The phenomenological aspect of sound and vision

Lunar Eclipse by Keith Burns - courtesy NASA

Lunar Eclipse by Keith Burns – courtesy NASA

In the interim from my last entry, a great deal has happened – the submission of of my honours research (which you can now read here), graduation from the B.Mus. at UWS, a university medal and now the commencement of a PhD, which is something I’d never dreamed of undertaking a few years ago. Really though, this all seems to be a continuation of a very long journey I’ve been pursuing, unconsciously sometimes, over many years. Trying to tie down this ‘in-between’ quality in music has actually led me back to where it all started in the first place, the nexus point where music and the visual seem to coalesce in this suspended state that I’m so fascinated with.

Although the main interest has always been with music and sound, I have a similar relationship to visual phenomena that appears to share the same ‘in-between’ quality, which I’ve documented in previous posts. Arnold Van Gennup, who first posited the idea of a liminal state in Rites de Passage (1908), noted that “the universe itself is governed by a periodicity which has repercussions on human life with stages of transition” (Van Gennep, 1960, p. 3). Although Van Gennup’s observations were based on human behaviour in rites of passage, it is the idea of liminality as a “nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured” state (Thomassen, 2006, p. 322) that I believe has application for both music and imagery. Victor Turner expanded on Van Gennup’s ideas in the 1960s “to include both a personal and collective liminality, temporal as well as spatial” (Thomassen, p. 322) and in this respect Turner’s definition of liminality relates to both time and space. Van Gennup acknowledged that ritual often accompanied “celestial changes, such as the changeover from month to month (ceremonies of the full moon), from season to season (festivals related to solstices and equinoxes), and from year to year (New Years Day)” (Van Gennup, 1960, p.4) and it’s often in these transitional periods that I observe liminal occurences at play, i.e. the transition periods between day and night, namely twilight and dawn, when the quality of light and colour are changed so markedly from the pure tones of daylight. I seem to derive this sense of ‘in-between’ particularly in these periods, and use this quality in creating both my sense of a ‘liminal aesthetic’ in my work and attempting to bring about a ‘liminal state’ in the creative approach.

Phenomenological approaches to sound and vision

In my honours year research, I investigated what I believed to be liminality in popular music, especially music that sidestepped conventional notions of time. Looking at elements such as drone, repetition, metrical ambiguity and different forms of harmony all informed the practical component of the research. The examples I used were from my background in popular music, in particular 1960s pop and psychedelia, the ambient work of Brian Eno in the 1970s and the ‘shoegaze’ movement in the late 1980s, although I recognised precursors in the music of Debussy, Stravinsky and Copland, and in the minimalist work of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass. I also acknowledged traditional musics such as the Indian classical music tradition (which was a direct influence on psychedelia and several of the minimalist composers), Georgian and Bulgarian vocal music and Scottish and Irish traditional music, all of which use drone and metrical interplay.

What many of these had in common, to my ears, was an interest in what Eric Tamm refers to as “verticality” in music, in this case referring to the music of Brian Eno (Tamm, 1995, p. 4). I read this as a focus on phenomenological aspects of sound in music, rather than a linear, narrative-driven unfolding of events still very prevalent in western music, especially popular music. I also observed that literature concerned with this kind of music often uses terminology with visual connotations, for example, Sheila Whitely’s description of the ‘codes’ evident in psychedelia (my italics):

the manipulation of timbre (blurred, bright, overlapping), upward movement (and its comparison with psychedelic flight), harmonies (lurching, oscillating), rhythms (regular, irregular), relationships (foreground, background) and collages which provide a point of comparison with more conventionalised, i.e., normal treatment (Whitely, 1992, p. 4).

