Last Sunday, I blogged about the rhythmic displacement of Robert Plant's 'When the Levee Breaks' vocals through Plant starting the fourth verse at the "wrong" time (a measure late, in that case). I concluded that blog by writing, "Since the underlying harmony throughout the verses is static, this rhythmic displacement does not cause any harmonic problems the way such a displacement would in, say, 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' or 'Stairway to Heaven' where the harmonies are more fluid." And yet I just discovered the other day that Plant does use that same "start at the wrong time" displacement technique in 'Stairway to Heaven' - not one measure late, like 'Levee', which certainly would cause clashes with the underlying harmony, but rather an entire phrase early (in this case, four measures).
The instrumental introduction establishes a four-square phrase pattern (four phrases, each four measures long). The first and second phrases are identical, so they're both labeled (a). And the third and fourth phrases are nearly identical, so they're labeled (b) and (b').
0:00-0:54 Instrumental Introduction (16 measures)
0:00 (a) |a E/g# |C/g D/f# | FM7 |a |
0:14 (a) |a E/g# |C/g D/f# | FM7 |a |
0:27 (b) |C D |FM7 a |C G |D |
0:40 (b') |C D |FM7 a |C D |FM7 |
Plant's entry marks the start of the first verse at 0:54. That verse employs identical four-square harmony as the introduction.
The first phrase (0:54) corresponds to the lyrics "There's a lady...", the second phrase (1:07) to "When she gets..." Though the lyrics are different, the pitches and chords to which those lyrics are sung are essentially identical - the same melody and harmony are repeated, just with different words. That should come as no surprise as it is EXTREMELY common in all genres of pop music
The third phrase (1:21), being harmonically different from the first two, has a correspondingly different sung melody (though the ending is quite similar).
The fourth phrase (1:34) is where things get really interesting. As was the case in the intro, the harmonies of the fourth phrase are comparable to the third phrase. Yet Plant's singing is comparable to the first and second phrases. This means that melodically the fourth phrase should be labeled (a), but harmonically it should be labeled (b'). In other words, there's a certain "divorce" between the melody and harmony. (And yes, I completely understand the connotations of that term in the context of popular music scholarship, and how I'm using it differently than other scholars.)
0:54-1:48 Verse 1 (16 measures)
0:54 (a) |a E/g# |C/g D/f# | FM7 |a | “There's a lady...”
1:07 (a) |a E/g# |C/g D/f# | FM7 |a | “When she gets...”
1:21 (b) |C D |FM7 a |C G |D | “Ooo...”
1:34 (a & b') |C D |FM7 a |C D |FM7 | “There's a sign...”
Plant "should" have repeated the tune of phrase three ("Ooo...") to match the harmony, saving "There's a sign..." for the start of the second verse (at 1:48). Instead, he displaces that entry by starting verse 2 a full phrase (four measures) early, overlapping with the concluding phrase of the first verse.
Just over one year ago, I visited the Biedenharn Museum and Gardens in Monroe, Louisiana with my good friends Jude and Rande Kessler. As part of the museum tour, we walked through the old Biedenharn household, where the family's piano remains in working condition in the front room. The guide invited us to play, so I sat down and ran through the opening passage of “Fur Elise” by Beethoven.
“That was really impressive,” Rande enthused. "Naw," I honestly demurred, "it's the kind of thing that people recognize, so when they hear it they think you're really good even when you're not!" After chuckling, Rande continued, "Sure. 'Fur Elise' is to the piano what 'Stairway to Heaven' is to the guitar."
Indeed, the opening line of “Stairway” has to be among the most famous and frequently played guitar passages in history. It's such a cliché that I've heard people joke about being banned from guitar stores for playing it!
One reason this passage is so famous is the mysterious second chord (heard on beat 3 of the first measure, marked with a question mark in the example above), which has long puzzled analyzers. Much like the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night", the mystery of this harmony has contributed to its enduring legacy.
I see six different interpretations, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses and will be considered below. Ultimately, it comes down to (1) which tone is the root?, and (2) which tones are part of the chord vs. which are non-chord tones? In the examples below, the chord tones are shown in orange (with the root in red), while non-chord tones are shown in blue.
Interpretation 1: C+M7/g#
This means that all four tones are part of the chord – there are no non-chord tones.
Strength: It accounts for all tones present. This is the most literal interpretation.
Weakness: This is a case of an analysis being over-complicated.
My verdict: I don't buy it. Technically, yes, this is accurate – it is indeed a second inversion C augmented chord with an added major seventh. But this is one of those interpretations that satisfies the head while leaving the heart cold. I just don't feel it this way. If I have to give a more objective explanation, it's the root movement from A to C. I don't hear it like that, even if it is technically correct.
