PopMAC day 1: Incredible Regularity & Fast Evolution in the Beatles’ Harmonic Progressions. Philippe Cathé, Sorbonne #popmac

RainPopMAC day 1: Incredible Regularity & Fast Evolution in the Beatles’ Harmonic Progressions. Philippe Cathé, Sorbonne.


Does pop music really display its complexity in timbre and texture rather than in melody, harmony or form, as the ‘call for papers’ reads? Is this really the case for the Beatles? This paper addresses the questions through harmonic analysis, focusing on harmonic vectors, a theory based on a novel type of classification of harmonic root progressions. I will deal with all the songs written and sung by the Beatles. I will show that their harmonic practice bears greater similarity with that of composers of the late Renaissance rather than with Classical music. The evolution of the Beatles, year after year, indicates that their music bears even closer similarities with the music of Gabriel Fauré. A slight change in the percentages, from the middle of their career, suggests that we reconsider the impact on their music by vaudeville, jazz, comic songs and western ballads, especially during the second half of the sixties. Further results indicate the extraordinarily regular evolution of the virtual pop-rock side of their style, and highlight the strong influence they excerted on all subsequent pop music. Finally, my paper will explore the harmonic logic underlying their creative evolution, and suggest that harmonic analysis of pop music needs to go beyond the usual frame of tonality. In conclusion, I will make a case for ‘harmonic vectors’ as a general tool, above and beyond the Beatles.

Philippe Cathé is a reader in musicology at Paris-Sorbonne University. He is both a music theorist focusing on harmonic music from the end of Renaissance until the present time and a musicologist, specialist of the composers Charles Koechlin and Claude Terrasse and, more generally, of French music from the end of the nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth century. He works on developing Nicolas Meeùs’ theory of harmonic vectors. Besides this, he saves a part of his time to analyse the importance of sound in films. He has recently co- directed a book, “Charles Koechlin, compositeur et humaniste”, and he has just completed a work entitled “500 Years of Harmonic Music”.

Philippe opens with a discussion of the oft-stated negative views of popular musicology – that it is unworthy of harjmonic analysis because of its simplicity. He shoots down this argument by a hypothetical critique of Lichtenstein, who was not criticised (at least, not by art history) for using primary colours.

He cites as his theoretical framework Nicoloas Meeùs’s idea of Harmonic Vectors. There can only be 6 progressions, of which three are ‘Dominant Vectors’ and three ‘Subdominant Vectors’ – the former represented 60-70% of vectors in the 16th century. He then plots their progress up to the end of the 19thC, peaking in the mid 18thC at more than 90%, then declining to around 1950. [note – DVs are C-F, C-G and C-Dm equivalents).

Philippe then applies DV analysis of the Beatles’ outputs year by year, noting a drop from 70.5% DV in 1963 to 60.5% in 1969. He notes that the Beatles never had the dominance of DV evident from c.1750, comparing them instead to Debussy and others. He then also notes the rapid (7 year) speed of the 10% change, compared to the many decades/centuries of the ‘classical tradition’.

The paper then proceeds to cover the dramatic rise in DV (61.5% to 66.0%) between 1967 and 1968, and ascribes this to non-rock musical influences (e.g. vaudeville, citing Your Mother Should Know, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Honey Pie). He sets aside Octopus’ Garden, noting that Ringo stated he could only play three chords, needing Harrison’s input to provide the extra chords. He provides an additional vector analysis by subtracting the anomalous (e.g. pastiche) songs.

We then look at the higher-scoring examples – Rain, Here There and Everywhere, The Long and Winding Road, Don’t Let Me Down, The Fool on the Hill etc.

He cites Walter Everett’s perhaps playful use of the term ‘quadriplagal?’ progression in A Day In The Life – comparing its descending circle of fourths in the ‘dream’ section to the chords from Hey Joe, describing it as ‘in the air at the time’. He describes these changes, in these contexts, as challenging to dominant vectors but without losing sight of the home tonality. He compares this to other contemporaneous works including Puppet On A String.

He ends by discussing the framework of analytical tools, and applies some terms – Vectorial Pendulum, Vectorial Sequence, Vectorial Pair, Nature of Chords, Suspensions and the ratio of DVs to SVs. He makes a case for using Harmonic Vectors, stating that they have an important place and arguing for analytical tools that are harmonic, but may lie outside the framework of traditional harmonic musicology.

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