The other day I received an email from a man named Brian Hebert. He recently published a book titled Blue Notes and Sad Chords: Color Coded Harmony in The Beatles 27 Number 1 Hits, and offered to mail me a complementary copy. I eagerly accepted Brian's offer, but countered by saying he could save shipping costs by just giving it to me in person. Since he lives in Massachusetts, and I'm speaking throughout the Bay State this month, why don't we meet in person to chat and exchange books? So we set up a meeting on Wednesday, July 18 at Stone's Public House in Ashland, MA. A splendid time was guaranteed for all!
Indeed, the conversation was so engaging that an hour and half passed in what felt like ten minutes! Brian told me all about his experiences writing the book, and how he made various decisions. I happily chimed in with my own stories - good and bad - of whole process. We also conversed about several of the notoriously difficult chords to identify: the intro of 'A Hard Day's Night', the B chord (is it major? minor? is there a seventh?) in 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'. At one point during the meal, I asked Brian if he'd be interested in a blog interview to help promote the book. He heartily agreed, and I hope to publish that shortly.
After generously picking up the check, Brian left the restaurant with my BEATLESTUDY, volume 1: Harmonic Analysis of Beatles Music in hand; I departed with Blue Notes. And I've been carefully reading it for the last several days. Below is my summary and review.
The book is divided into three parts. The first section is introductory, establishing the basic premises for the book. “Hundreds of books in all sizes and shapes have been written about the Beatles,” Hebert writes. “Many are biographical … some books are primarily collections of photographs. Still other books help readers peer behind the curtains … A small number of books actually describe the music in detail [my emphasis]" [page 4].
An author after my own heart!
He continues: “Typically written by musical experts, most of these books require the reader to possess a detailed understanding of music theory and a very specialized vocabulary, and as such are generally inaccessible to the average fan. … One goal of this book is to bridge that gap, and provide lovers of Beatles music with a unique and enjoyable way to understand some of the key musical elements that made the four lads from Liverpool so successful, without needing to be a musician or possess any specialized knowledge of music theory. … One of the key ideas this book hopefully gets across is that these musical concepts can be conveyed and understood intuitively, using relatively simple, color-rich graphics, which do not at all require an in-depth understanding of music theory” (pages 4, 6).
Hebert makes it clear this is not an academic textbook, though it is analytic in nature: “This book is not intended as a scholarly work. You won't find footnotes or a list of references, and Wikipedia has been used as a main source for many facts” (page 12).
The second section features color-coded “song map” textural analyses of The Beatles' 27 #1 hits (as included on the album 1), or in his own words, “the song maps show which Beatles are singing on the different parts of a song, and whether they are singing alone or together, in unison or in harmony” (page 3). In other words, the colors represent who is singing what. “If we assign a primary color to each singing Beatle voice (John red, Paul blue, and George yellow) and color code the parts of a song, we can see where they were singing alone, using a primary color, or together in unison or harmony, using secondary colors” (page 8).
'She Loves You' is a particularly vibrant example:
Because the combinations of voices in this song are so varied (see the song map legend at the top right of the graphic), the song map's coloration is equally varied.
The third and final section, for which the book is titled, analyzes harmony through a new color scheme, “using the analogy of an artist's palette of paints” (page 3). In this case, color represents not texture but harmony: red for I, green for ii, light gray for bIII, purple for iii, orange for IV, yellow for V, dark gray for bVI, light blue for vi, dark blue for bVII, and beige for vii. In general, brighter colors correspond to happier-sounding chords, where darker colors correspond to sadder-sounding chords.
Here, for example, is the palette for 'Can't Buy Me Love':
What this palette shows is that the verses employ the bright-sounding I (red), IV (orange), and V (yellow), while the refrains supplement with the dark-sounding iii (purple), and vi (blue).
I've always found 'Can't Buy' fascinating for precisely this reason: The verses sound much happier than the refrains (what I would call choruses, but that's semantics and I won't get into it here). Furthermore, the lyrics reinforce this shift. In the darker-sounding refrains, the lyrics are negative, with Paul describing what cannot be done (“Can't buy me love...”). But in the brighter-sounding verses, the lyrics are more positive, describing what can be done (“I'll buy you a diamond ring...”, “I'll give you all I've got...”).
Also, observant readers might notice a little blue dot in the above graphic, just to the right of the “V”. This indicates the use of a “blue note”, in which the pitch of a tone is lowered (ie, in a C major chord, the note E would be “normal”, while the note E-flat would be a “blue” note) for expressive reasons. “They can give a low-down, swampy, or lonesome feeling,” writes Hebert [page 17]. In the verses of 'Can't Buy', for instance, Paul frequently sings blue notes: “I'll buy you a dia-mond ring..”, “I'll get you a-ny-thing...”, “I'll give you all I got...”, “I may not have a lot...”, “Say you don't need no diamond rings...”, “Tell me that you want the kind of things...”. The Beatles (and a great many other pop musicians) use blue notes frequently.
Where my own work (especially in the last year or two) has turned more analytic and technical, Hebert's Blue Notes and Sad Chords provides an accessible path for the obsessive but non-musician fan who wants to better understand the intricacies and sophistication of The Beatles' extraordinary music. And in addition to the colorful analytics, Hebert balances things out by including lots of non-technical nostalgic info, like calling out other artist’s songs in the charts before and after a Beatles hit, a back story for each number, personal memories and thoughts about the Beatles and the 1960s, and a condensed Beatles timeline. While I'm not a first-generation fan, I imagine the book could be a very pleasurable trip down memory (Penny?) lane for anybody that lived through the Sixties. As the book's back cover states: “Whether you're a long-time baby boomer Beatle fan, a younger newcomer, or somewhere in between, this book will give you an entirely new appreciation for the most amazing band ever.”
Blue Notes and Sad Chords is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
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.
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytic study of popular music.