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volume 22
may 2019

The magnificent flat-seventh


  The remarkable rise of the flat-seventh chord in late 1950s' and early 1960s' popular music
by D. Pinter
  Nowadays the flat-seventh is a fully accepted member of the family of chords that populate the inlands of popular music. That has been quite different in the past. The chord's rise to acceptance coincides and therefore is often conflated with the successes of the Beatles. Here D. Pinter goes back in time, looking for the flat-seventh in the popular songs of the decade before the Beatles' hits topped the charts.
1 Left: The Everly Brothers (1958) — between 1953 and 1963 the duo released no less than 13 bVII-songs

A most peculiar chord. The so-called flat-seventh or bVII is a most peculiar chord, especially in the context of a major key. It is rooted on the pitch that is one whole step below the 1st degree of the actual key. That is why it is also known as the subtonic. For example, in the key of A it is the G major chord and in the key of D it is the C major chord. In a major key the root of the flat-seventh is a note that is not a member of the scale or mode in question. However, it does fit in with most related minor scales or modes. In both the Aeolian and Dorian modes they are native harmonic choices, where the tonic is minor, and the chord is called VII, not bVII. Most closely it fits in with the Mixolydian mode. For that reason, when found in the context of a major key, the flat-seventh is often seen as a "borrowed chord", lent by one of these scales or modes and ready to be used as a substitute for one of the basic chords — generally the dominant (V).

  On the level of music theory, the kinship between scales and modes may explain why the flat-seventh can be inserted in a major key. This, however, does not explain why the chord has become a favourite of songwriters since the mid-twentieth century. Up until the 1960s the bVII-chord was still sparsely used in popular music. Then, within the span of just a few years its share multiplied. In this respect Beatles' experts often point to the Fab Four's songbook as an important source of inspiration for other songwriters. In their songs the Beatles showed a predilection for this chord. And, boosted by their success, so the argument goes, others would have followed their example. Indeed, the Beatles clearly were fond of the flat-seventh. In his study of the Revolver recording project (1966), Ger Tillekens (2002) discusses the Beatles' use of this particular chord that reached a peak with seven out of the sixteen songs incorporating the bVII-chord. [1] Earlier on, Alan W. Pollack (1990; 2000) already observed a "boost" in the use of this chord in the songs on the Help album (1965). [2]
  Among Beatles' scholars opinions differ about the role of the group in the rise and spread of the flat-seventh in the field of popular music. To see how much the bVII-chord progressions were inventive or novel, an extensive examination of the whole corpus of popular songs of the 1950s and 1960s is needed. It may be clear that a more definite conclusion on this point presupposes an extensive examination of the whole corpus of popular songs of the 1950s and 1960s. For a long time, the sheer bulk of songs released during those years seemed to stifle each attempt. Fortunately, nowadays the YouTube archives provide an accessible database for scholars. Browsing through this accumulated history of popular taste, one finds a reasonably good representation of the most popular songs through time. Helped by this tool I examined how the songwriters in the fifties and early sixties used this particular chord.
2 Right: Cliff Richard and the Shadows — with 14 bVII-songs, even 16 when counting Cliff Richard accompaniments, the British guitar group surpasses the Everly Brothers

A small catch. For this project a fair amount of songs prior to 1964 were browsed, filtering out the ones incorporating the bVII-chord. Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 songs were checked with a growing share toward the later years. After the close of the data collection phase, I was left with 160 songs by 90 artists which is still very far from taking as a "nearly complete" list. All in all the found songs housed 186 bVII-progressions. In 15 songs there were two, in four songs three and one song showed even four different bVII-progressions. After elimination of doubles there remained 54 different progressions. Table 1 lists the titles and specific bVII-progressions of these 160 songs. [3]

Compared to the sheer number of monitored songs, the 160 bVII-songs are only a small catch. The first batch of 3,000 songs resulted in some fifty songs with a bVII-progression, not yet 2%. The second batch of 5,000 songs came from YouTube's helpful suggestions and an artist-specific search, [4] and delivered proportionately only slightly more bVII-songs. The help of YouTube may have been useful, however it possibly has introduced some bias in this approach by concentrating the attention on the work of specific artists and genres. The same goes for the fact that later years were more densely browsed with the rising availability of song material over the years on YouTube.

