Notes on "Free As A Bird" (FAAB)
KEY A Major
FORM Intro -> Verse -> Verse -> Bridge ->
Verse -> Verse -> Bridge ->
Verse (Guitar solo) -> Verse -> Outro
GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST
Style and Form
- I'm pausing in our otherwise order-driven studies to acknowledge and
celebrate the extraordinary events of this past week. Can you dig
it? -- new Beatles songs! In spite of all the hype, I wouldn't allow
myself to quite prepare for this eventuality until it actually came to
pass. Even then, it took me a few days and more than a few listenings
to relax and open myself up sufficiently to the point where, beyond
gentle and passive enjoyment, I was really *hooked*. Alright then,
so *you* got off on it right away; and maybe I'm just a jealous guy :-)
- At any rate, this deliberately slow and serious anthem cast in
neo-classically pop music terms and form is apparently not what some
people were expecting or hoping for. But heck, it's a Beatles song,
no question. Look at how it is replete with so many familiar
compositional trademarks of the group:
- The form is creatively derived from the classic two bridge model.
- The verse chord progression is creatively drive from the I-vi-IV-V cliche.
- The high-level tonal key scheme plays creative tricks with relative as
well as parallel Major/minor relations.
- The lyrics are paradoxically strong in terms of both enigmatic
ellipticality and broad/universal applicability.
- The lyrics of the bridge elide into the verse which follows them.
- And, of course, the outro is extended by surprise.
- "Creative derivation" is an important, operative phrase here. Adding
novel twists to familiar patterns or nouvelle-cuisine-like combining
of disparate stylistic ingredients were always a hallmark of the Beatles.
In the case of FAAB, I am particularly impressed by the way in which
they spike up the form, the chord progressions and the key schemes.
And here, as always, they throw in these mold-breaking variations
so effortlessly and casual like; more often than not, serving subtly
expressive, not merely clever, ends.
- The form is capcious:
- The intro is the length of a complete verse.
- The verse sections are thrice doubled up; something I don't think
you *ever* find before now in a Beatles song.
- It is also somewhat complex:
- The bridge is halved in its second appearance.
- The guitar solo appears so late in the proceedings that many other
songs would be starting to pack it in by that point.
- The harmony is unusual on the micro level:
- The replacement of the third chord in the I-vi-IV-V progression with
one of two chords (iv and flat-VI), both of which contain a dissonant,
minor-flavored cross-relation (f natural) with respect to the chord
that they are preceded by (f#).
And on the macro level as well:
- The song winds its way in, around, and amongst the keys of A Major,
C Major and a minor. (A and a are parallel Major/minor keys; and
a is the relative minor of C). While the Beatles often played
with this group of keys, in FAAB I'd swear they tell a story with
them that operates at a subliminal yet supportive level with respect
to the lyrics. I'll trace this below, though not without trepedation
that I'll be taken too literally or my metaphors be found too far
- The song divides into three major sections: the first four verses,
the two bridges which overlap them, and the guitar solo plus final
verse and outro. And these sections complement and contrast with
each other exquisitely in terms both music and words.
With its cyclical, downward chord progression, the early verses convey
a sad droopiness which conjurs for me such visual images as Dali's melting
clocks and musically enervated echoes of
"I'm Only Sleeping." By contrast,
the bridge features a upward-bound, potentially open-ended chord
progression that conveys optimism strongly guarded if not undermined
by serious uncertainty. The guitar solo and final verse, while
obviously a direct variation on the opening verses, demonstrate how
sadness is transfigured sometimes by deeper understanding.
Melody and Harmony
- The tune stays within a narrow range. Although the verse eventually
spreads out over a full octave, it is characterized in your mind by its
much repeated opening phrase which sits within a very small melodic space.
The manner in which the first note of the melody is sustained all the
way into the second measure before showing any sign of movement reminds
me very strongly of "I Should Have Known Better."
- In context of the A Major home key, that opening phrase (E-F-G-E) sounds
heavily inflected by the mode of the natural minor scale. When the
guitar solo gets its turn with the tune, the song has momentarily
modulated to the key of C Major, giving a very different feel to
the otherwise identical phrase. Brahms (not bombs) plays a very
similar trick in the second movement of his 4th symphony with the
exact same melodic phrase on E! (Check it out -- he plays the game
between the keys of E and C.)
- Harmonically, the song is characterized by a tricky variation upon
one of the most hackneyed chord progressions of rock and roll. You're
used to hearing a Major IV chord as the third one in the I-vi-IV-V series,
but here the Beatles consistently break the rule by placing one of the
following in its place: either the *minor iv* chord ([this is] d), or
a Major chord on the flat VI'th degree (F Major).
- The d and F chords provide an ongoing measure of pathos to the song,
and on a technical level, they set up the possibility for easy pivoting
over the key of C Major parallel minor. The G Major chord also serves
a pivotal role; being both the V chord of C Major and the flat-VII of
the A Major home key.
