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notes on ...

Notes on "We Can Work It Out"


Notes on ... Series #1.2 (WCWIO.2)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: D Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Verse | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Past Masters", Volume 2, Track 2 (Parlophone CDP 90044-2)
  Recorded: 20th, 29th October 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 3rd December 1965 (Double A Single / "Day Tripper")
US-release: 6th December 1965 (Double A Single / "Day Tripper")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note We begin our studies of the Beatles' songs with an example chosen on purpose roughly from the middle of the catalog; it's having been released as one side of a double A single together with "Day Tripper" on the same day as the "Rubber Soul" album.
  Next note We'll discover that "We Can Work It Out" is a deceptively simple example of just how innovative the Boys could be within the framework of what on the surface is just a 2:10 pop single from what we would later knowingly look back on as a prime nodal point of their songwriting career.
  Next note The form is one of the small number of standard pop song models. Let's call it the "double bridge with single verse intervening." Over the long run it's one that the Beatles would use often, though I suspect the lack of an intro and inclusion of a complete ending are somewhat unusual variations on the model; at least in terms of pop music in general, if not the Beatles themselves
  Next note A close cousin of this form is the variation where two verses intervene between the bridges, the second of which is often an instrumental solo. In both cases, the doubling up of the verses before the first bridge and the single verse trailing the second bridge works very well. If you omit the repeat at the beginning you feel rushed into the bridge. If you double up at the end, the whole thing starts to drag.
  Next note Unique lyrics are provided here for the first three of the four verses; the fourth is an identical repeat of the third. Even so, two of the three variations cleverly use a common framework of "Try to see / while you see" for their first and third lines.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The melody of the song is "appoggiatura" intensive; (i.e. this is a technical term defined as follows: "a 'leaning note', normally one step above the main note. It usually creates a dissonance in the harmony and resolves by step on to the main note on the following weak beat." — Grove Dictionary, quoted without permission). Combined with rhythmic syncopation and a tendency to hammer away on the same note for several syllables at a time, these leaning tones give the song a persuasively insistent edge.
  Next note A couple of highlighted lyric fragments to show where these babies are:
   Think of what I'm SAY-ING

   WE CAN work it out.
   WE CAN work it OU-UT.

   ... and there's no ti-i-i-i--ime for
   fussing and FIGHT-ING my friend
  Next note The choice of keys and chord progressions here is straightforward compared to many another Beatles song; no tricky chromatic progressions (e.g. "Help!" intro) nor remote modulations (e.g. "You're Going To Lose That Girl" mid-section). The verses are in D major and the bridge is in b minor, the "relative minor" of D; pretty standard.
  Next note The opening phrase relies on the modal flat-VII chord (C-Major) in order to establish the home key instead of the "V" (A-Major) chord. The latter doesn't make an appearance until the very end of the verse section.
  Next note The verse and refrain have different harmonic shapes. The verse is open ended in that it proceeds from the tonic eventually to the dominant chord which ultimately wants resolution: I -» flat-VII -» I -» IV -» V. When it flows into the refrain, it's with a "deceptive cadence" (technical term used to describe the situation where you get a different chord than you expected) to the b-minor (vi). It's this hanging dominant chord which requires the brief outro to tie things up neatly.
  Next note The bridge has an harmonic shape completely closed off but in its contrasting key. This closed-ness is part of why the return to the original key seems somewhat abrupt; of course the rhythm (see below) plays a part in that too.