  In this paper I present the results. I will discuss not only the bVII-chord but also its in-progression role considering the preceding and next chord's functions. To that end the bVII-progressions of the 160 songs will be sorted here by type. Where possible, they will be related to Beatles' songs containing the same progression type. Successively I will discuss the tonic-subtonic alternation, the plagal type, the chromatic type, chord streams and a residual category of "other progressions". The first category has only two sub-categories, the others much more. I will discuss the main patterns of these types. And, type by type, I will try to show how the progressions appeared, got varied and were spread. If possible I will try to name yet earlier pre-1953 precursors of the found progressions. None of the earliest findings can be treated as the first ever occurrences, as there is always a chance for someone to find an even earlier example.
3 Left: Bo Diddley — the influential American rock'n'roll pioneer contributes nine songs to the list

The tonic-subtonic alternation. Because of their accidental notes, borrowed chords like the flat-seventh tend to threaten the key. Their "alien" nature can be pacified, however, by binding them into a chord progression — a sequence of chords which are glued together by musical means like shared notes, leading notes, enharmonic shifts or by their melodic nearness. As we shall see, most of the bVII-progressions are melodically driven.

The few attributes of the songs (title; year) of the songs in Table 1 just vaguely indicate if and when a particular progression can be considered to be standard or still novel. Some examples seem to have influenced others, other found songs don't. Most of the bVII-progressions on the list have only one found example. On the other hand the I → bVII → I-alternation makes up 82 of the 186 bVII-progressions, almost exactly 44%. It is a back-and-forth switch between the tonic and the flat-seventh chord and it is also the most simple of the bVII-progressions. In the song "Hey Little One" (Dorsey Burnette, 1960) the I → bVII-change is used as a vamp during the verses played for almost a minute long. The Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows" uses this vamp (combined with pedal point) throughout the whole song.

  The subtonic (bVII) and the tonic (I) differ by only one whole tone step. In this respect they resemble the subdominant (IV) and the dominant (V). The melodic distance between both chords is small, which makes the transition between them melodically driven. Some of the progression's origins may even be traced back may to melodic considerations. In the earliest found examples the progression was often played as a quick hook or riff, not as a real backing chord progression. Many times the bVII-chord resulted by a simple parallel harmonization of a b7 → 1-melodic motif. It was particularly frequent between 1958 and 1960. Previously it was a staple of rock'n'roll pioneer Bo Diddley who applied it as a hook right from the start of his career as a recording artist back in 1955. The Beatles also knew what to do with this simple progression. Up until the midst of 1967 they build a number of compositions around it. It appears in the following eight songs:

  • "A Hard Days Night" (1964) — at the end of the first two lines of the verse;
  • "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" (1964) — at the end of the verse;
  • "Every Little Thing" (1964) — refrain;
  • "Another Girl" (1965) — at the start of the verse;
  • "Taxman" (1965) — bridge;
  • "Tomorrow Never Knows" (1966) — verse
  • "A Day In The Life" (1967) — middle section;
  • "Baby You're A Rich Man" (1967) — verse. [5]
  A variant of this pattern is when the bVII → I-sequence starts the song as in "I Love You So Much", a 1928 Tin-Pan-Alley standard that in 1953 was turned into a rockabilly-song and sung into the charts by Vicki Young. It's only there for the intro, though.
4 Right: The Beach Boys (1962) — the American surf-rockers have five songs in the list

Flat-sevenths of the plagal type. All in all 33 different bVII-progressions, found in 42 songs, can be classified as members of the plagal type. [6] This class encompasses progressions built around the interaction between the flat-seventh bVII and the subdominant IV, ranging from simple alternations of these chords to quite long strings of descending fourths. The name of this class has been derived from the plagal cadence, a cadence that lets the subdominant (IV) resolve to the tonic chord (I) at the end of a phrase.

The plagal cadence may not be as smooth and closing as the perfect cadence V7 → I, where the dominant can add its minor seventh as a strong leading note. The plagal cadence, however, shares some of its strengths and it succeeds very well in connecting the constituent chords. The progression works because the subdominant and the tonic are a fifth apart. As such they share one note and have a leading note between them, which eases the transition. Now, as the flat-seventh and the subdominant form a similar pair, the flat-seventh can be added in front of the plagal cadence — thereby turning it into a three-part chain of descending fourths or, what is the same, ascending fifths.