The use of visual art terminology to describe music is nothing new, but it’s a reminder that in both music and visual arts there is a phenomenological aspect to how we see and hear music and art, and I believe the approach to be useful in the analysis of the visual and auditory aspects of my project, as it applies readily to both. Phenomenology, a philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl and expanded upon by Heidegger in the first half of the 20th century, is explained rather nicely by Wayne Bowman:

As a philosophical approach to music, the phenomenological method typically resists efforts to explain what music is ‘about’, resembles, symbolises, or is useful for, preferring instead to describe as richly as possible what music itself says, how music is experienced… its concern is not so much to establish absolute or universal truths, but to help recover the richness and fullness of the experientially given. (Bowman, 1998, p. 255)

Although Bowman is referring here to the musical experience, phenomenology I find is readily transferable to the visual, and is a very useful approach in creative practice.  F. Joseph Smith states that “phenomenological philosophy is an attempt at openness and true listening. Openness in this case means not just open eyes and sight but open ears and hearing” (Smith, 1979, p. 17).  Don Ihde also observes the use of visual metaphor in describing the musical experience and notes that “the intimate relation between animation, motion and sound lies at the threshold of the inner secret of auditory experience, the timefulness of sound” (Ihde, 1976, p. 82). Mikel Dufrenne explains that both temporal and spatial factors are present in all artforms, in that time and space “become correlative and even continuous, so that the space of every aesthetic object is temporalized and its time spatialized” (Dufrenne, p. 241). Clearly, a phenomenological-based approach has some advantages in tackling an area that has both auditory and visual dimensions and deals specifically with time and our apprehension of it. Bennett Reimer also observes the idea of a “lived or virtual time” opposed to “real or clock time” in the music listening experience, and this idea of the suspension of time is fundamental to my perception of the liminal experience, both in the work and creative practice.

Evidently there’s much interest in the subject of liminality, judging from the amount of hits I receive through academia.com – there may be something in this after all. More on other theoretical approaches as I work through theories on perception – watch this space.

References

Bowman, W. D. (1998). Philosophical perspectives on music. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press.

Dufrenne, M. (1973). The phenomenology of aesthetic experience. Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (1979). Technics and Praxis. Dordrecht. Reidel.

Reimer, B., & Wright, J. E. (1992). On the nature of musical experience.

Smith, F. J. (1979). The Experiencing of Musical Sound: prelude to a phenomenology of music (Vol. 1). Routledge.

Thomassen, B. (2006). Liminality. In The encyclopedia of social theory. Ed. Harrington, A. Routledge, Taylor and Francis: Abingdon, UK.

Turner, V. W. (1967). The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual (Vol. 101). Cornell University Press.

Thomassen, B. (2006). Liminality. In The encyclopedia of social theory. Ed. Harrington, A. Routledge, Taylor and Francis: Abingdon, UK.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

The Sound of In-Between

IMG_1285aAs you could probably surmise by lack of posts of late, it’s been busy; the UWS honours submission date has been looming and it’s been all go, go go. Thankfully, I’m almost across the finish line, and the investigation into liminality in music is all but complete, for now anyway. It’s been an interesting journey, and one that continues, as music tends to do – I’m fortunate to have a chosen a pursuit that never ceases to surprise me, there’s always something new about music to discover, and this project has been no exception.

If you haven’t been following my posts so far, I’d invite you to go back a few and see where I’ve been coming from – and for those who have and are curious to hear the results of all this liminal investigation, I’ve posted the final mix on Soundcloud. If you like music that’s a little ambient, uses space, repetition, drone and alternate forms of harmony, this may be right up your alley.

Once I’ve submitted, I’ll post a summary of what I’ve discovered – better let the examiners have a look first. But for now, enjoy some explorations of liminality – happy listening.

The harmonic series in the music of the Beatles

The Beatles during the 'Revolver' sessions, 1966

The Beatles during the ‘Revolver’ sessions, 1966

This is a paper I wrote last year, which as it turns out now has relevance for my honours year project. Although some of the points I raised I would probably regard now as a little (ahem) adventurous, it still has some interesting observations now that I’m examining ‘spectral’ or timbral quality in music as a form of inspiration, as it relates back to the harmonic series. At the time, I was seriously convinced that the music of the Beatles had unconsciously absorbed aspects of the series in both their compositions and sound, and though I doubt now this was entirely the case, I still see relevance in their exposure to Indian classical music traditions via George Harrison interest and his tutelage via Ravi Shankar, as of course Indian music is largely based upon the harmonic series. If nothing else, it’s an interesting read… I hope you enjoy. (Please excuse the lack of footnotes, I’ve yet to discover how WordPress does this: there is a detailed bibliography at the end).