- Yes, the thick backing track of acoustic and electric guitars combined
with steady mezzo-forte drumming DOES sound a lot like the Travelling
Wilburys. But then again, didn't you used to say that the Travelling
Wilburys sounded a lot like the Beatles for the same reason? As much
as you might complain that Jeff Lynne placed too heavy a thumb on the
scale, I think there's also an element at work here of "what goes around
comes around." So stop complaining, would ya'!
- John's ethereal vocal is a great example of how to make a poetic
virtue out of a logistical necessity. No slight at all is intended
by my putting it this way.
- The tight harmonies of the other three pick right off where
left off, so nice to hear again. The stereo mix of their singing is
extremely wide and separate as if, unlike those '63/'64 concert
"This Boy," they no longer cared to huddle around
a single mike. The switching of George for Paul in the second bridge
is a nice example of avoiding foolish consistency.
- A small touch of the typical Beatles layering is found in the addition
of an arpeggio-playing guitar part in the middle pair of verses.
- The intro exposes the entire chord progression of the verse and sets
a measured pace for the outspread form that will develop. The steady
harmonic rhythm of two chords per measure so strongly reinforces the
deliberate pace that the final measure, with its 4->3 suspension over
a single chord, feels very long, indeed:
|A f# |F E |A f# |d E |
A: I vi flat VI V I vi iv V
|A f# |d G |C a |E |
I vi iv i V
C: ii G I vi 4 ---> 3
- The verse contains an extremely short-lived modulation to the key
of C which returns back to the home key at the beginning of the next
verse via the parallel minor key of a. Given the several iterations
of this section, I poetically react to the gesture toward C Major
as the momentary raising of hope or yearning that "things" might change,
only to have such hope dashed by the immediate reassertion of the
not just the home key, but first its infinitely sadder parallel minor.
And, as in a good detective novel, such early appearing and seemingly
inconsequential details bear watching for in the later going.
- Two loud drum shots call you to attention, as if you needed it; and
be honest -- you did. George's singing slide work deserves an honorable
mention and is applied sparingly; besides the intro, it is appears elsewhere
only in the solo section and during the outro.
First Four Verses
- The verse is eight measures in length and features two rougly
parallel phrases of equal length.
- In true Beatles style, the many repetitions of the verse feature
a pattern of some variation at the detailed level. The second
of each paired vocal verses features a ornamented flipping figure
at the beginning of the tune. The second appearance of this flip
(in the fourth verse) provides variation on top of variation -- John
sings the flip and one of the other Boys echoes him. The later
verses, starting with the guitar solo to the end, feature a significant
change to the chord progression; you'll see.
- The second bridge is setup by a variation in the chord progression
of the verse which precedes it; this allows the second bridge to be
entered more directly and naturally than via the deceptive cadence
used for the first bridge. That augmented chord on A-flat doesn't
get an Roman numeral, by the way; think of it as the a minor chord
sustained but with the bassline slipping in a chromatic passing note
on the way down to G.
|C a |A-flat G |
I vi Augmented
- The phrasing of the first bridge is very similar to that of the
verse, but the harmonic shape makes an enormous difference. In
spite of the chromatic trick with the minor chord, the verse section
remains tonally crystal clear. Tonality wise, the bridge is extremely
unsettled. The first bridge, especially, is entered by way of a
so-called deceptive cadence (i.e. the V of A resolving to its flat-VI
chord instead of I):
|F |f#-dim. |G |A |
flat-VI vii-of-flat-VII flat-VII I (?)
|F |f#-dim. |G |E |
flat-VI vii-of-flat-VII flat-VII V
8 --> 9 -> 8
4 --> 3
- This chord progression has the positive-feeling virtue of being on the
rise, but it really gives you *NO* clear feel of home key until perhaps
the V chord at the end sets up the obvious return to the home key, and
this lends a positively unsettled anxious feeling to it. My choice of
Roman numerals for the chords is somewhat arbitrary. It might be more
honest to describe the progression as the harmonization of a rising
chromatic baseline on its way toward some key not yet clearly determined.
- The best proof of how unclear your sense of home key is during this
bridge is the extent to which the A Major chord at the end of the first
phrase does not sound convincing at all as a I chord; indeed, that
A Major chord, sitting under the question left hanging, "can we really
live without each other?" is the most extreme moment in the song. Think
of it as the ironic paradox of you're being literally "at home" in one
sense yet not being able to feel that way at all! This sense of mounting
suspense and anxiety is heightened by the slower harmonic rhythm of
the bridge compared with the verse.
- The repetition of the bridge is half the length of the first one.
Musically, it is built out of the second phrase, though in terms of
lyrics, it splices together the first half of the first bridges first
phrase with the second half of its second phrase. Beyond just clever,
it importantly lowers the anxiety quotient of the second bridge by
eliminating the most trying of both the chord and lyrics.
- Yet another example of consistency-avoiding variation is the way that
George places just a tad more body English on his E9-making vocal flip
than Paul does the first time.
