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volume 1
may 1998

The sound of the Beatles


by Ger Tillekens
  The songs of the Beatles are very melodious and harmonious to the ear. What is the secret of their sound and how does this relate to the youth culture of the sixties? On these questions Ger Tillekens wrote a fat book. Here you'll find a summary of his answers. ISBN 90-5589-112-6
Het Spinhuis, 1998
  On the Music of the Beatles and the Rise of Youth Culture
Next In the sixties a new sound conquered the world of popular music. It was the sound of beat music, which laid down the foundations for most of nowadays rock music. The sound was different from that of its predecessors in rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues. And its origins did not lie in the United States but on the other side of the Atlantic: in Great Britain. Undoubtedly the Beatles operated in the front lines of this British invasion, which changed the face and sound of popular music for the next decades. About the same time youth manifested itself as an important social and cultural force.
Next Rock music and youth culture appeared almost simultaneously. Was this connection only superficial or was there more to their relationship? Beat music clearly exerted a mysterious attraction on youth. But how did it do this? In vain the song texts have been researched over and over again to find the reason for this fascination. Now the study The Sound of the Beatles, written by Ger Tillekens, dives deep into the musical style marks of the Beatles' songs to find some clues for their cultural power.
Next The songs of the Beatles and their fellow musicians of the British beat explosion are typical in many ways. The harmonic accompaniment counts a great number of chords. In addition to that those chords form peculiar combinations. Moreover, the melodic lines follow the harmonic patterns in a way, which makes the songs remarkably melodious. The Sound of the Beatles looks carefully into the first songs of the Beatles for the structure that is lying behind all those characteristics. The outcome of this sociological research project: the curious chord combinations of beat music are based on a new and self-reliant musical system. This system also explains why and how each song could function as a cultural driving force for social change.
Next Ger J. Tillekens (1949) studied sociology at Leiden University and is now working at Groningen University in the Netherlands. His research and publications cover the topics of education, youth culture and its expressions in rock music, television and comics.
  Listen to the bird,
who sings it to the tree.
And then when you've heard him,
see if you agree.
(Nobody I Know, 1964)
1 The sound of the Beatles. Like an old-fashioned marriage, it cannot be undone. With some kind of emotional super glue the sound of the Beatles and their fellow musicians of the British beat explosion now forever sticks to the image of that curious decade of the twentieth century, which has become known as the swinging sixties. For many people, old and young alike, that sometimes momentous, sometimes hilarious period of cultural change came rather unexpectedly. At that time even social scientists sat and watched bewildered by a cultural rebellion they had neither expected nor predicted.
  In the nineties amazement has made room for explanations. From the vantage point of the present many sociologists look back at this period as the beginning of a new phase in the process of modernisation of western society. According to them, it opened up a new mentality of consumption, offered a new look at individuality, introduced new and more egalitarian attitudes and replaced the old cultural elite with a new cultural vanguard of middle class youth. Moreover, it expanded this new cultural outlook and its practices to a transnational, global scale. All this has become textbook knowledge. Even the economic, demographic and social conditions of this cultural transformation have been studied extensively. Nostalgia remains, where astonishment has disappeared. But not everything has yet become clear. The all-important role — literally — played by beat music still awaits an explanation. Though some have tried, little can be found in early rock music to explain the way it is so closely tied to the sixties. The adolescent love songs of early rock music just seem too plain and simple to account for such a complex cultural transformation.
  Compared with the musical and textual idiom of their more classical predecessors, pop songs indeed appear to be rather simple. The usual rock song is just a string of love words, set to a catchy tune which in turn is accompanied by a few easy chords. On this point most experts agree wholeheartedly. Usually even rock musicians and rock fans themselves honour their favorite music as plain three chord songs. Still, are rock songs really all that simple? Often even experienced rock musicians find it hard to choose the right chords to the great songs they want to cover. Singers often have a hard time striking the right note for the texts they are interpreting. Actually it is not an easy thing to play and sing a rock song the right way.