Title
Tell Me That You’ve Heard Every Sound There Is – 
 The Harmonic Series in the Music of the Beatles

Abstract
The Beatles as both a musical and cultural phenomena of the late 20th century has been well documented, and their music of late has been examined thoroughly in music journals and academia. However, despite the detailed analysis of their music, a more fundamental principle comes to mind in regard to their overriding sonic qualities: could the appeal of the quartet’s music be attributed towards a harmonic richness, unconsciously based upon the overtones of the harmonic series? This research project aims to explore this claim by way of examining both the harmonic and melodic detail of a number of key songs from their repertoire, consider the Beatles evolving use of instrumentation over their career in regard to timbre and tonality, and also investigate studio techniques, especially in regard to harmonic exploration. I expect these findings will help to shed light upon the allure of the Beatles music, not only in terms of songcraft, but in regard to providing us with a recognisable ‘sonic template’ which has implications for both music production and the creation of popular music in years to come.

Literature review
The initial ‘spark’ for this investigation came from an essay by Emeritus Professor of Music, Sir Peter Platt, in which he examines the music of Debussy in relation to the harmonic series, noting that in conversation with his harmony teacher Guiraud, Debussy felt his harmonic sensibilities lay somewhere ‘beyond a frontier’. Platt clearly believes that Debussy’s ‘quiet revolution’ can be explained through a ‘template’ of the harmonic series ‘governing our innate and general sense of pitch relations’. He also recognises that using harmonics as a template allowed Debussy to ‘break down the typically western V-I (Dominant-Tonic) mind-set’, and submerge it within:

a procedure based on a more general confluence of melody and harmony—a confluence that potentially anyone accustomed to listening to harmonised music could understand precisely because it is strongly related to the harmonic series to which the human ear/brain mechanism seems specially responsive.

This notion resonated with my own thoughts on the harmonic series as a ‘template’ for much of the worlds music; I was also reassured to note that Platt recognised the concept has often received ‘mixed press’, as my own investigations had initially met with a need for rigorous scientific validation via an examination of Pythagorean theory, ‘just’ intonation and various anomalies between the well-tempered system and the harmonic series. Although relevant, I feel my research is primarily musical in nature (in the same manner as Platt’s essay) and do not feel anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of the physical attributes of the phenomena is warranted in this instance, and only in regard to aspects of melody, harmony and timbre.

Although Platt highlights Debussy’s writing including Prelude a l’ Apres-midi d’un faune as relating to the harmonic series up to and including the 12th partial, I am inclined to look at the series as it relates to the Beatles more as a gradual unfolding awareness to the possibilities of harmonic extension. This appears to be most apparent around the time of the albums Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966), and perhaps unsurprisingly, around the time of George Harrisons exposure to classical Indian music and the influence of Ravi Shankar. This is seen by K.G. Johansson in his essay The Harmonic Language of the Beatles as an ‘exploding (of) functional harmony’ and Ger Tillikens in his essay A flood of flat-sevenths, who notes the use of flattened seventh chords (bVII) in the Beatles music from this period as an indication of an extended harmonic language. Although seen as early as 1963 in compositions such as ‘P.S. I Love You’ and appearing more adventurously in the opening to ‘Hard Days Night’ (1964), the chord is particularly in evidence around the time of Revolver (1966) in no less than half of the albums songs, notably in material by Harrison and Lennon. The presence of the flat seventh is usually an indicator of modal harmony, and Tillikens notes the prevalence of what he refers to as ‘Neapolitan’ chords (bIII, bVI and bVII chords), indicating that this may be a hangover from blues inflections, but also emphasizes the microtonal differences in the 7th scale degree delivery depend on the underlying chord (whether relating to the tonic, sub-dominant or dominant), highlighting the ambiguity of the 7th and its respective differences in the harmonic series and even-tempered scales.

In The Beatles as Musicians, Walter Everett notes George Harrison’s increasing use of added sixth and added ninth chords, drawing attention again to the ‘Hard Days Night’ opening chord (bVIIadd9) as an indication of an emerging harmonic awareness, but also points to the ringing tones of his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, “four of its courses tuned in brilliant octaves”, as a instrumental extension of this – he also observes that

the vibrant Fender Stratocaster (guitar) introduced in early 1965 became a staple of the Beatles sound two years thence and can also be seen as a precursor to the exceedingly brilliant waveforms of the sitar that Harrison introduced in Rubber Soul and used as his main instrument in 1966-68.