Guitar Solo and Final Verse
- The guitar solo fills a verse-like section, but its opening is cast
as a full fledged arrival in, and celebration of the key of C Major.
Musically and poetically, this provides a critically needed affirmation
that the earlier, incompletely sucessful yearnings in this direction CAN
indeed be fulfilled:
|C a |A-flat G |C a |f G |
C: I vi flat-VI V I vi iv V
|C a |f G |A
I vi iv V
A: flat-VII I
- Visually speaking as an avid hiker of New Hampshire's taller Whites,
I experience this moment of the song the same way I do that moment when,
after arduously trekking upward through thick forest for 3 or 4 hours
with only an infrequent tentative open view to the surroundings, I come
suddenly out of the scrub face to face with the 360-degree glory of the
summit's view. The eighth-note movement in the backing voices in this
section nicely enhances the feeling of ecstasy over-brimming.
If you'd like an more musically oriented analogy, compare this to the
way JS Bach in a fugue that is otherwise in a very deep minor key somewhere
late in the proceedings introduces the subject for the first time in a
- In light of this understanding, the shortening the second bridge is
more than a clever compositional hack. Rather it can be seen as motivated
by a desire to most properly set the stage for the wonderous climax which
follows it; i.e. the half-length bridge steps around what was in the
first bridge the strongest moment of doubt in both lyrics and music.
- This section is destined, alas, to return eventually to the home key
of A, but this time it's NOT via a minor; instead, it uses the G chord
to pivot directly from C Major to A Major as a flat-VII chord.
Technically, in order to make this work, the guitar solo verse is
shortened by two measures.
- The substitution of the flat-VII -> I in place of the erstwhile
pass toward C Major with return via a minor is continued in the
final verse and all ther way through to the outro. This variation
makes the end of these sections feel not just less sad but serenely,
even optimistically accepting of how things are after all because
things are seen differently now in light of the emotional ground
traversed over the course of the song.
- The first part of the outro is cast in a classically Beatlesque
once-twice-three-times reprise of the final phrase eventually coming
to a clean, complete ending:
- last 2 measures of final verse -
- and outro -
|A f# |d G |A |- |
I vi iv flat-VII I
- As the final A Major chord fades away, you hear as though for the first
time that an organ sits on one of the foundation layers of the backing,
and wonder if it's been there all along and you didn't notice it, or
if perhaps, that's only an illusion.
- The outro features a uniquely appropriate instant in the song where
John, George, and Paul perform in some kind of euphonious counterpoint.
Throughout the rest of the song they either appear singing or playing
solo, or singing in block harmony. Here, at the very end, John's
lead vocal is heard simultaneously with George's lead guitar licks
and an almost sotto-voce scat lick from Paul. Come Together, indeed.
- The second part of the outro with its rising sounds of indeterminate
pitch followed by the ukelele finish in D Major, and the backwards
message from John, all played over a fading out vamp over the A Major
chord is suggestive of many another "experimental" ending from earlier
Beatles songs, but this one is also quite tentative and not fully formed.
This reminds one, after all, that these kinds of endings were very much
John's provence, and the sketchy stage in which this one is left is
as though Paul, George and Ringo were willing to rough it out but still
left it for John to complete when he returns from "holiday".
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
- This same preoccupation with the keys of A Major, a minor, and
C Major turns out to be a conspicuous factor in (and you should
not be at all surprised by this) the Abbey Road Medley, and this bears
- Five of the eight tracks running from
"You Never Give Me Your Money"
are in one or more of the three keys mentioned above;
the three that are not (
"Mean Mr. Mustard," and
"Polythene Pam") are all
in the key of E Major -- i.e. the V of both flavors of A.
(They are also presented in a straight sequence and they're all obviously
songs by John, but that's a separate issue.)
- Furthermore, note the extent to which those 5 tracks with the three
keys, both internally and with respect to the overall sequence of songs:
"YNGYM": a minor -> C Major -> A Major
"SCITTBW": A Major -> C Major -> A Major -> C Major -> A Major
"GS": C Major
"CTW" C Major -> a minor -> C Major
"TE": A Major -> C Major
You can get a feeling of what I'm driving at by, instead of listening
to the actually medley, listen to just the sequence of the chords as
I've layed them out above; the medley stripped down to its stick-figure
- You'll note how the medley ends literally in a different place from
where it begins; it is worthy somehow or destined to end in the blazing
sunshine of C Major after having started out in the melancholy key of
a minor. After shuttling in around some of the same keys traversed
by the medley, FAAB ends up in exactly the same place it started, A
Major, though the way the music is fashioned, that same A Major feels
somehow different than it did at the beginning. Compared to the medley,
you might say FAAB is not as lucky in some respects, though I dare say
in most other respects it is infinitely more wise.
"You were only waiting for this moment to be ..." 112895#194
Copyright (c) 1995 by Alan W. Pollack
All Rights Reserved
This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and
otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains
intact and in place.