  Contrary to popular belief most rock songs require far more than three chords. Yet this fact is not the only reason for the peculiar difficulties of performing rock music. In almost every single song the chords also show a strange, unconventional relationship with each other, just as there exists a close connection between harmony and melody. To perform rock music properly one has to have a certain feeling for those musical relationships. It calls for a talent which aptly has been described as pop sensibility. Like all kinds of musical feeling, this gift for rock music seems a magical ability, given to some by birth and denied to others despite all training. Pop sensibility, however, does not depend on feeling alone. The smooth transitions between chords and the tight relationship between harmony and melody can be explained in a more rational way. This is the first objective of The Sound of the Beatles. But that is not all. Its second, more important goal is to show in which way the style marks of beat music relate to the rise of an autonomous youth culture in the sixties.
  The name of the Beatles, the short designation of the legendary musical unity of George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Richard Starkey, figures prominently in the book's title. The main reason is that the characteristics of rock music are explained by means of a thorough analysis of the forty-six songs this group wrote and sold in their first years as a recording band. This restriction is justified by the fact that early beat music cleared the way for the almost volcanic eruption of rock music that followed in its wake. The musical foundations of rock music were almost fully formed in these first few years. Of course the Beatles were not the only group to discover and explore new pathways in the soundscape of popular music. Surely a very similar story could have been written around the songs of other British groups from the same period: the Animals, Herman's Hermits, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Zombies, to name just a few. Unquestionably, however, the Beatles are the most appropriate choice. They not only made some of the most popular songs of the period, but many of these songs also offer excellent examples of the musical characteristics and peculiarities of rock's particular musical idiom. Besides, these songs are amply known and still widely available.
2 Curious chord combinations. Really how simple is rock music from a musicological perspective? Apart from originality one needs few talents or training to become a rock star: one must be able to hold a guitar and be just smart enough to learn three chords. That is a recurrent statement when rock's artistic ambitions are under attack. Those three chords are not even the most difficult ones. They are the familiar basic chords of all western music. In the key of C these three chords are the tonic C, the subdominant F and the dominant seventh G7. A guitarist who sets his mind to playing the Beatles' songs, however, has to master a lot more chords. To show this, a short example will do.
Listen to: Nobody I Know by Peter and Gordon (© Lennon and McCartney, 1964; 30 seconds).
  The quote above this summary was taken from Nobody I Know, a song written in 1964 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney for their friends Peter Asher and Gordon Waller. Behind the four measures of these text lines we hear on the record the chord progression: | C | Em | Am | A♭ |. Right away we've found three additional chords next to tonic C. But that is not the real difficulty. These chords are not really hard to play and for the average guitarist they are no particular problem. For the minor chords Em and Am the finger settings on the guitar are even utterly simple. The difficulty of the chord sequence lies in the unusual combination of chords: the way in which the tonic C is followed directly by the minor chord Em is rather unconventional, the fact that the minor mode is maintained in the step toward Am is slightly strange, and even more curious is the introduction of A♭ immediately after the A-minor chord.
  Theoretically this chord progression is not easy to explain. The additional chords pose an explanatory problem because they introduce polysemous tone material. Elsewhere In Nobody I Know we find, as another example, the seventh chord E7. In the lines of the melody the singers sing the g♯. Again, that is not the real problem. The g♯ is one of the regular tones of the E7 chord and as such it fits perfectly with this chord. However in modern western music the g♯ is the enharmonic equal of the a♭, the same tone we find in the harmonic singing under the A♭ chord. That is where our problem starts. On instruments tuned in equal temperance like the piano both tones share the same key on the keyboard. Nevertheless, they really are different tones. Sung as pure intervals — the g♯ as the major third of e and the a♭ as the minor third of f — the two tones differ a bit more than a quarter of a tonal distance. Polysemous tones like this must be interpreted by singers and their public by ear. If by chance something goes wrong, then the music tends to sound false and sometimes even the tone centre threatens to shift.
  In rock music the danger of such false tones and tone shifts looms dangerously over the musical soundscape. In a rock song all twelve tones of the chromatic scale can make themselves heard in two different shapes. The reason is that rock songs hold more chords with tones which are enharmonic twins. In an individual rock song the number of chords can even be extremely large. Once again Nobody I Know offers a good example. Next to the four chords of the quoted part, another five chords make their appearance in the remainder of the song. Apart from the E7 these are the Dm7, the D7, the G7 and the B♭. All in all the accompaniment of the song includes nine different chords, of which at least seven — the subdominant F is absent — fall outside the range of the basic chords. The sum of nine chords, however, is not exceptionally large. It is only one more than the average of all the chords in the early songs of the Beatles, which is eight chords.
