Formal structure of "Yesterday"
Intro (verse) 0:00-0:05
Verse 1 0:05-0:24
Verse 2 0:24-0:41
Middle 8 0:41-1:01
Verse 3 1:01-1:19
Middle 8 1:19-1:39
Verse 4 1:39-1:56
Coda (verse) 1:56-2:06
Comments: In a manner similar to  "I'll Follow the Sun", the formal layout of "Yesterday" is very simple and straightforward, just like the music.
From 7:00-8:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 14, 2013, I will be delivering a lecture (free and open to the public) at Middlesex Music Academy (440 Main St, Middletown, Connecticut) titled "Yesterday, The World's Most Recorded Song". Indeed, the Guinness Book of World Records has a webpage confirming the title. In preparation for that presentation, I have been researching as many of these recordings as I can find.
The most thorough list of "Yesterday" covers that I have been able to find was compiled by Beatles cover versions collector Tom Weel, Beatles Unlimited, Netherlands. His website (http://members.home.nl/tomtom/Yesterday.html) lists over 750 versions. With his kind permission, I am posting his list along with an additional 175 or so that I have discovered.
The following list, then, contains every cover, recording, and commercial release that I have been able to find references to (if not find the actual audio recording). But it is hardly exhaustive - "only" 947 in all:
Key: Performer (title of the album, record company, year)
Continuing my blog from February 2, this one will look at non-chord tones used in the song "Yesterday" and why they help establish the nostalgic mood of the song.
The term "non-chord tone" is used to refer to any musical note used in a melody that is absent from the accompanying chord. For example, the chord C major consists of the tones c, e, and g. Any melodic note heard against that C major chord other than c, e, or g is considered a non-chord tone because it is not part of the chord.
In essence, a tone that is not part of the accompanying chord is dissonant. Dissonances provide spice to music and thus can be an extremely effective way of creating particular emotional content in music.
And in "Yesterday", non-chord tones are used extensively to help capture the emotional and nostalgic feel for which the song is so famous. The example below (click on it to enlarge) shows several non-chord tones of the verse shaded green.
Indeed, the very first sung words feature such an instance. The opening chord is an F (in this case consisting of f and c - but no a) while the opening syllable is sung on the tone g, dissonant against f. The next two syllables ("ter-day") are both f's, which resolve that dissonance. Two measures later, on the word "far", the pattern is repeated. The word is sung on the pitch e against a D minor chord (consisting of the tones d, f, and a), resolving on the following two syllables ("a-way") to d. Both of these uses of non-chord tones resolve from the second scale degree to the first. The next instance is very similar, but uses the fourth scale degree resolving to the third. The word "here" is sung on a b-flat, dissonant against the chord F (consisting of f, a, and c), resolving to a. This particular pattern of non-chord tone resolution produces a "sighing" motive that carries a certain emotional content that parallels a similar feel established by the lyrics.
But of course, Paul McCartney is hardly the only composer to use this trick. Taylor Swift's cover of "Last Christmas", which was broadcast seemingly incessantly over the radio this past holiday season, uses the exact same pattern (same starting note against the same staring chord, with a resolution descending by step, and with lyrics displaying a similar character and degree of emotional content):
Nor is Paul McCartney the inventor of this trick. Though non-chord tones have been used for many centuries, their full expressive capability was unleashed during the Romantic Era (roughly 1800-1900), in which composers consciously embraced emotional expression through their musical production. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 (1888) uses non-chord tones rather similar to those in "Yesterday", both employing highly expressive "sighing" motives in which the dissonance resolves through descending by step. In the graphic below of the famous horn solo at the start of the second movement, these dissonances are shaded green.
The first two of these three non-chord tones resolve as 2-1, with the third resolving as a 4-3 - just like those found in "Yesterday".
One of the most fun aspects of historical research is having to put together disparate evidence on a particular topic in order to logically deduce a conclusion about that topic. It's as if I'm a detective out gathering as many clues as I can in order to piece together the story and solve the mystery. One such instance is attempting to figure out exactly when Paul McCartney wrote "Yesterday":
Regarding the origin of "Yesterday", Paul admitted that the tune came to him in a dream while he was living with Jane Asher (his girlfriend at the time) in her family's house in London. "I was living in a little flat at the top of [the Ashers'] house and I had a piano by my bed. I woke up one morning with a tune in my head ... I went to the piano and found the chords to it ... It just came to me in a dream" (Anthology, page 175).
