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.
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.
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytic study of popular music.