  We can treat this progression as a "double plagal cadence". The bVII → IV-part works as a "local" plagal cadence that is directly followed by the "usual" plagal cadence: bVII → IV → I. In the key of E major it goes like this: D → A → E. In rock music the sequence is usually completed into a four-piece progression by heading it with the tonic chord: I → bVII → IV → I. Here the bVII-chord clearly acts like the subdominant of the subdominant, a IV-of-IV, and that is also how Pollack (1989-2001) often interprets the sequence in his famous Notes on ... Series on the Beatles' songs.
  The plagal cadence itself was a common progression in the 1950s and also in earlier years. [7] The double plagal cadence, however, clearly was not — at least only a few examples can be found and not before 1958. That year Paul Anka released "Lonely Boy" and the Everly Brothers their song "Problems". The Everly's kept using the progression over the years in songs like "So How Come" and "Love Hurts", both from 1960. That same year Link Wray also used the progression in his hit song "Ramble". In later years the progression is only to be found in some guitar instrumentals of the Shadows: "Find Me A Golden Street" (1961) and "Round and Round" (1963).
  Maybe the double plagal progression was born out of a new appreciation of closing a IV → bVII → IV-alternation with the tonic. This alternation is used by eight songs in the dataset — almost all from rockabilly or surf sound origins. Examples are: "Rockabilly Walk (1957) by Buddy Knox, "Straight Flush"(1959) by the Frantics and "Jaguar" (1963) by the Jaguars. The dataset even supplies an example of a forerunner of the coupling of this alternation with the tonic in the Buddy Holly songs "Modern Don Juan" (1956) and "Not Fade Away" (1957). Here, the subdominant IV at the end of some phrases, is being alternated with the bVII. When in the next phrase the music subsequently steps back to the tonic, as by accident, the double plagal cadence occurs:
  IV → bVII → IV → ... → I → IV → I
  By today's standards it may sound simple and obvious, but in those days it was something novel. For a long time the occasional melodic b7-degree was not harmonized to the bVII-chord. An example: "John Hardy" by the Carter Family (1928).
  A rare classical example for this concept is a segment of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis (around ⅔ point of the Gloria movement) where the bVII-chord occurs in a IV → bVII → IV-context.
  Similar examples from the years between 1953 and 1963 are provided by Nat King Cole with his "Midnight Flyer" (1959), by the Righteous Brothers with their "Little Latin Lupe Lu" (1963) and by the Beach Boys with "Our Car Club" (1963). An earlier example can be found in Lead Belly's "If It Wasn't For Dicky" (1937). The latter is not a perfect example, though, since a short single note fill precedes the final tonic chord that has an added seventh.
5 Left: Gerry and the Pacemakers, — in the early 1960s the Liverpudlians sang three bVII-songs into the charts

Plagal reversals and extensions. The double plagal progression obviously is a latecomer on the scene of popular music. Still, after 1963 the progression makes headway. In the Shadows' song "Round And Round" (1963) the double plagal cadence is already played as a compact powerful intro hook. Then in the mid-1960's it breaks through to become one of the important cadences in the realm of popular music. The Beatles used it first on Help (1965) in "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away", followed by "Taxman" and "She Said She Said", both from the Revolver album (1966). They used it several times later as well: "Magical Mystery Tour" (1967), "Dear Prudence" (1968), "Get Back" (1969), "Something" (1969), "Here Comes The Sun" (1969), "You Never Give Me Your Money" (1969), "Dear Mr. Mustard" (1969), "Polythene Pam" (1969), "Dig A Pony" (1969), "I've Got A Feeling" (1970), and most prominently on "Hey Jude" (1968).

  The double plagal progression can also be found in reversed or extended variants. Reversing the progression produces the sequence: I → IV → bVII → I. The result is a chain of descending fifths, starting at the tonic I instead of the more well-known II or VI. Reordered this way the progression appears in songs like "With Open Arms" by Jane Morgan and "Lonely Boy" by Paul Anka, both from 1959. The song "In My Life" (1965) offers an example out of the Beatles' songbook.
  The double plagal progression can be extended, both in its standard and in its reversed form. As to the standard form, a five-piece chain of fourths was used in "Hey Joe" by Billy Roberts (1962). Here the sequence starts with the flat-sixth and progresses over the flat-third and flat-seventh towards the tonic: bVI → bIII → bVII → IV → I. For the bridge of "Here Comes The Sun" (1969) the Beatles use a similar progression of the same length. It backs a repeated three-measure phrase and goes over the tonic to the dominant: bIII → bVII → IV → I → V. Billy Roberts took this special progression from the song "Baby Don't Go To Town", written and performed by his girlfriend Niela Miller (demo recorded in 1962). [8]
  A four-piece reversed version — I → IV → bVII → bIII — can be found in Buddy Holly's "Everyday" (1957) as well as in the traditional song "The Wrong Yoyo" that was successfully covered by Carl Perkins in 1956 and by Gerry and the Peacemakers in 1963. An example from the Beatles' songbook is the bridge of "Lovely Rita" (1967). And, whereas the double plagal progression seems to pop out of the air suddenly at the end of the 1950s, its reversal has a longer history. For instance, it also shows up in "Sweet Georgia Brown", a composition of Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard dating back to 1925. One can even point further back in the century, towards 1919. That year Clarence Williams and Armand Piron published their "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate", a jazz-dance song that became a staple of rock'n'roll. In 1961 it was covered by the Olympics and the Beatles performed it in their Hamburg years.