The Beatles awareness of Indian classical music via Harrison, although in a manner that to Indian musicians would be considered simplistic, was nonetheless important to their expanding harmonic awareness. Again, according to Tillikens;

In combination with the tonic, the flat-seventh proves to be a good chord to imitate an Indian sound, at least to Western ears, as both variants of this chord offer some of the same microtonal distances that are familiar to the idiom of Indian music.

In Revolver’s closing track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the single C chord accompanied by a mixolydian melody, appears to confirm an embracing of the harmonic series, by reducing the harmonic material to its most basic, but within a spectrally dense arrangement employing crashing cymbals and drums, droning tanpuras, a pulsating bass, organ, distorted backwards guitar, tape loops, sweeping scalic arpeggios and above everything, Lennon’s heavily distorted vocal. The overall effect is hypnotic, trance-like; as Ian MacDonald indicates in Revolution in The Head, the sonic and timbral considerations of this recording were as important as the song itself, with Starr’s mesmeric drumbeat “performed mainly on a pair of slack-tuned tom-toms – damped, compressed, and recorded with massive echo – it created the image of a cosmic tabla played by a Vedic deity riding in a stormcloud”. MacDonald’s assessment captures how far the group had come both in terms of songcraft and production in the three short years since the release of ‘Please Please Me’, with allusions to Indian ragas and scales, sophisticated harmonic language and experimentation with new technologies, instrumentation and timbre.

Andy Babuik’s exhaustively detailed Beatles Gear offers insights into the Beatles choice of instruments and, not unimportantly, amplification, for the sound of an electric guitar is the sum of both the instrument and the amplifier it is run through. Apart from Harrison and Lennon’s choice of Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, notable for their ringing tone, the British AC30 Vox amplifiers, later with added ‘top boost’, complemented the Beatles sound, adding further high-order harmonics to the already bright soundscape. Once overdriven (further gain added at the amplifiers input stage) these amplifiers distort in a warm, harmonically-saturated tone, more evident in later tracks such as ‘Paperback Writer’ (1966), adding further harmonic complexity to the Beatles sound palette. Already well versed by this stage in techniques designed to extend the guitars timbre (for example, the use of buzzing guitar feedback, droning on the 1st harmonic on the A string in the opening to ‘I Feel Fine’ in 1964), the Beatles with the aid of producer George Martin and recording engineer Ken Townsend, developed another recording technique to further enrich their sound – ADT (artificial double tracking) was employed at first on voice and later instruments, but had a remarkable sonic effect, according to Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions;

In photography, the placement of a negative directly over another does not alter the image. The two become one. But move one slightly and the image widens. ADT does this with tape. One voice laid perfectly on top of another produces one image. But move the second voice by just a few milliseconds and two separate images emerge.

The technique effectively describes what later became known as ‘flanging’ or phase-shifting, an auditory effect resulting in combining of two identical signals, with one modulated by a variable oscillator – at its simplest, a simple doubling of the existing signal, at its extreme, an audible sweep of the frequency range in the sum difference of the two signals, clearly evident on songs such as ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘Blue Jay Way’. Another similar ‘phasing’ effect was derived from running a microphone through a Leslie speaker cabinet, containing ‘a rotating horn’ with which ‘the speed of the rotation could controlled by the player’ according to Babuik – though designed to be used in conjunction with a Hammond organ, the Beatles would put vocals and guitars through the cabinet to provide the sweeping, atmospheric effect. All of these recording techniques added to the spectral content of their recordings and no doubt helped to extend their harmonic language further than ever before.

K.J. Johansson’s essay The Harmonic Language of the Beatles analyses, among other aspects, the frequency of use of certain chords employed by the Beatles in their songwriting: like Tillikens, he observes the regular occurrence of not only the bVII chord, but also the non-diatonic major II chord. After I, IV, V and the diatonic minors of ii and vi, these are the most frequently used chords in the Beatles catalogue, and if we relate this to the harmonic series, the bVII chord introduces the 7th harmonic (b7 scale degree) and with the II chord, the 11th harmonic (#11 scale degree). He also notes that the bVII and II chords are convenient chord substitutes according to their close proximity within the circle of fifths (the II being the dominant of the V chord, the bVII being the subdominant of the IV chord) and that the idiomatic nature of the guitar and its tuning lends itself to the open major chords of C, G, D, A and E, and the minor chords of Am, Em and Dm, again, located in relatively close proximity in the circle of fifths. Wilfred Mellers in Twilight of The Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect, also writes that

the wide-eyed, open-eared effects created in Beatles songs by mediant relationships and side-stepping modulations are the empirical product of the movement of melody, modally conceived, and of the behaviour of the hands on guitar string or keyboard.