  Next note The basic backing consists of acoustic rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums and tambourine, onto which are superimposed a part for harmonium and the vocals.
  Next note The appoggiatura motif is followed through on the backing track. On the incomplete non-vocal take 1 you can hear a lot of leaning tones in the top line of the rhythm guitar. It even carries through to the final melodic riff of the outro.
  Next note Perhaps the best example (and also one of the highlights of the entire song) is in the bridge where the harmonium sustains the note B-natural through a change of chord from b-minor, to G-Major (where it belongs) and continues to hold it through the shift down to F#-Major before letting it fall finally to A#. Again, the take 2 we're privileged to have with the forward-mixed harmonium really underscores it.
  Next note For the verses Paul sings a double (triple?) tracked solo lead. In the bridges he's joined in parallel thirds by John.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note Here's where things really get interesting! Compared to other songs (e.g. "Can't Buy Me Love") where the phrases are all four-measures long and come in sixteen-measure sections of four-times-four, this song does some fancy things.
  Next note The verses are indeed sixteen measures long but are divided into three phrases in a 6+6+4 AAB pattern. This lends them a bit of a free-verse quality in spite of the underlying steady 4/4 rhythm.
       ------------------------ 2X --------------------------
      |D       |- 9 -» 8|-       |- 9      |C 3 -» 2|D       |
   D:  I                                    flat-VII I

      |G 9 -» 8|D       |G 9 -» 8|A        |
       IV       I        IV       V

   [Figure 1.1]
  Next note The melodic leaning tones add several harmonic dissonances I've notated above. The most interesting one is the way the appoggiatura ninth (E) in measure 4 is not allowed to resolve until the next measure where its resolution note (D) has now become a dissonance over the new chord change.
  Next note A precious Beatles "detail" moment: in the lone middle verse, they throw in a syncopated dotted rhythm into the final measure of the second iteration of the first phrase above. It's the only place in the song where it happens. In consequence, you wind up feeling as if they're winking at you when, in the same measure of the final verse, they blithely play even quarter notes with a casual vengeance.


  Next note The bridge indeed contains only four-measure phrases but these are organized into a twelve-measure section of three-times-four which is repeated to make the overall bridge length twenty-four measures:
      |b       |-       |-       |-       |
   D:  vi
   b:  i

      |G       |- 6 -» 5|F# 4 -» |- 3     |
       VI                V

      |b 4 -» 3|-       |-       |-       |
   D:  vi

   [Figure 1.2]
  Next note The asymmetry of this three line bridge is effectively underscored by the shift to the "3/4 oom-pah-pah" rhythm in the third phrase. This rhythmic shift is interesting in that it is done without changing the tempo. The length of a measure remains the same except it is suddenly filled for one phrase with three beats instead of four; a sort of time warp. When the verse returns after this it sounds faster but isn't really! Another characteristic detail: the way in which the slow triplets are articulated by tambourine and harmonium only; no drums, because the latter would be overkill.
  Next note This type of slow triplet is something we'll discover to be a favorite of John's over the long run. They tend to connote a kind of rhetorical emphasis not at all dissimilar from Macca's hammered leaning tones. A good precedent setting example of slow triplets that the Beatles surely would have been familiar with is in the final refrain of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day".
  Next note Again there is harmonic dissonance created by melodic leaning tones which I've notated.


  Next note The outro is a four-measure extension of the final verse:
   |D       |G 6/4   |D 5/3   |-       |
    I       (IV?)     I

   [Figure 1.3]
  Next note The cadence sounds plagal, with the G chord in the second measure sounding like G-Major in the second ("6/4") inversion. You'll get used to me asking you to think of that G chord as neighbor tone motion in the upper voices, rather than a true root chord change.
  Next note This brief little outro makes for an ingeniously unifying effect. The tune, chords, and backing texture feel on the one hand as though derived from the verse, but the slow triplets are clearly an allusion to the bridge.
  Next note The finished track does a neat fade down on the final chord. The unprocessed, rough take 2 mix betrays a long-sustained and ultimately frayed end.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note A-a-a-nyway, there's still more one could say but I think I've overdone it here plenty for one day; is there anyone I haven't alienated? :-).
  Next note Warning: this can (and most certainly will) become part of a series if you don't watch out.
  Alan (022000#1.2)
Revision History
053189 1.0 Original release
021300 1.1 Expand and adapt to series template
022000 1.2 Patch first section to more accurately describe form
           Add comment re: verse lyrics
Copyright © 2000 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.