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Notes on "Help!"


Notes on ... Series #6.0 (H.0)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major
     Meter: 4/4
        CD: "Help!", Track 1 (Parlophone CDP7 46439-2)
  Recorded: 13th April 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 23rd July 1965 (A Single / "I'm Down")
US-release: 19th July 1965 (A Single / "I'm Down")
  Next note With "Help!", let's take a look at a couple of details in the harmony as well as a glance at the overall form.

Harmonic Details

  Next note "Help!" is in the key of A but it's the G-Major chord that calls for our analytical attention. The G chord appears repeatedly in this song, alternately serving two unrelated purposes; sort of like a character actor filling two different roles in the same play. In the verse, the G chord appears as a garden-variety flat-VII "Aeolian" cadence:
       A        -» c#      -» f#      -» D       -» G       -» A
   A:  I           iii        vi         IV         flat-VII   I

   [Figure 6.1]
  However, in both the intro and the refrain, the G chord serves a more subtle purpose; in the final analysis (ugh!) I'm not even sure what roman numeral to give it, or whether to give it one at all.
  Next note The chord progression of the intro is a classic harmonic example of starting a piece out in left field; "classic" in the sense that early Romantic song writers like Schubert and Schumann loved this gambit. At what point in "Help!" do you know for sure what key we're in? Below are some of the ways in which I believe the opening chords can be heard; I think that several of the possibilities below are quickly rejected in retrospect by the ear but I list them all to underscore the ambiguity.
                b         -» G         -» E         -» A
    Is it:  b:  i            VI           V-of-flat-VII, huh???
       or:  g:  iii          I            V-of-ii, huh???
       or:  D:  vi           IV           V-of-V       V, maybe???

    it's:   A:  ii           flat-VII     V            I

   [Figure 6.2]
  This is more than just mental gymnastics on paper. Try and put yourself in a frame of mind as though you're hearing this for the first time (try!), and play it out "Name That Tune" style, dealing out one chord at a time. Ask yourself at each step, "what key am I in", "where am I heading?" I think you'll get the picture.
  Next note I think one isn't certain of the key being A until the verse actually begins; the possibility of the A at the end of the intro actually being a V which will go to the D as the I chord is very real to the ear. Once you get used to this progression I believe you hear the overall motion as being from the ii -» V -» I; a nice subdominant -» dominant -» tonic cadence. But what of the G chord? I put a flat-VII under it but I don't hear it that way at all in this context; flat-VII is a surrogate dominant (V-like) function. What I hear in this context is more of a hard to pigeon-hole "filler" chord between the ii and the V. What makes it work is the contrapuntal movement in the outer voices:
      Top:  F#               -» G                 -» G#
   Bottom:  B      -» A      -» G       -» F#     -» E
        A:  ii                  ??                   V

   [Figure 6.3]
  Next note Scale-wise motion, particularly in a bassline or particularly when any line moves chromatically as the top line does here, can make the ear follow and "accept" some of the craziest chord progressions. In music of the late nineteenth century (for examples see Chopin or Wagner) this technique could be extended through very long passages creating a rather floating tonal experience. Our example from "Help!" is a very tiny example of this technique — it extends over only three chords, the outer two of which are clear tonal anchors like the towers of a suspension bridge. If you'll allow me to quickly change metaphors yet again, I like to think of that G chord here making a harmonic "pleat" between it's two neighboring chords.
  Next note It's a very pleasing effect; given that the harmonic rhythm is rather slow throughout, this unusual chord progression which is repeated four times in the course of the song is a conspicuous touch which adds a much needed feeling of forward and outward movement.
  Next note Two other unrelated harmonic details I can't resist passing by:
  • I always hear the final phrase of the refrain as follows; there's a V chord on the word "help" which, though not on the rhythm track, is strongly implied by the voices:
       Won't   you     please  please  help    me

       E               A               (E)     A
   A:  V               I               (V)     I

   [Figure 6.4]
This pattern is changed in the final refrain and made into a beautiful example of a deceptive cadence, in pure Bach style; i.e. the word "me" in the final refrain is given a f# (vi) chord. As in all such cadences, things are quickly put "right" in the following and final phrase.
  • And that brings me to the second detail — the final chord of this song is yet another added sixth chord. In contrast to the splat-like attack on this chord at the end of "She Loves You", the boys use it in "Help!" with great subtlety; the plain A chord is given on the down beat, and the sixth is added as a melodic neighboring tone, off the beat, in falsetto voice on the phoneme "Ooh"; but you already knew that :-)

Overall Form

  Next note "Help!" has an unusually flat floor plan:
          ----- 3X --------
   Intro | Verse | Refrain | Coda
  Next note There are a couple of details which help offset the deadly monotony of this:
  • There's the effect created by the chromatic chord progression already described above.
  • The lyrics of the three verses create an ABA pattern.
  • The instrumental arrangement provides a dramatic and welcome lightening of the texture at the beginning of the last verse.
  Next note But I'd argue that this small amount of relief is frankly not enough to dispel an overall closed, static feeling in the song created by the following factors:
  • The harmonic rhythm is fairly slow and unvarying throughout. In the verse, except for the phrase "help in any way" where the chords change twice within a measure, the rest of the chords last two whole measures each. In the refrain, the chords last four measures each!
  • The sixteen-measure verse is built out of a musically identical repetition of the same eight measures.
  • The harmony from an architectural viewpoint, is unrelievedly in one key (A) throughout. In spite of the nice effect with the G chord, the refrain provides no relief in terms of excursion or flirtation with a different key. (By contrast, think about the space opened up by the middle eight of a song like "From Me To You".)
  Next note All this is not to say that "Help!" is ineffective or unsuccessful; common sense and experience tells us you don't need to be versed in music theory to recognize a great song when you hear it; right!?
  Next note If anything, I find myself pondering that perhaps, this unusual unrelieved closed-ness is intentional and actually part of what makes the impact of the song so strong. The music underscores the single-mindedness of the message contained within the lyrics; shades of "got no time for trivialities" from a different song of the same composer.
  Alan (070989#6.0)
Copyright © 1989 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.