrasing and a couple of off-beat chord progressions.
  Next note By the same token, one should not be fooled by whatever unique and interesting factors surround the song's history and production into thinking of it as more unique and different than it is. Especially if you can step around the self-pitying lyrics for a moment (Paul possibly taking a lesson from George, for a change) you'll find this song to actually lie along the same compositional and moody lines of the other hymn or anthem-like ballads which so vividly characterize some of Paul's highest achievements, especially in the post-Pepper period.
  Next note Just for the record, the form here is the shorter two bridge model. And the tempo is uncharacteristically slow.
 

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The melodic phrases are consistently arch shaped and shot through with sentimentally expressive appoggiaturas; very dangerously close to being too much so. Ultimately, I believe it's the free-verse, non-four-square scanning of the words that saves it.
  Next note The overall home key is F Major but the music demonstrates a curious tendency to repeatedly veer off toward the relative minor key of d. This device subtly sets a mood for the song in which all attempts at putting on a positive face are betrayed by pervasive melancholy; shades of "beneath this mask I am wearing a frown." Interestingly, Paul had used a similar harmonic trick (actually the same basic idea but in reverse) in his very similar earlier offering of "And I Love Her".
  Next note By funny coincidence, we find here the same harmonic cross-relation between G and B-flat chords as we saw last time in "It's Only Love". Granted, the order of the two chords is reversed here, and the semantic meaning of the progression is changed by the difference in home key between the two songs. It's an uncanny parallel, nevertheless.
 

Arrangement

  Next note The instrumental backing consists entirely of acoustic guitar and a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello), with the two elements mixed 100% apart from each other onto separate stereo channels and the vocal split down the middle. Paul is single tracked virtually all the way through except for a short patch of double tracking to reinforce the high notes at the end of the first bridge. To my ears (especially when isolating the "right" channel with acoustic guitar, it sounds like there was some intermittent reverb applied to the vocal track.
  Next note Even without the usual electric guitars and drums, some standard tricks still apply; to wit, the layered effect of holding back on the bowed strings until the second verse, and the manner in which the quartet never plays the same section exactly the same way more than once. Regarding the latter effect, note for example the ominous interjection by the viola (or cello?) in the second bridge, and the sustained high note in the first violin during the final verse, the latter, a terrific anticipation of the similar effect created for the second half of "Hey Jude".
  Next note As with those other hymns of Paul's, the bassline of this one is played with special emphasis, whether in those slappingly hard-picked notes on the low strings of the guitar or reinforced by the cello.
2

Section-by-Section Walkthrough

 

Intro

  Next note The intro consists of just two measures of guitar vamping on an open-fifth drone-like scoring of the I chord, minus the third scale degree whose presence would otherwise make explicit whether we're dealing with a Major or minor key. This seemingly small detail starts the proceedings off on a suspenseful, ambiguous note.
 

Verse

  Next note The verse is an unusual seven measure in length and divides up into three phrases which form a 3 + 2 + 2 poetic meter:
 
      |F                 |e-dim    A        |d                 |
   F:  I                  ii-of-vi V-of-vi   vi

      |B-flat   C        |F                 |
       IV       V         I

      |d        G        |B-flat   F        |
       vi       V-of-V    IV       I

   [Figure 75.1]
  Next note As mentioned above, the music harmonically retreats off to relative minor key of d even before the Major home key of F has been properly established. The arrival on the d-minor chord in the third measure is, indeed, the first instant in the song in which you feel a sense of being harmonically grounded, the opening F chord at this stage of the game still not at all clear to you, even in retrospect, as the chord of the home key.
  Next note The chord progression in which V-of-V is followed by IV, with its concomitant cross-relation and implied ethos of deferred gratification makes a somewhat surprising appearance here at the end of the verse. This progression was always very popular with both Lennon and McCartney, but we're used to finding it in the faster and harder driving likes of "She Loves You", "Eight Days A Week", and the title cut of "Sgt. Pepper". In the current instance, the effect of the cross-relation is somewhat blunted by the tracing, in one of the inner voices of the backing, a Barber Shop Harmony-like descending chromatic line which also happens to be intrinsic to this chord progression.
  Next note Of course there are extremely juicy appoggiaturas on the first syllable of the opening word as as well as the words "far", and "here".
 