Interpretation 2: Ab+
This means reinterpreting the G-sharp as A-flat, and calling the high B a passing tone.
Strength: One of the most important characteristics of this progression is the chromatically descending bass line. Interpreting the second chord as an A-flat augmented retains that salient chromatic descent in the chord roots.
Weakness: One of my professors at Boston University, Dr. Martin Amlin, once made an argument for why descending lines should use sharps instead of flats – it's because of voice leading. In this case, A-flat has no business in the key of A minor. But G-sharp (even though it's the same note as A-flat, just spelled differently) does belong in A minor as the leading tone. (That's why Interpretation 3 below is a G-sharp augmented.) On the other hand, Dr. Amlin was referring to classical contexts - not pop, where rules like voice leading are much more flexible.
My verdict: I could buy in to this interpretation, despite its voice leading concerns, but I don't because I think there's a better solution.
Interpretation 3: G#+
This means the C is actually a B-sharp, and the E is actually a D-double-sharp. Oh, and the high B is still a passing tone.
Strength: This avoids the voice leading problem of interpretation 2.
Weakness: Double sharp?! WTF, mate?
My verdict: This solves one problem (that doesn't really need to be fixed) at the expense of creating several other (and far worse) problems. Like Interpretation 1, this is another example of the analysis being more complicated than the subject, which defeats the purpose of analysis. No way, Jose! Get this outta here!
Interpretation 4: a/g#
This means the entire measure is fundamentally a tonic A minor chord, thus the high B is a passing tone while the G-sharp in the bass is either a passing tone or a line chromatic.
Strength: It's certainly the simplest of the interpretations because there's only one chord (instead of two) to account for.
Weakness: There's no root.
My verdict: While I often use this choice when analyzing Beatles music, I don't find it appropriate in this context, in part because of the high B. If a G# replaced that B....
... or if the subsequent chords clearly sustained A minor (in which case one could call this whole passage a static A minor chord with line chromatics in the bass)...
… then I'd probably chose this interpretation for the sake of simplicity.
As is, however, I still think there's a better solution.
Interpretation 5: E/G#
This means the C is a pedal tone left over from the previous A minor chord.
Strength: The progression A minor to E major is extremely common. This root movement makes perfect sense.
Weakness: That pesky C complicates things. The only way to account for it is as a suspension leftover from the previous chord.
My verdict: I think this is the best interpretation. If we make another hypothetical example, this one in which the non-chord tone C is replaced by chord tone B...
… not only does it look good, but it sounds good, too. Jimmy Page could have easily played this instead, though he chose not to. And frankly, he shouldn't have played this - the progression is much more interesting with ambiguous harmony.
Interpretation 6: E+/G#
This solves the problem of that pesky C by reinterpreting it as a B-sharp (the fifth of an E-augmented chord); however, that only creates a new problem regarding the high B, which now necessarily becomes a non-chord tone.
Strength: It solves one problem...
Weakness: … by creating another.
My verdict: Bottom line is there's nothing to be gained from this interpretation. Any potential gains are offset by additional complications.
Clearly, there is no easy answer, but I find Interpretation 5: E/G# most compelling.
Another simple example of rhythmic displacement can be heard in “Houses of the Holy”, the fourth track of Physical Graffiti (1975). In this case, rhythmic displacement is built in to the main riff and so repeated frequently throughout the song. A three-beat pattern is first played on beat one, then immediately following on beat four.
This syncopated phrasing helps give the track its funky character.
I've looked at rhythmic displacement in Led Zeppelin's music through several previous blogs.
Another rhythm trick Zep loves is changing meters. And this, I suspect, also shows how Zeppelin's music grew out of The Beatles' music because The Beatles also love changing meters. Several John Lennon songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” are good examples, but it's in the hands of George Harrison that The Beatles took this technique to extremes.
Back in 2014 I blogged about the rhythmic sophistication of “Here Comes the Sun”, and in 2016 I created a BEATLES MINUTE video based on the same concept.
It's significant that these constantly changing meters are used in the bridge – NOT in the verses – because the rhythmic instability accentuates the sense of arrival with the subsequent verse, which goes back to the rhythmically stable meter of 4/4 at 2:12.
It's a technique many composers – both popular and classical – have employed. And Led Zeppelin does something similar in “Stairway to Heaven”.