The exact date of Paul's move-in with the Ashers is unknown, but thanks to McCartney's friend and biographer Barry Miles, we do know the month: "In November he moved out of Green Street and took his few belongings to the Asher household" (Miles 1997, page 104). We do, however, know that the Beatles' schedule during November 1963 was grueling: 26 live performances in 30 days. The only days that month that the Beatles did not perform live were November 8, 11, 12, and 18, making those four dates likely candidates for the move.
Of course, just because Paul would have played a concert on a particular evening does not necessarily mean that he could not have moved in on that same morning. But since the Ashers lived in London, it is probably safe to assume that Paul did not move on a day of a performance not in London due simply to travel. (Admittedly, Miles does make a point of stating that Paul's belongings were meager, so it is possible that he could have moved in the morning, traveled in the afternoon, and performed in the evening of the same day, but that seems unlikely.) On the other hand, two of the Beatles' November 1963 shows were in London (November 4 and 9), so it is reasonably possible that Paul moved in on one of those two dates, in which travel time would have been significantly less, and thus he would have had more time to do other things (like move) prior to playing a show. The only non-London performances within 100 miles of London during this month was Slough on November 5 (which was only about 25 miles from the Ashers' home in London) and Northampton the following day (which was about 70 miles away). Thus, November 5 and 6 can also be added to the possible move dates.
This brings the total potential move dates to 8: November 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, and 18.
This weeding reduces the likely move dates to just one: November 9. Given this evidence (and admitting that this is hardly conclusive) it appears probable that Paul McCartney moved into the Ashers' house on the morning of 9 November 1963. What this means, then, is that the earliest possible date that Paul could have dreamed up "Yesterday" is 10 November 1963.
At this point, I should also mention that Paul often spent the night at the Asher residence prior to moving in there, and thus it is not unreasonable to think that perhaps he dreamed up "Yesterday" during one of those visits - prior to actually moving in with them. However it seems unlikely that Paul would have had a piano next to his bed if he weren't living there. And as quoted in Barry Miles' biography Many Years From Now, Paul said, "I eventually got a piano of my own up in the top garret. Very artistic. That was the piano that I fell out of bed and got the chords to 'Yesterday' on" (Miles 1997, page 114). This quote seems to show rather conclusively that Paul had in fact moved in to the Asher house before writing "Yesterday".
We also know that the earliest documented performance (in this case by "performance" I mean Paul played the song in its incomplete form) comes from a recollection of Lionel Bart citing "late 1963" (Spitz, page 560).
Thus, "Yesterday" must have been written between 10 November and 31 December 1963. Taking the next step of determining precisely what date "Yesterday" was born would prove utterly futile, but given that the band was out of town touring in early December, but played regularly in and around London in late December 1963, it seems more likely that Paul McCartney composed "Yesterday" in late December 1963 (when he was in London and thus staying with the Ashers more frequently) than in November or early December (when he was frequently on the road and thus not staying with the Ashers).
Several books cite May 1965 (Turner, page 83; Miles 1997, page 201) as the date of Paul's "Yesterday" dream. This is conclusively false. George Martin recalls first hearing the tune in January of 1964 (Lewisohn, page 59), as did Dick James and Chris Hutchinson (Carlin, page 94-95). Furthermore, John Lennon himself admitted that the tune "was around for months and months before we finally completed it" (Everett, page 300). This quote would make no sense had Paul written "Yesterday" in May 1965 - just one month before recording it in June 1965.
Peter Ames Carlin's biography of McCartney states that Paul asked for help identifying the song "First to the saloon singer Alma Cogan, then the theatrical composer Lionel Bart" (page 118). But the Beatles met Cogan for the first time on 12 January 1964 (Miles 2001, page 126), and Bart claims Paul played it for him in "late 1963" (Spitz, page 560). Clearly, the evidence is contradictory, and as a result, we may never know conclusively when Paul McCartney actually wrote "Yesterday". But given the available evidence, it seems most likely that Paul McCartney composed "Yesterday" in late December 1963.