  Though the number of chords in individual rock songs can sometimes be large, such a harmonic diversity is not unique for rock music. In earlier forms of popular music one can easily find songs with chords other than the three basic chords. In fact this kind of song is the rule, rather than the exception. In these songs, however, polysemous tone material usually is kept in place by so-called cadences — standardised chord progressions to which both the public and composers have grown accustomed. The chord progression in Nobody I Know, however, shows no trace of any known cadence. It cannot be explained by any existing conventions in the field of popular music, nor by any accepted theories on classical music. Seen from a classical musicological perspective the chordal move can be interpreted as a short modulation or a tone shift, for example to the tone center of e minor. The song, however, clings tightly to the tone center of c: a modulation cannot be heard and can only be deduced from sheet music. Nobody I Know is not an outstanding song, but in this respect it is exemplary for many other songs in the field of rock music. The casual way in which major and minor chords are combined under the same tone center is typical for rock music, and certainly for the Beatles' song repertoire. And that is only the start of it. Almost arbitrarily, it seems, all kinds of chords can appear in their songs.
  From an orthodox musicological point of view the Beatles' songs ignore all accepted rules. They seem to be built out of a chaotic pack of chords and tones. Striking as it is, this phenomenon has been noted before. According to most experts the songs are the result of a willful theoretical ignorance and a determined practical incompetence in musicological matters. Nevertheless even the most stubborn adversaries and vicious critics of rock music admit to the musical qualities of the Beatles' songs. Joined together by ingenious melodic lines and backed by perfectly tuned harmonious singing, the chord transitions create an obvious-sounding and naturally flowing stream of music. Step by step the songs introduce their listeners to their remarkable chord and tone material. In this way each song becomes a coherent musical unity. Theoretically this artistic achievement remains a riddle and therefore most musicologists ascribe the musical consistency of the songs to the unequaled genius of the Beatles. The perfect fit of all musical elements in each individual song, as one can read in many a book on this subject, is the unique result of the symbiosis of four exceptional individuals, who brought their own musical talents into a close-knit cooperation and so repeatedly succeeded in accomplishing the impossible in each new song. For that reason most musicological studies of the Beatles' songs devote a separate analysis to each individual song.
3 A diagonal tone grid. The book The Sound of the Beatles offers another explanation for the musical consistency of the Beatles' songs. The extensive analysis of the book unearths the common structure that is lying hidden under the various chord combinations of all the different songs. That harmonic structure is based on a system of tones — a tone grid — in which each of the basic chords can be replaced at will by several other chords. Instead of the tonic C we regularly find, for instance, its relative minor Am, more than once the E♭ and A and sometimes also the Cm. By the same token the appearance of the D7, Dm7 and A♭ in Nobody I Know compensates amply for the absence of the subdominant F in that song. Likewise the dominant G finds its counterparts in the B♭, Gm, Em, E and C♯m, all of which can be enriched with their sevenths.
  Different as they might be, these chords can function as stand-ins for each other. Separated by minor third intervals, the tones of these stand-in chords show a diagonal relationship in the tone grid. In this respect beat music — and rock music in its wake — deviates from the rules of classical music, which generally adheres to the principle of a vertical replacement of chords along the lines of the major thirds, as well as from the conventions of earlier popular music where additional tone material usually is kept in place by cadences. The harmonic structure of rock music can be fully described as a cadence-free, diagonal tone system. This gives the style a formal name and sets it apart from other musical styles. More important than that description, however, is the implication that beat music is a real musical innovation. Out of the ingredients of American rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues and within the space of two years the British beat groups cooked up a new musical idiom, which later on spawned all sorts of rock music.
