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Harmonic Analysis of early Beatles recordings

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volume 12 journal on media culture
september 2009 Harmonic analysis of early Beatles' recordings ISSN 1567-7745
Appendix to: Ger Tillekens (2000), Words and chords. The semantic shifts of
the Beatles' chords
by Zapped volumes
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On September 8, 2009 "Jim from Austin TX" (aka "Zapped" online) read the article Volume 18 / 2015-2016 —
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by Tillekens mentioned above, but was abhorred by the graphs and posted some
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explicatory reconstructions on We here thankfully reprint his careful Volume 15 / 2012-2013 —
work on decipherment. Volume 14 / 2011-2012 —
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Hi, I'm Jim from Austin TX (aka "Zapped" online). I'm new to but a Volume 10 / 2007-2008 —
longtime poster over at the forums. With EMI's release of the Volume 9 / 2006-2007 —
remastered Beatles original UK recordings coming tomorrow, over the long weekend Volume 8 / 2005-2006 —
here in the U.S. I was re-reading some of Alan Pollack's amazingly detailed harmonic Volume 7 / 2004-2005 —
Volume 6 / 2003-2004 —
analysis of The Beatles' music available at Volume 5 / 2002-2003 —
Volume 4 / 2001-2002 —
There's one page on that site that tries to make sense of the Beatles' use of unusual
Volume 3 / 2000-2001 —
modulation in their early recordings. It was a revelation to me when I first came Volume 2 / 1999-2000 —
upon it, but the way the table is tossed out there without much explanation threw Volume 1 / 1998-1999 —
me off for a while — Editorials and Op-Eds —

Alan W. Pollack's Notes On ... —
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History of Radio and Television —
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Rock Song Anatomy —
Studies in Photography —
Theory and Methodology —
Yikes! My day gig is engineering, and that chart scares me. What could it possibly
mean and how could it help me understand the construction of complex pop tunes
like the classics written by The Beatles? Well, I thought I'd put together some
graphics to try to work through the gory details. Only these specific drawings are my
original work — every last bit of the theory and the original drawings on are from the author Ger Tillekens. With that disclaimer, follow
along ...

Fig. 1 — Let's start in the key of C major, with the C major chord as the tonic chord.
What could be simpler? We'll arrange the chord into a triangle with the notes C, E,
and G at the vertices and the chord-name as the triangle's label.

Fig. 2 — Back in Fig. 1, the horizontal leg of the triangle increase by a perfect fifth.
Let's add a couple of more notes horizontally (C —> G and E —> B).

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Harmonic Analysis of early Beatles recordings

Fig. 3 — If we create triangles from these new notes, we find the E minor and G
major chords have been spelled out for us. Note that C and Em share two of their
three chord-tones because their triangles abut along an edge (sharing two vertices).
C and G, on the other hand, only barely touch at one vertex, so they share a single
chord-tone. Notice also that we have now drawn out two of the major triads and one
of the minor triads in the key of C.

Fig. 4 — So let's project more notes horizontally to the left until we've written all the
major and minor chords in the key of C. Pretty spiffy so far — the triads practically
form themselves!

Fig. 5 — So far we've confined ourselves to a single row of chords, all in the key of C
major. Let's say we want to build a new row on top of the existing one. When we
started out with the simple C chord, we placed the note E over the note C by
ascending an interval of a major 3rd. Let's place a new C# note above the A note on
our existing row by also ascending a major 3rd. We have now formed a parallel A
major chord adjacent to the Am chord-triangle below it.

Fig. 6 — Similar to the procedure in Fig. 5, we can add a G# above the existing note
E and find the C#m chord in a new triangle.

Fig. 7 — We can also add new chords below the existing row.

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Harmonic Analysis of early Beatles recordings

Fig. 8 — Here's the final chart! You'll see 16 total vertices, but if you look closely
there are four notes repeated (either exactly or an enharmonically equivalent
spelling), so in fact we've used all 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale. Instead
of a limited vocabulary of 3 major and 3 minor chords available in a single key, this
analysis provides a whopping 9 majors and 9 minors for the pop composer to use!
Granted, the new chords contain "borrowed" tones from other keys, but the logic and
elegance of this table allows these seemingly-unrelated chords to hang together.
In standard Roman Numeral notation, we refer to the I, IV, and V as the major
chords, and the ii, iii, and vi as the minor chords. This analysis adds the relative
majors II, VI, III, and the parallel majors bVI, bIII, bVIII, as well as the parallel
minors iv, i, v and even the "relative minors of the relative majors" vii, #iv, #i.
This material is also covered in detail here: Ger Tillekens' "Semantic Shifts of the
Beatles' Chords" in
I hope this analysis is interesting to others. It was definitely enlightening to me as I
worked through the details.


2009 © Soundscapes

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