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2000.
Carlin, Peter Ames. Paul McCartney: A Life. Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2009.
Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2001.
Lewisohn, Mark. The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970. Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, New York, NY, 1988.
Miles, Barry. Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1997.
Miles, Barry. The Beatles Diary, Volume 1: The Beatles Years. Omnibus Press, New York, NY, 2001.
Spitz, Bob. The Beatles: The Biography. Little, Brown and Company, Time Warner Book Group, New York, NY 2005.
Turner, Steve. A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. itbooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2005.
Similarities Between the Chord Progressions of Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind" and The Beatles' "Yesterday"
"Yesterday" features strikingly similar chord progressions with Ray Charles' 1960 cover of Hoagy Carmichael's “Georgia on My Mind". These similarities, however, are not terribly easy to hear. They are much more easily understood visually, hence the example below (click it to enlarge), which displays "Georgia on top with "Yesterday" on the bottom, each with chords with red lines denoting similarities between the progressions.
Of the 11 different chords used in the verses of “Georgia on My Mind”, all but one corresponds to a comparable – if not identical – chord in the verses from “Yesterday”.
Attempting to prove Paul's awareness of Ray Charles' recording of “Georgia on My Mind” prior to the composition of “Yesterday” would be utterly futile, but it does seem extremely probable that Paul knew of the song because he uses that title phrase in his lyrics to “Back in the USSR”.
If you had to pick a single word to describe the song "Yesterday", it would likely be "nostalgic". And while admitting that how music makes a person feel is extremely subjective and thus any attempt to perfectly and uniformly explain anything emotional is inherently doomed to failure, there is a degree of benefit to be had from attempting to understand why certain combinations of words and musical tones prompt certain emotional responses.
With that caveat in mind, both the music and the lyrics of "Yesterday" provide a strong nostalgic feeling in the majority of listeners. With words it is relatively easy to accomplish that ambiance - through lyrics like "Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they're here to stay, oh I believe in yesterday" and "I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday"; but what about with the music? Why does this music have a similar emotional content? What is it about this music that elicits this reaction?
There is a particular conflict in the lyrics, a discrepancy between actual reality and what the singer wishes was reality - and what was reality in the past: "Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be" and "Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play, Now I need a place to hide away". Reflecting that conflict, the music employs a conflict of its own regarding the tone B: is it B-natural or is it B-flat?
To illustrate, observe the example below (click it to enlarge). In the graphic, notes and chords using B-natural are light blue, while those using B-flat are red.
To illustrate sonically how this could have been different, here are a few MIDI examples:
The use of B-naturals slightly brightens the music (especially right after the word "believe") providing a brief respite from the gloom. The use of B-flats, by contrast, makes it slightly darker and more melancholy. But the combination of both - the use of B-flats and B-naturals side by side - helps elicit that potent twinge of nostalgia that "Yesterday" is so famous for, musically paralleling and symbolizing the singer's own nostalgic feelings regarding his past and present. In this way, Paul McCartney solves the problem of "How can the music and lyrics work together to both elicit the same nostalgic feeling?"
This video is the introduction of a lecture I will be giving at Middlesex Music Academy, 440 Main St, Middletown, Connecticut, on Thursday, February 14, 2013 from 7:00-8:00 p.m. The presentation is free and open to the public.
"Yesterday" is one of the Beatles' most famous and recognizable songs. And its background and development is one of the more fascinating and amusing stories of any Beatles recording.