While the structure of “Stairway” is far more sophisticated than “Here Comes the Sun” (something I'll be blogging about in detail in the next few days), it features a similar climactic arrival at 5:56, right as Jimmy Page launches into his epic guitar solo. And, just like “Here Comes the Sun”, that arrival is emphasized through the use of changing meters immediately prior.
After two rather substantial examples of rhythmic displacement in “Dazed and Confused” and “When the Levee Breaks”, the next two examples will be comparatively lite.
In “Stairway to Heaven”, the fourth track of Led Zeppelin IV (1971), Robert Plant sometimes displaces his vocals by two beats during the lyrics “it makes me wonder”. That phrase is heard a total of five times. Since Plant takes some rhythmic liberties between iterations, we'll look at the placement of the word “make” to ensure a fair comparison.
In the first and fifth times (at 2:15 and 4:46), “make” falls on beat 4 (highlighted in red in the examples above). But in the second, third, and fourth times (2:27, 3:07, and 3:19), “make” falls on beat 2, (highlighted in blue).
Another example of rhythmic displacement can be found in “When the Levee Breaks”, the concluding track of Led Zeppelin IV (1971). Jimmy Page's guitar and John Paul Jones' bass play in unison throughout the verses. Their basic riff is a single-measure blues pattern:
But often they extended it by twice repeating the first half of the 1-bar riff, yielding a 2-bar riff:
Following the initial two measures of solo drums, the introduction continuously juxtaposes these two riffs.
This constant varying of riff durations wards off any threat of monotony and foreshadows the riff patterns used in the verses. Notice how from 0:21-0:44 and from 0:44-1:08 the 2-bar riff is played three times followed by the 1-bar riff once. This seven-measure pattern will be heard in all four verses, where Robert Plant's vocals are added to Page's and Jones' riffs. Since Plant's verse vocals feature three phrases, each two measures long, they coordinate nicely with the 2-bar riffs. The single 1-bar riff at the end of the verse, then, functions as a turnaround, propelling the song to its subsequent section.
1:25-1:49 = Verse 1 (7 measures)
1:25 = 2-bar riff (“If it keeps on raining...”)
1:32 = 2-bar riff (“If it keeps on raining...”)
1:38 = 2-bar riff (“When the levee breaks...”)
1:45 = 1-bar riff (instrumental)
That same coordinated pattern is also found in the second and third verses...
1:49-2:13 = Verse 2
1:49 = 2-bar riff (“Mean old levee...”)
1:55 = 2-bar riff (“Mean old levee...”)
2:02 = 2-bar riff (“It's got what it takes...”)
2:09 = 1-bar riff (instrumental)
4:09-4:32 = Verse 3
4:09 = 2-bar riff (“Cryin' won't help...”)
4:15 = 2-bar riff (“Cryin' won't help...”)
4:22 = 2-bar riff (“When the levee breaks...”)
4:29 = 1-bar riff (instrumental)
… but not in the fourth verse. In this final iteration, Page and Jones continue as usual while Plant displaces his vocals not by one beat, as we saw in "Dazed and Confused", but by one measure. He "should" start singing at 4:32, but instead enters at 4:36, midway through the 2-bar riff, offsetting the coordinated pattern heard in the three previous verses.
Since the underlying harmony throughout the verses is static, this rhythmic displacement does not cause any harmonic problems the way such a displacement would in, say, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" or “Stairway to Heaven” where the harmonies are more fluid.
It's no secret that Led Zeppelin loves playing with rhythm. And one of their favorite stunts is establishing a rhythmic expectation early in a song, then thwarting that expectation later through a compositional technique known as rhythmic displacement. I have several examples in mind, and I'll dedicate one blog for each.
To start, let's look at “Dazed and Confused”, the fourth track of Zeppelin's self-titled debut album from 1968. The first thing heard on the track is John Paul Jones' bass playing two measures, each consisting of four chromatically descending tones, and each with an anacrusis - what I'll call “The Dazed Motive” due to its rather wobbly feel.
That Dazed motive is heard a total of 16 times. The first eight instances (heard consecutively from 0:00-1:13) all start on beat one, as illustrated above. But the last eight instances (heard four times from 1:21-1:57, and another four times from 5:11-5:45) all displace the motive one full beat – they all start on beat two, as illustrated below.
But it's not just Jones' bass that is displaced – it's Robert Plant's vocals, as well.
At first, Plant places the syllable “fused” from “confused” on the downbeat (0:18), delineating the official start of the first verse.
And he does the same phrasing (but with different lyrics) with the second verse (0:55).
But with verses three and four, his entry is delayed one beat. Since verse 4 begins with the same lyrics as verse 1, it makes for an ideal apples-to-apples comparison.
