Thursday 2 December 2010

The Band Who ... Lived Outside

In my recent guest post for songwriting scene I let slip the remarkable fact that the very melodic and accessible Beatles only stayed in key for a remarkable 22 songs out of 186. Well I spoke too soon. I was looking primarily at chord progressions. When I factored in the actual vocal melody the number dropped to an incredible 16!

That right,

16 out of 186.

Here’s the list (with primary authors) followed by a breakdown and some ‘also rans’.

The 16 in key songs

All Together Now - M
Dig It - LMHS
Don’t Let Me Down - L
It’s All Too Much - H
Long Long Long – H
Love You To - H
Misery - LM
Not a Second Time - LM
Paperback Writer - M
Rain - L
She Said She Said - L
Thank You Girl - LM
The Inner Light - H
Tomorrow Never Knows - L
Yellow Submarine - M

The first thing that stands out to me is that percentage-wise Harrison (and Starr!) are over represented - I think. (Help me out with the maths someone!). 4 Harrison tunes (It’s All Too Much, Long Long Long, Love You To, The Inner Light) might not seem a lot but he only contributed 21 (and a quarter!) songs in 7 years).

There are 2 kids songs (All Together Now, Yellow Submarine), 1 throwaway track (Dig It) and 3 ‘Indian’ songs (Love You To, The Inner Light, Tomorrow Never Knows).

There's more. Don't assume 'in key' means in the major or minor scale. Paperback Writer, Rain, She Said She Said, The Inner Light, Tomorrow Never Knows are in the Mixolydian mode throughout and Love You To is built exclusively on the Dorian mode.

Are You Sure?

If you’re surprised about Rain (which sounds major but for McCartney’s bassline) and Love You To (which sounds Mixolydian) – so was I!

Both song mess with your head by omitting a note, but tricking you into thinking you've heard it. By leaving out the 3rd but using the major 6th, Harrison cons you into thinking you’ve heard the major 3rd as well. Rain’s chord progression of G C D5 has you mentally filling in the missing F# (in the D chord) simply because you’ve heard that progression a million times.

And The Runners Up Are...

And I Love Her stays in key for most of it’s length but blows it with a key change from E to F and then a weird final chord.
Goodnight loses it in the instrumental interlude (which to be fair may be arranger George Martin’s work)
In Spite Of All The Danger stays in key, but also stayed unreleased till Anthology.
I’ve Just Seen A Face would have made the list but for a G natural in the guitar intro.

2 more would have made the list but for bluesifying the melody, (Ticket 22) namely, Starr’s Don’t Pass Me By and the harmonica opening of Love Me Do.

So what?

Let's Get Lost

There’s no getting away from it. The Beatles songwriting career was one long mission to escape from the straight-jacket tonality of major and minor scales (whether they were conscious of it or not).

Think I’m making something out of nothing? Here’s your assignment. Out of your next 18 songs, only 1 of them can be in a major or minor scale.

Let me know how you get on!

Related post: The band who needed no introduction


  1. I have got to devote some time to playing "out" chord progressions. I used to occasionally do exercises like that: write non-diatonic all-major chord progressions, then non-diatonic all-minor, and so on. I also think it's a blast to shift the tonic from minor to major. :D

    Thanks for the very helpful prod in that direction, Matt!

  2. Minor to Major on the tonic? - I love Things We Said Today and I'll Be Back for that.

    I'm surprised to hear you don't 'go outside' so much I would have had you down as an outdoors type but then I have only heard ONE of your songs!! (haha no pressure!)