  By the way, by introducing accidental notes a long sequence of fifths always tends to weaken the key. Therefore, if the tonic function of the first chord is not properly emphasized, the key may shift causing the same chords to be interpreted as a normal chain of fifths arriving at the tonic chord. This is what happens in "Sweet Georgia Brown". An example in the key of D:
    I  → IV → bVII → bIII
B  → E  →  A   → D 
VI → II →  V   → I 
6 Right: Joe Brown and the Bruvvers (1962) — British rock'n'rollers with 5 bVII-songs between 1960 and 1963

Flat-sevenths of the chromatic type. The third class of bVII-progressions encompasses 13 different progressions and goes by the label of the chromatic type. This name refers to the phenomenon of chromaticism. A chromaticism occurs when diatonic notes are mixed up with notes of the chromatic scale. And, that is what may happen when one lets a modal chord like the flat-seventh serve as a link between two diatonic chords. It will create chromatic cross-relations between the constituting notes which can be used to make a chromatic melody, bass line or guitar fill. Tones a semitone apart tend to glide into another and a series of them can serve to restrain the tendency of accidental notes to wander of the key. Melodic chromatic sequences, in short, can be used to keep bVII-chord progressions in tow. As we shall see, their nexus is the relation between the flat-seventh and the dominant. First, however, I will discuss four-piece chord progressions that...

  • open on the tonic;
  • have the flat-seventh on the third position of the sequence; and,
  • use it to for a descending chromatic melody or bass line from the 1st degree down to the 6th.
  A good example of the latter is the bass line A → G# → G → F# in Bob Dylan's song "Lay Lady Lay" (1969), which is supported by the chord progression I → iii → bVII → ii (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Descending bass line in Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay"
  At the time this progression was not completely new as a very similar progression — I → iii → bVII → IV — had already been introduced by the Murmaids in 1963 in their song "Popsicles And Icicles". The song was written by one David Gates who complained about Dylan's putative plagiarism in a 1996 interview. [9] This chord progression, Gates (1996) said, "had never been used before," thereby unintentionally proving one always has to be careful in claiming authorship. If Dylan already copied the progression from someone else, it would more likely have been John Lennon whose "It's Only Love" (1964) also uses this progression for the verse.
  And, could John Lennon in turn have been inspired by the Murmaids song? Perhaps, but one cannot tell this for sure because there is at least one older song that uses the same progression: "Don't Make Me Over" (1962) by Dionne Warwick. And, it's quite possible that Gates himself was unconsciously inspired by this record. The songwriter was Burt Bacharach who already experimented with a similar chord progression back in 1959 in the song "With Open Arms" sung by Jane Morgan. This song has a I → iii → bVII → I-progression, while the chromatic line — only three notes long — is reinforced by strings in the second verse. While David Gates turned out not to be the inventor of the I → iii → bVII → IV-progression, it's telling that he thought he was. In the musical context of 1963 — and to a lesser extent the setting of 1969 — this progression must have sounded remarkably novel.
  Closely related to the above progressions is the I → V → bVII → IV with a built-in chromatic line. In C major the sequence goes like this: C → G → Bb → F with the associated chromatic line: C → B → Bb → A. This is the most basic and most frequently used variant of this class with only major chords, three of which are the basic ones: tonic, subdominant, dominant. The Beatles used this progression only in one of their late period songs: "I've Got A Feeling" (1969). Yet another instance from the 1960's can be found in the refrain of the well-known Rolling Stones' hit "Ruby Tuesday" (1966-'67).
  The oldest example in the dataset using this variant is the Shadows' instrumental "Wonderful Land" (1962). This song is something special as it hosts no less than three bVII-progressions, four even if one takes into account a modulation. The piece opens with an intro built upon I → bVII-alternations (G → F), which is followed by a basic chromatic bVII-progression I → V → bVII → IV (G → D → F → C). Next, almost seamless, the sequence continues with its reversal IV → bVII → V → I (C → F → D → G). All the while the chromatic line is not reinforced, so the key's hold is weak. And, in the next part, the key slips slowly towards the root of the subdominant (C). This part then closes with the sequence F → Bb → G → C, which in the new key can be interpreted as: IV → bVII → V → I.
  Our examples all date back no farther than the late-1950s and early-1960s. The chord progression, though, can be traced much farther back in time. In his analyses of the "chromatic subtonic" Ian Hammond (1999a; 1999b) points out that largely the same chromatic chord progression opens Beethoven's "Waldstein Sonata" (1804) and embellishes several other pieces of the Romantic era as well. [10] Early examples can be found in the songs Franz Schubert composed under the supposed influence of Beethoven's sonata where he used this same chord progression to open two of his songs from the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin: "Halt!" and "Ungeduld".
  As Hammond explains, in this kind of progressions the bVII-chord works as a chromatic link and not as a modal chord. The chromaticism is usually strong in most of the pop examples as well. Note that in these instances where these chords are followed by the tonic the double plagal "cadence" also occurs accidentally, be it not really cadence-wise.
7 Left: Johnny Leyton — the British actor and singer contributes five bVII-songs to the list