  The early songs of the Beatles offer a splendid overview of the gradual, but quick, evolution of the new musical idiom of rock music. The songs show how the Beatles varied on widely differing cadences until they reached the point where these chord progressions became totally unrecognizable. The songs picture a whole range of new possibilities, opened up by the free replacement of chords with their stand-ins. Once again Nobody I Know offers a good example, this time in the transition of the Am to the A♭. Of these chords two tones — the a and a♭, and respectively the e and e♭ — differ less than half a tonal distance. To each other these tones function as so-called leading tones: to the ear they tend to slide toward each other. Here they ease the transition between the chords. In addition to this kind of leading tone transitions, the early Beatles' songs offer a series of other harmonic tricks, such as backings, enharmonic replacements of whole chords and tone traps. The songs exemplify how these transitions can be used as starting points for inventive and unusual modulations. Each new song, concocted by the Beatles and their musical fellow travelers, loosened the new musical idiom from its traditional anchors until it was self-reliantly standing on its own feet.
  Not only the chords and harmonies made beat music into the expression of something quite new. The tones of the additional chords and certainly the leading tones between chords were used gracefully as the building blocks for the melodies. The use of this accidental tone material caused a strong bond between melody and harmony. This made beat music, compared with the earlier rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues, sound rather melodious. The cohesiveness between melody and harmony, emanating from the harmonious singing of the Beatles, offered the public some compensation for the missing cadences. Yet there was still another element that guided the ear of the listener through the maze of their surprising chord combinations. The trail was marked by the texts of the songs, especially by the meaningful way the words were sung: here reflective and there decisive, alternately formal and informal, in turn doubting and determined. The Beatles' songs make clear that in rock music there exists a striking relationship between the tone of voice and the choice of chord material.
  As a rule song texts in popular music bear a conversational character. This fact explains why in popular music the three basic chords, almost in a linguistic sense, comply with a certain semantic logic. When applied together, these three chords acquire their own emotional connotations. Where the tonic is experienced as a moment of relaxation, the dominant creates a moment of suspense. The subdominant mediates between both these states and prepares tension or relief, depending on its position before the dominant or the tonic. Metaphorically these chords represent the movements of a speaking person. The emotional value of the dominant can be compared with a step forward to take the initiative; for the subdominant it is like a step backward to oversee the situation; and for the tonica it is like holding one's position. In this way the semantic logic of the basic chords hovers between the extremes of thinking and acting, the poles of a basic dimension of conversational situations.
  By extending the number of dimensions the additional chords of rock music can also be fit within the semantics of conversational contexts. To the basic dimension of thinking and acting — agency — these chords add two other dimensions. The first of these is the public-private distinction, which indicates the character of social space in which the participants address each other. This dimension regulates the kind of display given to opinions: polite or ironic in public places versus direct and emotional in private circumstances. On this dimension the subdominant F and the Dm take a middle position. On the public end of the axis, stand-in chords like F7 and D7 form the opposite of Fm and A♭ at the private end. The other dimension covers the range of personal doubts and an openly confessed and warranted willingness for action. On this dimension of the realization of the self in conversations, we find chords like the D7, Dm and A♭ diametrically opposed to the F7, F and Fm.
  Rock music is known by its note as well as by the way it talks. The extended semantic logic of rock music's chord material is closely related to the emotional expressiveness of the singer's voice. Therefore in rock songs the succession of individual chords is not only regulated by the principle of diagonal substitution and sustained with a little help of leading tones and singers singing perfectly in tune. More often the grain of the singing voice, interpreting the changing emotional meanings of the text, steers the listener's ear through the contexts of conversation, indicated by the chord material. By this interconnectedness of all its musical and textual elements, the musical idiom of rock music forms a harmonic, melodic and semantic whole. In short, the Beatles did not invent their music over and over again with each new song. The next song was always an exploration and elaboration of the same diagonal and cadence-free tonal system.
4 Mapping new roads for youth culture. Hidden behind all the diversity of the Beatles' songs there lies a new and autonomous musical system. This conclusion may be of some interest for a student of musicology, but is it also relevant for such a voluminous book on the topic as The Sound of the Beatles, which, in addition, presents itself as a sociological study? What connects the chords and melodic lines of music on one hand to sociological questions on the other? According to Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, this relationship is much closer than it may seem at first sight. In his much neglected study on the social aspects of music, Weber recognized the existence of a basic contradiction between harmony and melody, which is typical for western music. In western music harmony is based on tonal distances, like fifths and thirds, which are rationally constructed according to ideal arithmetic proportions. Melody, however, is governed by tonality. It does not follow the mathematics of harmony, but — just like the leading tones — it obeys the principle of tone proximity. In this respect melody imitates the habits of human speech. As the tonal distances of harmony are relatively great and artificial, the difference between tonality and harmony can easily be felt in western music.
