THE BEATLES 

Review of two articles by two musicologists whose area of expertise is The Beatles, published on the internet: (I wrote this review as a favor for someone who was writing a term paper about the Beatles. It proved useful for her, and it gave me an opportunity to vent my spleen on the subject.) 

Notes on "We Can Work It Out"
by Alan W. Pollack http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/AWP/wcwio.shtml
Beatles' Odyssey by Ger Tillekens
http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/VOLUME01/A_Beatles_Odyssey.shtml 

It pains me to say this, but the truth is, that if I got such things from students as term papers, I would give them fairly low marks. First, I will take up the analytical-technical elements one by one, in the order in which they appear. In Tillekens: 

"Pan-diatonic clusters" - there is no such animal. Pandiatonicism was a stylistic element used by composers at the beginning of the twentieth century; by 1925 it was established as an element of the neo-classicism of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Poulenc, etc. It consisted of the free use of any and all diatonic scales (7-note scales such as major, minor, Greek modes) to produce harmony that was atonal, but not so uncompromisingly dissonant as that produced by 12-tone music, which used all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. A cluster is just what it sounds like: a group of contiguous notes, so dissonant that it is almost noise. Clusters were first used by innovators like Cowell and Varese, often produced by playing the piano with the fists or the whole forearm. Thus, there can be chords that are pandiationic, but not clusters. 

"Aeolian cadences" - The Aeolian scale is one of the Greek modes, a diatonic scale that is not exactly like the modern major or minor. Naturally, it produces somewhat different chords. A cadence is a series of chords that serves as a concluding formula. The Beatles often arbitrarily interchanged major and minor chords, sometimes giving their harmony a seemingly "modal" flavor, but this can be called "Aeolian" only if the whole piece is conceived in that scale -- which never happened with them. 

"Extended harmonic material" and 2 following pages - This whole section is an inflated pseudo-theory. I cannot decide whether Tillekens really believes this nonsense, or whether he wants to prove the unique genius of the Beatles at any price. The Beatles used perfectly ordinary, unremarkable harmony, except for the fact that they allowed themselves a certain looseness of usage in the details, mainly consisting of interchanging major and minor chords, but also substituting one chord for another without actually changing the direction of the harmonic progression. This is hardly amazing, nor is it original. To a certain extent, it first appears in Schubert. But the Beatles did their thing in the middle of the twentieth century, after Western music had been convulsed by a revolution unprecedented in its history, which tore apart the very fabric of Western music theory. After Schoenberg, after Webern, after the so-called "avant-garde" and electronic music, a few cute little chromatic changes are really small change. 

"New and unexpected modulations" and "Pivot chords" - Again, I wonder whether Tillekens really believes all this. The whole section is a badly done rehash of what every student learns in his basic harmony lessons. A modulation is a shift to a new key, something that is so normal as to be totally unworthy of remark. And of course, a modulation is accomplished by means of one or more pivotal chords: chords which can be understood as a normal continuation in the old key, but at the same time as a different harmonic progression in the new key. I learned this stuff when I was still in grammar school. Tillekens, for example, in his section "A big departure" calls the modulation from C major to F major "a surprising modulation," when any student could tell him that it is the most natural modulation of all, and that it almost happens by itself. 

"A complex of emotions" - If it were true, that all these technical details represent musical gestures that really create an intimate relationship between the words and the music, it might justify everything else. But, if you notice, Tillekens avoids the issue, and tells us that Pollack also avoids the issue. That is because it is not true. The words in the Beatles' songs do not express "emotions that are difficult to verbalize"; they are obvious and rather childish. Neither the supposedly wonderful altered chords, nor the modulations that are neither new nor unexpected, express anything that is at all analogous to the words. 

The analytical-technical elements in the order in which they appear in Pollack: 

"The double bridge with single verse intervening" - This is an unnecessarily awkward and involved way of describing something quite simple: one of the most basic forms in Western music, called by normal musicologists "binary form." The basic formula consists of two sections, hence the name. The second section is longer, because it contains, first something new, and then a repetition of most, if not all, of the first section. Each of the two sections is repeated: 
[A---][A---] [B---A'--][B---A'--] 
This formula, or some variant of it, has served as a basic "syntax" from the Middle Ages to the present day. (A famous example is the theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.) If we substitute "Verse" for "A," and "Bridge" for "B," we get Pollack's formula for the song: 
[
A-----][A------] [B-------A-----][B-------A------]
[Verse][Verse] [Bridge-Verse][Bridge-Verse] 
Pollack, playing the part of the sycophantic courtier, tries to convince us that this banality is the result of the unbelievably exquisite sensitivity of the sacred Beatles: "If you omit the repeat at the beginning you feel rushed into the bridge. If you double up at the end, the whole thing starts to drag." 