The melody came to Paul in a dream sometime in late 1963 or early 1964 - he called it a gift from his subconscious. Paul, as quoted in the Beatles Anthology: "I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, 'Hey, I don't know this tune - or do I?' It was like a jazz melody. My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I'd just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: 'Do you know this? It's a good little tune, but I couldn't have written it because I dreamt it.' " (Anthology, p. 175)
To make sure he remembered the tune, Paul put ridiculous lyrics to the melody ("Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs") and started to play it for a variety of people to see if anybody could place the melody. Two such people were Dick James, who published the Beatles' songs, and Chris Hutchins, editor of Disc magazine. This is amusingly depicted in Peter Ames Carlin's biography of Paul McCartney: "[I]t didn't impress Dick James at all. 'Dick's face fell,' Hutchins says. 'And he said, "Have you got anything with yeah, yeah, yeah in it?" ' And Paul was shattered." (Carlin, p. 95)
Once Paul figured out that the melody was original - that he hadn't inadvertently stolen it - he then had to decide what to do with it. It certainly wasn't standard Beatles material, so he started offering the song to other singers to record. (I seem to recall reading somewhere that Paul offered the song to Marianne Faithful, but I have been unable to locate any evidence for that notion. If he did offer it to Faithful, she either declined or failed to record it before the Beatles did.) In "The Beatles Diary, Volume 1: The Beatles Years", author Barry Miles quotes from Eric Burdon's autobiography an account between Burdon and blues singer Chris Farlowe about McCartney offering Farlowe the song:
"One day he [Farlowe] phoned me at my Duke Street pad. 'Hey Eric, how ya doin', it's Chris Farlowe here,' he said in his hoarse voice. I asked how he was getting on. 'Oh, I'm OK. 'Ere listen, you'll never guess what happened. Paul McCartney - you know Paul out of the Beatles?' Yes, I had heard of him. 'Well he came round to our house in the middle of the night. I was out doing a show, but me mum was in and he left her a demo disc for me to listen to.' This was wonderful news. When was Chris going into the studio to cut this gift from the gods? 'Ah,' he growled. 'I don't like it. It's not for me. It's too soft. I need a good rocker, you know, a shuffle or something.' 'Yeah, but Chris,' I said. 'Anything to give you a start, man, I mean even if it's a ballad, you should go ahead and record it.' 'No, I don't like it,' he inssited. 'Too soft.' 'So what are you gonna do with the song?' 'Well, I sent it back, didn't I?' 'What was the title of the song?' 'Yesterday.' " (Miles, p. 211)
The first take, recorded at Abbey Road Studios on June 14, 1965, features Paul singing and playing a finger-picking pattern on an acoustic guitar. George Martin suggested adding strings as accompaniment, but Paul disliked the idea. He seriously considered an electronic backing, going as far as contacting Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to inquire about the possibility. Derbyshire is best-known for composing the theme song to Dr. No. But the notion of an electronic accompaniment was eventually scrapped, and Martin's suggestion of strings was adopted - but Paul insisted on a string quartet (rather than orchestra) playing with absolutely no vibrato because he didn't want it to sound like Mantovani. (Probably to his chagrin, Mantovani did record a cover.) The Beatles' final version, as it appears on Help!, features a string quartet in addition to Paul's vocals and guitar playing.
Marriane Faithful and Chris Farlowe both recorded covers - but only after the Beatles' recording was released and achieved tremendous acclaim and success. "Yesterday" has gone on to be the most-covered song in history. In 1980 Paul called it "probably my best song. I like it not because it was a big success, but because it was one of the most instinctive songs I've ever written. I was so proud of it. I felt it was an original tune - the most complete thing I've ever written. It's very catchy without being sickly." (Miles, p. 205)
Steve Turner notes another anecdote about "Yesterday" in his book "A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song": "Iris Caldwell remembered an interesting incident in connection with the song. She had broken up with Paul in March 1963 . . . and, when he later called up to speak to Iris, her mother told Paul that her daughter didn't want to speak to him because he had no feelings. Two and a half years later, on Sunday August 1, 1965, Paul was scheduled to sing 'Yesterday' on a live television programme, Blackpool Night Out. During that week, he phoned Mrs Caldwell and said, 'You know that you said that I had no feelings? Watch the telly on Sunday and then tell me that I've got no feelings.' " (p. 84)
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2000.
Carlin, Peter Ames. Paul McCartney: A Life. A Touchstone Book, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2009.
Miles, Barry. The Beatles Diary, Volume 1: The Beatles Years. Omnibus Press, New York, NY, 2001.
Turner, Steve. A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2005.
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.