Additionally, Jimmy Page's guitar is also displaced one beat. I won't provide examples for that, however, since it's identical to Jones' bass.
In fact, the only instrument not displaced is John Bonham's drums. And it's the percussion that confirms that a displacement has indeed happened. Because obviously if the drums were displaced one beat, just like every other instrument, then this would be a case of changing meters – not displacement.
Since changing meters is another favorite rhythmic technique of Zeppelin, it's slightly surprising that we don't find more meter changes in “Dazed and Confused”. Their rhythmic instability could be put to good use in a song with this title. And yet, there are just two instances of measure(s) in a meter other than 12/8.
The more obvious instance comes during the up-tempo middle section, from 3:30-5:02, where a metric modulation of eighth=quarter yields a fast 4/4 meter.
The less obvious but more significant instances comes at the end of the second verse (1:09), which is abbreviated by one beat from a 12/8 bar (as it was in verse 1) to a 9/8.
After this single measure of 9/8, the pitched instruments are consistently displaced while the drums are not. So this 9/8 measure might be thought of as the catalyst for the subsequent rhythmic displacement. And it's for that reason that this 9/8 measure is my personal favorite measure in the entire song :-)
I started the analytical (as opposed to the introductory) part of the blog yesterday with a structural analysis of “Whole Lotta Love”. In it, I implied that early Zeppelin songs illustrate how they grew out of their predecessors like The Beatles.
That is true to a certain extent, but that's not entirely true. I oversimplified a bit. Of course there are exceptions. And as evidence to the contrary, I present a structural analysis of “Good Times Bad Times”, the opening number of Zeppelin's 1968 self-titled debut album, which has a unique (to my knowledge, anyway) formal design. Get a load of this oddity!:
Okay, so, the first thing to notice is that there are two distinct verses, here labeled Verse A and Verse B. While The Beatles occasionally employed multiple different verses within the same song (check out “Glass Onion” or “Lovely Rita”), it's rare. I don't know other bands' oeuvres well enough to cite a non-Beatles example off the top of my head, but I'm sure there are examples to be found. Some scholars have debated with me over the justification for using multiple verses instead of other labels. “Rita”, for example, is often analyzed as using verses and bridges instead of multiple verses. I certainly see the point, but I maintain these are all verses for reason I won't get into here. In any case, “Good Times” definitely uses multiple verses because each section in question is paired with a chorus – exactly what would be expected of verses.
The second thing that stands out is that the chorus also has two different iterations. The distinction here is harmonic: The first and third choruses are in A major, while the second is in B major. This middle chorus grows organically out of what was heard in the first chorus as it adds an E chord (IV) on the third beats of the second and fourth measures, circled red in the example below. This addition results in a double plagal cadence (A-E-B, bVII-IV-I, underlined below) from the second to third measures.
This ties in to the harmony of the initial verse (shown in the example below), which also employs double plagals but in E major (D-A-E) and twice as long (four measures where the same pattern in the chorus lasts only two).
Also, the middle chorus elucidates the tonality of the outer choruses. The first and third choruses are harmonically ambiguous on their own – are they really in A major? We don't necessarily have enough information to make that claim - there are no cadences to confirm such a conclusion. But the addition of those double plagals in the middle chorus implies that the harmony of the first and third can be interpreted as “incomplete double plagal cadences” which are missing the IV chord. With that in mind, we can indeed infer that the outer choruses are in A major.
One last thing about the choruses: The middle iteration is abbreviated. While the first and third choruses both feature a two-bar bass transition, the second chorus omits it. This further differentiates the choruses, which strengthens the eventual conclusion (see below) that "Good Times" is a compound ternary structure.
Finally, the solo replaces a verse. It employs identical harmonies, but rhythmically halved. This, too, grows organically out of what preceded it. The solo also uses double plagal cadences, just like the first verse and second chorus. It uses the tonality of the verse's double plagals (D-A-E) but with the chorus's rhythms (two measures instead of four). So the solo is related to both the first verse (through tonality) and to the second chorus (through rhythm).
The overall structure of “Good Times Bad Times”, then, is a hybrid AB|CB'|A'B – it's part compound simple (an AB x3 in which the middle AB is actually a CB') and part compound ternary (ABA'). If I had to pick one of those designations, I think the latter more accurately and precisely articulates the form.
Even though this song is from Zep's first album, it shows a spectacularly advanced hybrid formal structure and organic development that breaks with their predecessors' work (to the extent of my knowledge). It certainly would not be the last time they would use such a sophisticated musical design.