Bridge

  Next note On paper, the bridge is eight measures long and built out of two four-measure phrases, but it sure as hell doesn't sound that way! It sounds much more to our ears as each phrase of the bridge begins on what I've notated as the second measure below, with the first measure being a wind-up extension of the previous phrase:
 
    -------------------------------- 2X ------------------------------
   |e-dim    A       |d       B-flat  |g       C       |F             |
    ii-of-vi V-of-vi  vi      VI       ii      V        I

   [Figure 75.2]
  Next note The phrase endings of this section are the only place in the song where the home key is clearly established by a clean dominant-tonic (i.e. V -» I) cadence. The starting off in this bridge, yet again, from the harmonic perspective of the relative minor key makes these phrase endings in F sound almost as much like the end result of a modulation away from the home key rather than the a true return to it; doubly ironic because of the extent to which the chords used in this section overlap so heavily with those of the verse.
  Next note The end of the second bridge features a lovely melodic variation. In the first iteration of this section Paul sustains the high F (on the syllable "day .....") with one of the strings playing a descending counter-melody (F -» C -» B-flat -» A) against him. In the second bridge, Paul now includes that subordinate phrase as part of the main line.
  Next note Note too the stepwise descending bassline which spans measures 2 - 3 of each phrase in this section.
 

Outro

  Next note The outro contains just a single reprise of the final phrase scored as yet another hum job.
  Next note For just this last time, the descending chromatic inner line is used to accompany the vocal line minus the supporting bassline below it.
3

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The scoring for string quartet and acoustic guitar is truly inspired. By the time this song appeared, the Beatles had well established their flair for creating stylistic hybrids from surprisingly diverse elements; yet this one is more than just another crossover.
  Next note In this case, there is an ironic tension drawn between the schmaltzy content of what is played by the quartet and the restrained, spare nature of the medium in which it is played.
  Next note The cross-current set off by this effect adds an engaging level of depth to the performance. But more importantly, it provides an antidote in advance for any possibly perceived surfeit of sentiment; a key point that has so often been overlooked by those who, with the best of intentions, seek to cover the song, and thereby "ruin it", with a backing in the mode of "The 101 Strings".
 

A Couple of FootNotes

  Next note François Pachet wrote:
 
I was very surprised to see that yo do not mention a detail that, as far as I am concerned, embodies my overall perception of "Yesterday": There is a very strange (and interesting) seventh (E-flat in the key of F) played by the cello, in the middle of the bridge. I read somewhere that this was actually an explicit request of McCartney to the arranger (G. Martin?). The corresponding cello line is awkward, and I would like to hear your opinion about it.
  Next note There's virtually no end of the level of detail to which one might go with the style of analysis used in the Notes. Partly in order to keep my own pace moving, and partly in consideration of the fact that there are some who likely find the Notes already too long, it's no wonder a salient point or two worth making sometimes is overlooked. In this case, I thought I actually had made passing reference to the "ominous intrusion" of that E-flat in the cello part. In any event, though, let's use the opportunity here to backtrack and add a couple of footNotes to the original post:
  Next note As a stylistic hybrid, the use of classical and pop elements figures most heavily in the mix, but there are other elements as well:
 
  • For example, that E-flat in the cello is the only occurrence in the entire song of the flat seventh melodic degree and, showing up so late, lends an isolated, even surprising touch of the blues.
  • Similarly, the G-Major chord used in the verse, aside from the cross-relation it creates with the B-flat chord that follows it, conjures a folksy Dorian modal tone a la "Parsley, etc." with the d-minor chord that precedes it.
  • I'd even go so far as to suggest that the manner in which the melodic note A is pitted against the ii-of-vi chord at the start of the bridge is somewhat jazzy.
  • On an entirely different note, there is a deft moment near the end of the verse where the harmonic rhythm is uniquely syncopated. This both breaks up what otherwise might have become the monotonous flowing of the rest of the music and, to the extent that it appears in every verse as well as the outro, it provides a subtle, non-verbal hook for the piece.
  Regards,
  Alan (020193#75)
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Copyright © 1993 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.