This aspect of the Beatles music should perhaps not be forgotten: for all its apparent sophistication, the instrumentation of Beatles (and many rock bands) is at its core a simple confluence of vibrating string instruments and drums, derived from early folk instruments, yet amplified and distorted, which only increases their harmonic content. Mellers also writes “the amplification, in more recent pop, tends to intensify the primitivism, because electronics may create a nightmarish inflation of the pitch distortions expressively endemic to folk music”, and given the Beatles choice of instrumentation, in a simplistic sense we could link the harmonic series purely to the physical nature of their instruments.

Stephen Valdez, in his essay Revolver as a Pivotal Artwork, also notes that the Beatles unique style of vocal harmonization is directly attributable to

the chords played on their accompanying instruments. Because they principally used guitars to accompany themselves, the resulting harmonies the Beatles sing are often based on the tunings of those instruments – fourths, fifths and thirds.

Certainly, given the dominance of electric guitars in their early recordings, augmented with an occasional piano or harmonica, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the underlying harmonies for many of the Beatles songs would display rich tone colours, resulting from the overlapping and mixing of diatonic guitar chords, extending into the territory of added 6ths, 9ths  and suspended 4ths. But we must also remember that despite this thorough examination of instrument idiomatics, modes and harmonic and melodic interplay, an examination of the Beatles sound environment is almost of equal importance in this enquiry to any analysis of their music. From 1966 onward, the studio and the production techniques of producer George Martin and engineers such as Geoff Emerick and Ken Townshend at Abbey Road, were a crucial aspect of the creation of the Beatles recordings, and their recordings would have suffered under the auspices of lesser individuals. As self trained musicians, the Beatles instinctively wrote and arranged from a sonic palette, not a theoretical one, and were largely trusting their ears, hearts and minds in their creative practice. I would surmise there is a danger in approaching this analysis only from a theoretical point of view, because although it may go some way to explaining why a particular chord change works, it ignores the spectral and acoustic content of the recordings in which the song is placed, which in this examination of harmonic series content in the Beatles output, is our primary point of reference.

To see the harmonic series at work within the musical output of the Beatles, it may be timely at this point to remind oneself of its basic properties (Fig. 1)

The Harmonic Series (in C)

The Harmonic Series (in C)

If we look at the series in purely musical terms, in line with Platt’s methodology of a harmonic ‘template’ governing many of Debussy’s compositions, we can easily see how pitch relationships within the series will lend themselves to a variety of chord colours, notably:

  1. Perfect fifths (2nd and 3rd, 4th and 6th, 8th and 12th partials) and fourths (3rd and 4th, 6th and 8th, 9th and 12)
  2. Major triad (4th, 5th, 6th partials)
  3. Minor triad (6th, 7th, 9th partials)
  4. Diminished triad (5th, 6th, 7th partials)
  5. Augmented triad (7th, 9th, 11th partials)
  6. Dominant 7th chord (4th, 5th, 6th, 7th partials)
  7. Dominant 9th chord (4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th partials)
  8. Added 6th chord (8th, 10th, 12th, 13th partials)
  9. Added 9th chord (4th, 5th, 6th, 9th partials)
  10. Suspended 4th chord (6th, 8th, 9th partials)

All of these chords feature particularly to the harmonic palette of the Beatles, though some that Platt has included in his analysis of Debussy I have chosen to omit, namely the Wagnerian ‘Tristan’ chord, or minor triad with an added 6th (6th, 7th, 9th, 10th partials) and a fair portion of the whole tone scale (7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th), as this more sophisticated use of tone colour rarely appears on a Beatles recording, though can’t be entirely discounted (as Walter Everett notes in his whole tone scale analysis of I Am The Walrus). One would also expect, given the progression of notes within the series up to the 7th partial, that there would be some evidence of modal harmony, in particular the mixolydian mode, given the flattened 7th scale degree, and we will see this emerge in the examples to come. It should also be noted that the sharp 11th, or tritone (11th partial), departs most radically from the even-tempered scale, up to -49 cents or nearly a quarter tone, so it also perhaps displays some interchangeability with the perfect 4th. Also note that beyond the 12th partial, in line with logarithmic nature of the series, the tones begin to cluster so tightly together as to become almost audibly indiscriminate, and for all practical purposes of this essay, I have restricted my analysis to the more obvious partials indicated in Figure 1.