Chromatic reversals. As we have seen in the Shadows' instrumental "Wonderful Land" (1962), just like progressions of the plagal type those of the chromatic type can be found in reversed order: IV → bVII → V → I. Other examples from the dataset are songs like "Can't Get Used To Losing You" (1963) by Andy Williams, "Peace Pipe" (1961) by the Shadows and, some years earlier yet, "Bird Dog" (1958) by the Everly Brothers. The Beatles' song "Yes It Is" (1965) uses the same progression, but is from a later date. "You Never Give Me Your Money" (1969), a track from the album Abbey Road, has the sequence bIII → bVII → I, which is preceded by the Shadows' composition "Mustang" (1961) and, earlier yet, by "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (1944) by Lead Belly.

The reversed chromatic progression is similar to the main hook progression of the Beatles' song "Something" (1969) — IV → bIII → V → I — where the bVII-chord has been replaced by the bIII-chord. This is possible, because the bIII-chord as one of its constituent notes also contains the b7-degree that is necessary to build the chromatic line. This, however, is also not a first, as the same progression can be found in "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (1944) by Lead Belly. In "Sleigh Ride" (1949, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra) the bIII-chord deceptively sounds close to the bVII-chord.

  The Beatles' songbook shows some further variations. In the song "It's Only Love" the V-chord in the basic chromatic progression is substituted by its relative minor iii, resulting in the sequence I → iii → bVII → IV. Similarly, in their song "For The Benefit Of Mr Kite" (1967) the closing IV-chord is replaced by its relative minor ii, creating the progression I → V+ → bVII → ii. [11] Again these substitutions provide all the necessary elements for a connecting chromatic line.
  Reversing the progression above we get: ii → bVII → V → I. This progression appears in both "Help" (1965) and "All My Loving" (1963). The reversed version of this appears later in the "Mr Kite" song mentioned above. Again, the Beatles were not the first to apply this particular progression. The chord progression was a Beach Boys trademark, appearing in at least two of their early singles: "I Get Around" (1964) and "In My Room" (1963). The latter was recorded in the same month (June 1963) as "All My Loving". All these compositions, however, were predated by the US-number-one hit song "Surf City" by Jan & Dean, recorded in March 1963. Noteworthy, the songwriter of this tune was Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, also involved with "I Get Around" and "In My Room".
  The variety and flexibility of the chromatic type is mainly due to the specific relation between the dominant V and the flat-seventh bVII. The roots of these chords are a leap of a minor third apart, enabling the construction of a solid chromatic line directed at or away from the keynote. [12] This can be made clear by a look at the inner lines of, for example, the three-chord chromatic progression bVII → V → I in the key of C major:
Line 1:
Line 2:
Line 3:
bVII → V → I
Bb   → G → C
Bb   → B → C
D    → D → E
F    → G → G

← the chromatic line
  It is this bVII-V-connection that is the heart of all the chromatic progressions, as it works both ways. It is bi-directional: in its V → bVII-form it leads away from the keynote and in its bVII → V-form it works up to it. The earliest found popular example for the bVII → V-change dates back to 1948 and can be found in the song "Little Maggie" by the Stanley Brothers. This record does not seem to have influenced contemporary songwriters to adopt this change as we have to skip a decade for the next song with this chord pattern. For this we have to go to 1958 when "Bird Dog" was released by the Everly Brothers and reached a number-one position on the Billboard Country Chart. With its presence in 13 songs that year, 1962 seems to be the break-through year for the chromatic type.
8 Right: The Champs — the American rock'n'roll band adds only one song to the list, but an influential one because of its popularity: "Tequila"

Going with the stream. The fourth class of bVII-progressions again counts 13 different sequences. They go by the name of chord streams, whereas the roots of the chords progress in steps. The first sub-class discussed hereby follows the b6-b7-1-root movement where the two first chords (bVI and bVII) are borrowed from the Aeolian mode, (from the parallel minor key). In this context the bVII-chord works as a straight bridging chord between the bVI-chord and the tonic. The bVI-chord had been present in popular music since the ragtime era, but it was seemingly never resolved this way.

