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.