PopMAC day 1: The Matrix & Cultural Diagnostic Concepts in Analyzing Recordings of the Beatles… Craig Morrison #popmac

Single labelUsing the Matrix & Cultural Diagnostic Concepts in Analyzing Recordings of the Beatles & Others. Craig Morrison, Concordia University


Peter Van der Merwe defines the matrix as a unit of musical communication such as a beat, note, or chord. Matrices group together concretely (songs, styles) and conceptually (sonata form, key, note), and come with implications, like the major scale with its fixed intervals, implying a sequence of chords. A matrix can carry embedded meanings: The major mode is bright, the minor dark; slow tempos express repose, fast tempos animation.

Vargish and Mook, investigating a scientific theory, a painting movement, and a form of literature in the early 20th century, coined the term ‘cultural diagnostic’ for advanced intellectual activities that serve to reveal the values of the period, with value defined as an underlying but identifiable characteristic [that is] pervasive, almost ubiquitous. Values, not necessarily new, can become dominant themes or qualities. A popular music style can be a cultural diagnostic as it contains historically defining values.

I developed these concepts in my doctoral thesis Psychedelic Music in San Francisco. In analyzing melodies, harmonies, rhythm, and lyrics while teaching The Music of the Beatles, I realized that as the band evolved, they not only became masters of embedded meanings (typically tied to emotions), which were integrated intuitively, I believe, into the compositions and arrangements, but their repertoire was an excellent example of a cultural diagnostic that contained the values of the period expressed as musical devices. That their use of matrices seems more sophisticated and extensive than other bands, of any era, may explain why their music continues to resonate. This paper will be illustrated by many examples, especially Beatles songs.

Craig begins with a discussion of the way the Beatles’ more unusual musical decisions (e.g. 7 bar phrases in Yesterday) often provide embedded meaning, enhancing the lyric (giving the example of the lyric immediately after bar 7 ‘suddenly’). He then provides a list of scholars (Dominic Pedler and many others) who have cited the way lyrics and music are analytically inseparable in The Beatles’ music.

Van der Merwe ‘matrices’ are identified as being grouped concretely and conceptually (see abstract), and Craig notes how they may denote meaning. This is cross-referenced with Vargish and Mook, who looked at a scientific theory (relativity), a style of painting (cubism) and a technique of fiction writing (modernist narrative). They called these ‘cultural diagnostics’, and the paper notes the concept of ‘pervasive values’. V&M’s six ‘values of Modernism’ are listed, and our attention is drawn particularly to the ‘departure from normative realist conventions’.

Returning to The Beatles, we then look at ‘unexpected chords’, and the slides in every case provide the lyric context for the chord change. The first example is the Vm in a major key [Craig uses a term something like ‘going to another place’ I think], citing Strawberry Fields, Julia, Sun King, Strawberry Fields, I’ll Get You and All My Trials (the latter being a Joan Baez song, cited by McCartney as an important influence on him). The next example is the II falling to I, describing this as ‘no sorrow’, citing There’s a Place, With a Little Help From My Friends, and Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Peace In My Valley’. Thirdly we look at the poignancy chord – IVm – as in If I Fell, Nowhere Man, In My Life and It’s Now Or Never and Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust. The next category is ‘Vacillating between Major and Minor’ – suggesting unrequsited or unexpressed love, citing While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and I’ll Be Back. Lennon has admitted getting the idea from Del Shannon’s Runaway. Finally Craig looks at the Diatonic Walk Up (I ii ii IV), suggesting that represents a state that is ‘carefree at the time’ and ‘faith’, citing Here There And Everywhere, Getting Better and Sexy Sadie, with Like a Rolling Stone and Poetry In Motion as influences.

The next section deals with riff analysis, looking at Day Tripper and reflecting on the way in which is structurally similar to, but also challenging to, a 12-bar structure. He reflects that the B mixolydian guitar riff creates an instrumental/lyric-less B section – he believes this to be unique in the Beatles’ canon. The Day Tripper and Pretty Woman riffs are traced back to 1940s country boogie, and the idea of the motion of a train. Day Tripper’s more broken riff suggests inconsistent motion, doubly supporting the meaning of the lyric – the ‘part time tripper’ and the sexual non-completion of the ‘she’s a big teaser’. He reflects that the melody (opening on A above middle C) is itself a dissonance, supporting the contention that this represents the Beatles’ early steps into psychedelia (through deliberate non-resolution). This is followed by a bar-by-bar harmonic analysis of Day Tripper.

The paper continues with a discussion of extra-musical ‘1960s Values’ in The Beatles’ music, including the ‘subordinate finds voice’ (civil rights, feminism etc), ‘unrestrained self-expression’ (demands for freedom), ‘undermining previous forms and structures’, ‘solidarity against adversity’ and “I’d love to turn you on” (embedded meanings).

He concludes with – the ‘matrix’ concept can guide us closer to the implications of embedded meanings to create a lexicon; ‘cultural diagnostic’ concept can identify values of the period; and that these concepts can facilitate a deeper understanding of music within its cultural context.

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