The Beatles used this mechanism in "P.S. I Love You" (1962), the song on the B-side of their first single: bVI → bVII → I. It also returns on some of their later recordings: "With A Little Help From My Friends" (1967), "I Am The Walrus" (1967), "Lady Madonna" (1968) and "Polythene Pam" (1969).

This chord progression became a recurring one in many different types of music. The Beatles seem to be among the earliest users of this type of bVII-progressions, as prior examples hardly exist. "P.S. I Love You" was recorded in September 1962. Jay and the Americans used it for their US-number-one hit-song "She Cried" that was released in the spring of 1962 and Link Wray for his "Poppin' Popeye" dated March 1962. An even earlier example is "Summer's Gone" by Paul Anka (1960) where the song closes with this triumphal cadence. We can't tell whether the songwriters in question influenced one another. It easily can happen that they all came up with this chord progression independently, as the chord and its freedom to use was in the air by the early sixties. The US band The Enchanters released their B-side single "Surf Blast" in 1963, still before the Beatles arrived in the US. It opens with this progression.

  What goes up, can go down and likewise there are also some descending chord streams in the dataset: I → bVII → bVI → V (→ I). Again the majority bears the stamp of the year 1962: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass with "The Lonely Bull", the Beach Boys with "Heads You Win Tails I Lose" and "Lonely Sea" and the Everly Brothers with "How Can I Meet Her" (1962). There's one song, however, that predates them all, be it for a few years: Donnie Brooks with "Mission Bell" (1960), which may have influenced or inspired the others.
  Our dataset also offers extended sequences of longer length, such as Frank Sinatra's "Young At Heart" (1954) which incorporates an I → bVII → bVI → bV-progression. This is an orchestrated Tin-Pan-Alley styled intro that does not sound like a modal chord progression at all. A full octave long descending chord stream is played in the instrumental track "The Lone Surfer" (1963) by Jack Nitzsche. Almost the same chord progression appears in the coda section of the Beatles' song "I Am The Walrus" where these chords are outlined by two contradirectional stepwise moving lines.
  Next to the flat-sixth, the flat-seventh and the subtonic there are some other chords that tend to show up in bVII-chord streams. Two songs from the dataset, for instance, steer the descending stream toward the minor sixth: I → bVII → vi. Both these songs — "Crazy" by Patsy Cline and "All My Sorrows" by the Shadows stem from 1961. Almost in tandem the Everly Brothers used an extended version in their song "That's Old Fashioned" (1961-'62): I → bVII → vi → V → IV.
  A rather strange chord that also shows up in chord streams is the VII. On paper it is an outlier in the musical order of things as its fifth (F# in C major) differs from the third of II by 22 cent, while its third (D# in C Major) differs from the usual third of i (Eb) by 42 cents or almost a quarter tone. It usually works as a simple chromatic passing chord bridging the bVII and the tonic.
  No less than six songs in the dataset use the flat-seventh to this effect. There is "How Do You Do It?", released in 1963 by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The song was recorded before by the Beatles in September 1962 and it was meant as their first single. They successfully replaced it with "Love Me Do." In the same year Joe Brown and the Bruvvers released "It Only Took A Minute". But there are precursors. In 1961 John Leyton released "Fabulous" and Bert Wendon "Mr Guitar". Earlier yet Bill Justis recorded "College Man" (1958) and Slim Whitman "I'm A Fool" (1956) and still earlier yet there is Les Paul with "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon" (1950) and "Brazil" (1948). A similar chord sequence, a four times repeated bVII → VII → I, can be found in "The Ballroom Blitz", written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and recorded by the Sweet in 1973, or in reversed order in the Beatles' song "Sexy Sadie" (1968).
9 Left: Buddy Holly and the Crickets — separate or together the American rock'n'rollers add five bVII-songs to the list

Unclassified material. The fifth and final class of the bVII-progressions contains 15 progressions that don't fit into any of the categories above. Seven of the progressions in this residual category have no equivalent in the Beatles' songbook. For the other ones the dataset offers one or more precursors:

"It's Only Love" (1965), a song from the album Help! has the sequence vi → bVII → V backing its refrain. The same progression figures in two Shadows' compositions, both from the same year: "Kinda Cool" (1962), and "Tales Of Raggy Tramline" (1962). An example of a song about thirty years on is: "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" (1994) by Elton John. Also on Help! there is the song "The Night Before" (1965) with I → bVII → IV → V. And again there is a precursor in a Shadows' instrumental: "36 24 36" (1961), a number-one hit single in the UK.