“Whole Lotta Love”, the opening track from Led Zeppelin II, employs a rather conventional compound AABA structure. The verses and choruses combine to constitute the compound A sections, while the break and solo combine to create the compound B section.
While The Beatles employed AABA structures frequently (121 of their 211 songs use some type of AABA design), they used relatively few compound AABA structures. The most famous of that handful is “Magical Mystery Tour”, which, though not identical to “Whole Lotta Love”, is strikingly similar in form.
So what does this mean? It's an example of how Led Zeppelin grew out of what came before them. Of course this doesn't necessarily mean that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were deliberately mimicking John Lennon and Paul McCartney – I highly doubt they were – but here we have an early Zeppelin recording that employs a similar structure to a late Beatles track. Just a few years later, Zeppelin would record “Black Dog” and “Stairway To Heaven” and “Kashmir”, all of which use much more experimental and innovative formal designs which depart from and build off of structures employed by The Beatles. And I'll look in detail at those songs soon.
On the first day of May last year, just over one hour after submitting the final drafts of both volumes of BEATLESTUDY, I boarded a plane at the Indianapolis airport with the destination of Denver, Colorado. That flight marked the start of a lecture tour from Colorado through Kansas and Missouri. Reprising the notion from Days in the Life, it was another trip with my Dad, who picked me up at the Denver airport.
On our long drive east, we of course listened to many hours of music. We carefully compared the mono vs. stereo versions of The Beatles' Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper. We listened to the audio book Fire and Rain by David Browne. And at one point, Dad put in The Best of Led Zeppelin. I knew of Zeppelin, of course, but I didn't know much about them. I could hum a bit of “Stairway to Heaven”, but not much more. I realized pretty quickly, however, that I knew a lot more Zeppelin than I thought I did. I'd heard “Immigrant Song” in the film Shrek, but I didn't realize at the time that it was Zeppelin. And I'd heard “Rock and Roll” frequently, but never realized that was Zeppelin, either. Same could be said about “Kashmir”. The more we listened, the more I recognized. And with BEATLESTUDY finally complete (after five years of work), I had my antennae out for something new. Might Zeppelin be next?
A month later, I drove north from Indiana into Michigan for a conference at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. The four-hour drive was long enough to listen to their first five albums. Houses of the Holy was still in the CD player when I gave my good friend, fellow conference speaker, and editor of BEATLESTUDY, voulme 1 David Thurmaier a lift back to his hotel one night. Dave was air-drumming along in the passenger seat as soon as the music kicked in. He was obviously much more knowledgeable about this band than I was. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a tiny bit embarrassed that he knew these songs so well while I didn't know them at all. “You're gonna have to read up on Zeppelin and listen to their albums some more,” I tactitly told myself.
Fast forward to 29 October 2017. I'm eating dinner at Riverside Pub & Grille in Bel Air, MD with librarians Betsy Bensen and Joyce Wemer following my presentation The Beatles' Alter Ego, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Bel Air library. In addition to discussing The Beatles, we also debate the musical merits of other rock bands. I put forth a nascent idea for a program titled Stairway to Zeppelin, in which I'd look at how 1960s bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones paved the way for Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. Though not big Zeppelin fans, Betsy and Joyce both expressed interest. I decided to add it to my repertoire document and shop it around to other libraries for future lecture tours. Indeed, I got a bite from the Richards Memorial Library in North Attleboro, MA, and so Stairway to Zeppelin is scheduled to debut on 12 July 2018.
So now I have to get to work! My composition teacher at Butler University, Dr. Michael Schelle, once told me, “A deadline is the second strongest motivator behind a paycheck.” And now I have both compelling me to study Led Zeppelin.
Much like The Beatles literature, the problem with the extant Zeppelin literature is that so little of it focuses on the music. Many books seem more concerned about lurid descriptions of orgies, or Jimmy Page's obsession with the occult and Aleister Crowley, or “hidden meanings” in their lyrics and album artwork than they are about the actual music. Again like The Beatles, it astounds me that so much can be written about musicians while so little is written about the work. It is, after all, the music – not their salacious love lives or hotel-trashing – that makes Led Zeppelin compelling and worthy of study and criticism a half century later.
Indeed, I've been painstakingly transcribing Zep songs for the last week or so, and the more I study the more I respect their musical artistry. Yet again like The Beatles, the compositional sophistication balanced with accessibility never ceases to amaze me. And so today I launch a new blog dedicated to Led Zeppelin. Just like my Beatles blog, it'll be a workshop for me to develop my ideas as I digest their catalog.
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytical study of the music of Led Zeppelin.