"The melody of the song is appoggiatura intensive" - Quite true, but so what? Even the dumbest of pop songs uses repetitiousness to hold it together, and to make it easy to follow. In this case, the thing that is repeated is the appoggiatura. There is no reason to think that this is a stroke of genius. 

"The verse and refrain have different harmonic shapes" and, on the next page under "Arrangement": "Perhaps the best example (and also one of the highlights of the entire song)..." - These simply name the chords that are employed. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about these chords. In the first quoted paragraph he points out chord vi; in the second quoted paragraph, the step from B to G. Since such steps of a third are the common coin of most rock-and-roll songs, I wonder why he even mentions them. They certainly are not indications of amazing originality. 

"Verse" - asymmetrical groups of phrases are typical of Mozart. There is nothing original here, nor are we told that this has some significance in terms of the text or the music. 

"Bridge" - The shift from four beats to three is called a hemiola. It was common in the fifteenth century, then went out of style, but later reappeared as a piquant characteristic of the styles of Brahms and Schumann. Again, nothing original, and no hint of any real reason for it. 

"Outro" - a stupid, ugly neologism for something simple that has had a perfectly good name for several centuries: coda, 

"The cadence sounds plagal" - This was a commonly used cadence in the eighteenth century. The most famous example is Haydn's St Anthony's Chorale on which Brahms based his Variations, Op. 56. This is not even worth mentioning, much less making into a deep mystery. 

So much for the the analytical-technical elements. However, over and above these details, there is a general question that cannot remain unanswered: why were such Pecksniffian essays written at all? Scholars whose field of research is painting do not write profound analyses of advertising layouts; literary critics do not devote all their efforts to detailed exegeses of comic books; theater critics do not publish dissertations on tele-novellas. Why, then, would musicologists employ their professional skills for the greater glory of a rock-and roll combo, no matter how successful it has been? 

First of all, I note that Pollack himself is not quite comfortable with his role. In Tillekens, under "Beatles' fans versus classical music academia" he is quoted as speaking about his "uneasy position." In his own Notes, he tries to be cute -- a sure sign of embarrassment -- with things like:
"Grove's Dictionary, quoted without permission"
"A couple of highlighted lyric fragments to show where these babys (sic) are"
"A-a-a-nyway, there's still more..." 

By a lucky coincidence, just a week or so before writing this review I saw a documentary on TV about market research at MTV. The man at MTV told the camera that the audience that MTV targets is the teenagers. He said, "We study the teenagers the way anthropologists study Africa." He admitted, however, that there is a difference: The anthropologist tries to describe the cultures that have evolved out of the societies of Africa, that express those societies; MTV tries to discover what the teenagers will buy, what can be imposed upon them as "teenage culture." 

The Beatles were, are, and always will be "teenage culture." The features of their songs that Pollack takes such pains to describe had nothing to do with their fantastic success. The fans that elevated them to world fame were teeny-boppers who screamed hysterically during the whole performance, and so could not have heard, nor could they have allowed anyone else to hear, the things that Pollack is sure are so clever and original. When these tame musicologists finally sit down to listen to the actual music without the screaming, they are overjoyed to discover that it is really not that bad. And so a new branch of academic study is born. 

Once at the pinnacle of fame, everything was possible for the Beatles, even legitimacy. Nothing succeeds like success. Just as the victorious Roman army was always accompanied by whores and slave traders, so the victorious progress of the Beatles over the face of the earth has been accompanied by all sorts of hangers-on and toadies, including tame musicologists who lecture on the genius of the Beatles. 

The relationship between these musicologists and the Beatles is symbiotic. The Beatles obtain legitimacy. Tillekens can print an impressive bibliography of studies by "real" scholars. Pollack also obtains legitimacy. He proves that he is not a snob, and he publishes "real" research that requires almost no effort. As long as the subject matter is something that is world-famous and that earns astronomical amounts of money, everything that everybody does about it is legitimate.