  "Cry Baby Cry" (1968), from the White Album, has two bVII-progressions: ii → bVII → I and II → bVII → I. For the former the dataset delivers an equivalent in the Beach Boys' "In My Room" (1963) while for the latter Adam Faith takes a five-year lead with "First Time" (1963). And, then there is "Mean Mr. Mustard" (1969) from Abbey Road with V → bVII → V, a sequence that can also be found in "Heatwave" (1961) by Dickie Loader, in "No One Can Make My Sun Smile" (1962) by the Everly Brothers and in "For You" (1963) by Rick Nelson.

Then there is the sequence I → bVII → bIII, in the bridge of "The Word" (1965), a track on Rubber Soul, and at the end of the refrain of "Everybody Has Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey" (1968) from the White Album. Here the dataset offers no prior examples, but a similar sequence can be found in "All Day And All Of The Night" (1964), by the Kinks. Now, if we take stock of the whole Beatles' catalogue, what rests is a set of five Beatles' songs with eighth bVII-progressions for which there are no equivalents in the dataset. These are:

  • "Ticket To Ride" (1965) — vi → bVII → vi;
  • "You're Going To Lose That Girl" (1965) — ii → bVII → IV;
  • "You're Going To Lose That Girl" (1965) — IV → bVII → VI;
  • "Hey Bulldog" (1968) — v → bVII → v;
  • "Hey Bulldog" (1968) — IV → bVII → v;
  • "Dig A Pony" (1969) — bVII → VII halfdim → I;
  • "Dig A Pony" (1969) — ii → bVII → ii;
  • "I've Got A Feeling" (1969) — IV → bVII → vii dim7.
  For the vi → bVII → vi-sequence in "Ticket To Ride" the dataset did not offer any earlier example.
10 Right: Link Wray and his Ray Men (1958) — yet another popular American rock'n'roll band that adds four bVII-songs to the list

Conclusions. The examples and the charts show that songs and music pieces with the bVII-chord were popping up from time to time in different genres of music, but the frequency of its usage exploded only in the second half of the fifties. By the time the Beatles arrived on the scene, all the four basic types of bVII-progressions were already established and on their way up. Most of the characteristic Beatles chord progressions with the bVII-chord already had at least one or more forerunner recorded by other artists. The number of findings, presented in Table 2 and Figure 2 below, show a clear year-by-year trend.

This trend shows a significant take-off point at 1957. Prior to this year the found examples were limited in terms of both frequency and sophistication as they mostly fall in the I → bVII → I-class. From this year on more sophisticated usages of the flat subtonic chord are appearing, while the I → bVII → I keeps its relatively big share until the mid-sixties. From that point on, I surmise, the percentage of songs with a bVII-chord stabilized, varying year by year, decade by decade. Further research, of course, is needed to corroborate this impression.

  Figure 2: Number of songs with a flat-seventh progression, 1953-1963
  From the songs and the artists one can deduce the dominance of the rock'n'roll in the rise of the flat-seventh chord. Of the 160 songs in the dataset, many originate from early rock'n'roll. Bo Diddley who stood at this style's cradle contributes nine songs to the sample. Next, an important contribution seems to come especially from country-influenced, melodic rock'n'roll: the Everly Brothers with no less than 13 songs and Buddy Holly and the Crickets with five songs and the related surf-sound of the Beach Boys (five songs before 1964). And, of course, there are the British followers of fashion: Cliff Richard and the Shadows (16 compositions), Joe Brown and his Bruvvers (five songs), John Leyton (five songs) and Beatles' precursors and fellow Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers (three songs). All in all, there seems to be a notable effect of the guitar as the instrument of carrying the bVII-chord, which clearly resonates in the high number of guitar instrumentals in the dataset. The bVII-based hook of the song "Tequila" by the Champs (1957) must be one of the most copied hooks in the history of popular music. Its chart success surely contributed much to this impact. This hook earlier appeared in the song "Dim Dim The Light" by Bill Haley and the Comets (1955), still as a non-modal IV → V-hook. Later examples of this version of the hook are not yet found, while the bVII-version influenced dozens of followers.
  From 1957 on, the bVII-chord, as the data show, gains ground in the field of popular music. 1957 is also the year John Lennon met Paul McCartney. George Harrison and Ringo Starr would join them later and they still had to wait for five years to sign to Parlophone Records. In the meantime most bVII-progressions were already on the loose. With only a few exceptions, our findings (see: Table 3) show that most of the Beatles' bVII-progressions have precursors elsewhere. By 1962-'63 when the Beatles recorded their first two albums most of the basic bVII-chord progressions had already manifested themselves in songs that could be heard on the radio. This is not to say that the Beatles just copied these examples. The bVII-progressions, though, were clearly hanging "in the air" by that time. The Beatles grasped them, and, with their successful singles and albums they definitely expanded and popularized the use of them.
  A few decades after the rise of the flat-sevenths we can observe their fall in mainstream music as well. The popularity of the bVII-chord after the eighties has slowly declined. Lorde's 2013 hit song "Royal" with its clear mixolydian modality was one of the last chart successes with the bVII-chord in the harmony. Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop The Feeling" (2016) is another recent example. Since then its occurrence on the charts became less and less frequent, close to a total absence. While in 1970 there were six US-number-one singles using the bVII-chord, ("Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head", "American Woman", "Everything Is Beautiful", "Make It With You", "I'll Be There", "The Tears Of A Clown") fifty years later in 2020 there are none. In non-mainstream music it still lives on though.