  Western music shows a characteristic tension between harmony and melody, which gives it its dramatic expressiveness. According to Weber this musical contrast has important sociological implications, because it reflects a social opposition. Modern society, so Weber tells us, is caught up in an ongoing process of rationalization. More and more the economic production of goods, the political means of decision making and the construction and transmission of scientific knowledge are organized along the lines of rational procedures. That process of rationalization powers itself with its own fuel and has become irreversible. Because rationality overtakes still more aspects of modern society, it undermines the social foundation of shared beliefs and values. Myths and religions dwindle in the wake of science. For the individual living in that kind of society, this causes a growing stress between the overarching social rationality and the primary need to attach some meaning to personal life. Emotion revolts against rationality, but finds no place to express itself. Only the arts offer some kind of refuge, not by offering a solution but by making this opposition its main theme. In music, Weber argues, harmony symbolizes the rationality of society and melody represents the revolt and rebellion of the individual against it.
  Weber's study was published posthumously in 1921 and ignores the topic of popular music. Twenty years later, for the social-philosopher Theodor Adorno, it formed the starting point for a biting evaluation of popular music. In his view, rationalization had proceeded up to a point where composers could only choose between two answers. Heroically they could try to express the sensation of existential emptiness left by an all-encompassing rationality. Or they could avert their eyes and escape in the cheap denial of reality offered by the hedonistic dream world of bourgeois romanticism. Adorno found some hints of the former in the works of an avant-garde working at the frontiers of classic music. Here, as if in some last existential protest, melody seemed to have overtaken harmony. The second way of reacting Adorno found exemplified in popular music.
  Popular music, Adorno argued, is just a simplification of the older musical idioms of the Classical and Romantic styles, in which art is reduced to theatrics and once moving artistic sidesteps are brought into play for the sake of effect. The musical heritage is plundered to achieve a sentimental romanticism and to realize a short-lived experience of hedonistic kicks. With his analysis Adorno paved the way for an army of critics of popular music. Even the more recent sociological studies on the Beatles' songs follow his theoretical footsteps. On the one hand, those who find no real meaning in the songs of the Beatles dismiss it as light-hearted amusement. On the other hand, those who are impressed by the inventive and chaotic chord progressions lift the group out of its natural habitat of popular music and place it among the artistic elite of the twentieth century.
  According to some experts the music of the Beatles is ordinary pulp, according to others it is fine art. But there is yet another option. The analysis in The Sound of the Beatles opens another view on beat music. Though beat music can be interpreted within the scope of Weber's theory, several of its elements point away from Adorno's critique on popular music. Instead of emphasizing one of them, beat music seems to reconcile both poles of the opposition between harmony and melody. Beat music's hidden structure of chord replacement offers a clue to how this trick is done. The semantic logic governing chords and voice forms a reflection of the communicative structures of the peer group. It mirrors the direct ways in which young people interact and communicate with each other in daily life by the rules of a reciprocity of feelings and without any preordained system of norms and values. By modelling the contexts of conversation in its chord patterns beat music offered an intermediary communicative structure in which rational considerations and emotional deliberations could be joined together into personal decisions. Indicated by the chord movements, the quick shifts from context to context in the songs steered listeners along a more flexible path to explore, dissect and adjust the feelings and opinions of others as well as of themselves.