1. See: Tillekens, 2002. To the fourteen songs on the Revolver album Tillekens adds the related double A single "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." Return to text
2. Pollack makes this remark in his "Notes on ..." series in relation with "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away". See: Pollack, 1990. Return to text
3. During the data collection phase some older bVII-songs from before 1953 sneaked into the dataset. I have set them apart to compare them to the songs originating from 1953-1963 (see Table 4). Return to text
4. At least two "songs" — two film scores — were taken from the findings of Walter Everett (2004). Return to text
5. To this list we may add the song "Why" (1961) with the Beatles backing singer Tony Sheridan. Possibly the bVII-chord in this song was inserted by the Beatles. Return to text
6. Cfr. Everett, 2000: 323-326; 2004: 4, 10. Return to text
7. In his highly-praised TV programme on Lennon and McCartney as 20th century great composers Goodall (2004) argues for the opposite. Return to text
8. Miller's recordings were released only in 2009. Return to text
9. See: Gates, 1996. Return to text
10. See: Hammond, 1999a; 1999b. Return to text

11. The notation V+ refers to the augmented dominant. Return to text

12. Basically, this relationship works for all chord pairs separated by an interval of three semitones, for instance bVI-IV and bIII-I. Chromatic progressions built upon these intervals can be seen as shifted variants of each other, enabling the use of "aberrant" chords. When, for instance, the standard chromatic bVII-progression is shifted by a fifth we get the sequence V → II → IV → I. This progression arrives at the tonic chord instead of starting on it and inserts the II on an unusual position. It appears in this form in the Beach Boys' song "Finder Keepers" (1962).

The Shadows' instrumental "Mustang" (1961) extends this pattern and reaches the bVII-chord: V → II → IV → I → bIII → bVII → I. Almost the same chord progression — closing on V instead of I — appears in Paul McCartney's song "Maybe I'm Amazed" (1970). The chromatic descent here — V → II → IV → I — is the same as or similar to what can be found in the following examples:

  • Crickets: "More Than I Can Say" (1960) — IV → II → IV → I;
  • Crickets: "Parisian Girl" (1962) — iii → II → IV → I;
  • Beach Boys: "Finder Keepers" (1962) — V → II → IV → I
  • Beatles: "She Loves You" (1963) — vi → II → IV → I;
  • Dave Berry: "The Crying Game" (July 1964) — I → II → IV → I.
  • Beatles: "Eight Days A Week" (October 1964) — I → II → IV → I. Return to text
  • Everett, Walter (2000), "Confessions from Blueberry Hell, or pitch can be a sticky substance." In: Walter Everett (ed.), Expression in pop-rock music. New York: Garland Publishing, 269-346.
  • Everett, Walter (2004), "Making sense of rock's tonal systems." In: Music Theory Online, volume 10, 4, December 2004.
  • Gates, David (1996), "Interview with David Gates." In: The Age, Entertainment Guide. Melbourne, 29 November 1996. Quoted by Tricia Jungwirth in rec.music.dylan, November 30, 1996.
  • Goodall, Howard (2004), Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats: Part 1 — Lennon/McCartney. TV-series. First aired on November 27, 2004. London: Channel Four.
  • Hammond, Ian (1999a), "The chromatic subtonic — Part 1." In: rec.music.beatles.moderated, February 27, 1999.
  • Hammond, Ian (1999b), "The chromatic subtonic — Part 2." In: rec.music.beatles.moderated, March 6, 1999.
  • Pollack, Alan W. (1989-2001), Notes on ... series. In: Soundscapes, 1989-2001.
  • Pollack, Alan W. (1990; 2000), "Notes on "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"." In: Soundscapes, Notes on ... Series, May 15, 1990; revised November 23, 2000.
  • Tillekens, Ger (2002), "A flood of flat-sevenths. Or, what are all those flat-sevenths doing in the Beatles' Revolver?" In: Russell Reising (ed.), Every sound there is. The Beatles' Revolver and the transformation of rock and roll. Aldershot, London: Ashgate, 2002, 121-136; also in: Soundscapes, volume 9, June 2006.
  This article was updated on February 17th, 2022. The original text can be found here.
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