  With its free-floating chords and interconnecting melodic lines beat music sketched the contours of the social mappings of the peer group. Almost every song showed its listeners new ways for transgressing the emotional boundaries between the contexts of conversation. So, with the tools of music, beat music manufactured a genuine model for a more egalitarian communication of emotions and opinions. It created the preconditions for a new romantic outlook on social reality by pointing toward a sensibility for individual differences. Moreover, the songs themselves offered a means to become fluent in the necessary social skills. The melodic lines of the short songs could be sung along with the records, learnt by heart and kept in mind. By losing themselves in their favorite songs, the young fans of beat music learned new ways of communicating and a flexible emotional control. In this way the songs functioned as cultural contraptions, little machines for making decisions. They facilitated the acceptance of new ways of social communication and thereby activated the rise of youth culture in the sixties, which made this new way of living into a general pattern for social interaction.
5 "And then when you've heard him ..." All in all The Sound of the Beatles not only discusses and explains the musical qualities of the Beatles' songs. As much as on the music, the book hinges on its second objective as it tries to find some clues to the cultural impact beat music exerted on its listeners which thereby contributed to the cultural upheaval of the sixties. It shows how beat music rocked the cradle of youth culture by making a cultural mechanism of change out of its curious chords and melodies. That is the central thesis for which the book offers the necessary ideas, empirical evidence and theoretical arguments.
  Instead of calling on a broad array of economic, political and social trends and developments, this study points at a definite cultural force which called forth that moment of cultural change of the sixties. It was British beat music, an authentic cultural invention of the Beatles and a lot of other contemporary beat groups, that opened up for its listeners the perspective of new cultural forms and practices. This thesis contradicts much of what is accepted in sociology and musicology. Therefore, it asks for a thorough study of both the sociological implications of music and the musicological relevance of sociological questions. Professionally most sociologists know little or nothing of music theory, just as many musicologists have little knowledge of sociological matters. Those who buy the book only because of the group which gets so much attention in it, probably are not acquainted with both these domains. For that reason all chapters of the book clarify in depth the concepts and theories that are introduced in the analysis. In a casual way the reader is introduced into new insights and ongoing debates on the subject of popular music.
  The first two chapters are mainly sociological in nature. Chapter 1 lists the existing views on the relations between beat music and youth culture and chapter 2 explores the sociological explanations of the rise of youth culture in the sixties. Then the next four chapters take a deep dive into the music of the Beatles: chapter 3 focuses attention on their chord material, chapter 4 treats the cadences, chapter 5 goes into the topic of modulations and chapter 6 researches the relationship between harmony and melody. After all these musical questions, in its last two chapters the book returns to the domain of social science. From a sociological perspective chapter 7 relates the diagonal system of chords and the meaning of the texts to the communicative structure of youth culture. Then in chapter 8 the tables are turned by an investigation into the implications of the Beatles' songs for sociological theory.
  Both in a musicological and in a sociological sense the thesis of The Sound of the Beatles is provocative. Does it present its reader with a plausible line of reasoning and does it provide persuasive evidence? The answers to these questions lie in the book itself. So read it, listen once again to the music of the Beatles and: "... see if you agree."
Next Prologue 1
  1. The sound of the sixties 11
2. A good reason 43
3. Stand-in chords 79
4. Crumbled cadences 121
5. Akward modulations 157
6. Wrong notes 195
7. Words and chords 245
8. The pleasures of pop 291
  Epilogue 337
Next Appendix 1: The song material 349
Appendix 2: Compact discography
Appendix 3: On guitars and strings
Appendix 4: Copyrights
Appendix 5: Acknowledgements
Next References 387
Index 417
  Many people helped the author to complete this book. Their names can be found at the end of the book under the heading acknowledgements. As this book is also a Ph.D. thesis the names of those who supervised the work in progress, deserve to be mentioned here.
Next Supervisors:
  Prof. dr. Klaas B. Koster (Educational Sciences, University of Groningen)
Prof. dr. Jan van de Craats (Mathematics, University of Amsterdam)
Dr. Paul W. van Reijen (Musicology, University of Groningen)
Next Reading Board:
  Prof. dr. ir. Frans G.J. Absil (Sensor, Weapon and Command Systems, Royal Netherlands Naval College at Den Helder)
Prof. dr. Jacques J.B.M. van Hoof (Sociology, University of Leiden)
Prof. dr. Wim H.J. Meeus (Youth, Family and Life Course, University of Utrecht)
  The short sound fragment on this page is copyrighted: "Nobody I Know" 1964 © Columbia. It is used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting.
  1998 © Soundscapes