Early examples
Although I observe harmonic series content emerging more prominently from the albums Rubber Soul and Revolver onwards, we can see its beginnings in the Beatles very first single, ‘Love Me Do’ (1962). Despite an outwardly simple appearance, the song displays several harmonic tricks that contribute both to its appeal and gives us signposts toward what was to follow. It launches directly into a country swing feel, with acoustic guitars, bass and drums, but it is the searing harmonica motif that takes us to the first glimpse of the series, by jumping straight to F natural, the flattened 7th degree of G major and 7th partial of the series, falling via E and D and arriving on the root of G. This is the ‘hook’ that initially pulls us in, and an indicator that although the tune is largely diatonic, it plays with our expectations from the outset, introducing a dissonance that exposes the songs blues roots and lays bare the first seven partials of the harmonic series. From here, the chords stay within a standard I-IV oscillation, until our second ‘hook’ arrives on the expected V chord, the ‘plea-e-e-ease…’ vocal harmony of Lennon and McCartney, with the lower line of Lennon’s pulling away from the sustained high tonic G of McCartney’s that holds our audible interest. This neat vocal trick, no doubt learnt from the Everly Brothers in songs like ‘Cathy’s Clown’ (“minus the refinement” notes Tim Riley in Tell Me Why) and which recurs in later songs such as ‘Please Please Me’, and ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’, introduces the idea of a constant tone with a harmony line moving against it, not unlike the drone note that sits underneath Indian classical music or Scottish bagpipe melodies, and the early signs of an inclination towards modal harmony and a gentle nod toward the harmonic series.

The drone
The idea of a constant tone running through a series of chords to provide harmonic colour (Lennon remarked that he would sometimes “grab a note and ram it home”) is a device favored both by Lennon and Harrison and appears early in ‘A Hard Days Night’ (1964). The ambiguous, opening F9/D (or G7sus4/D – this much discussed chord open to interpretation, see Dominic Pedler’s chapter in The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles) nails its modal colours to the mast from the outset, with the following two turnarounds of the verse positioning the song in G mixolydian (we will examine mode more closely in the following section). Notice the D droning throughout however (G-Cadd9-G-F6-G) emphasized in Lennon’s melody, eventually jumping from the D to the F (b7), on ‘wor-kin’,…’ to drop to B natural in ‘dog’. This early appearance of a drone, or pedal point, would emerge later as an underlying D in the guitar introduction (D-E7-G-D) of ‘Eight Days a Week’ (1964) and as a held G over the G-Dsus4-F9-G-C-F9 verse sequence of ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ (1965). However, the drone reaches it’s apex on their next two albums – in the underlying E of the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood’, the insistent A ringing through ‘If I Needed Someone’, the driving guitar and organ motif throughout the bridge of ‘The Word’ on Rubber Soul (1965), and in many of the songs on Revolver (1966), notably ‘Taxman’ (guitar solo and vocal harmonies), ‘Love You To’ (vocal harmonies and Indian instrumentation), ‘She Said She Said’ (the feedback ‘A’ appearing throughout), ‘Dr Robert’ (the organ pedal tone running throughout the bridge), ‘I Want To Tell You’ (the ostinato A through the guitar motif and ‘Indian-style’ vocal harmonies) and most overtly on the closing track, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, with its pedal point of tamboura and bass seemingly fixed to C for nearly three minutes. Although the only song on the album with a drone that runs for its entirety, as the first track recorded, its presence is felt throughout, and as Alan Pollack notes, “the sequencing of the entire album works toward this song”. Everett also notes a cyclic nature to proceedings, as “the circular wheels in the poetry of the track… are perfectly suggested by cyclic tape loops, backwards tapes and unending drones”, ultimately reflected in the albums title. It would surface later in Harrison’s Indian-laced songs such as ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘The Inner Light’ (1967/68), but also emerges as a harmonic linking device in everything from ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘It’s All Too Much’ (1968) to ‘The End’ (1969), invariably within a modal context.

Mode and bVII, v and II chords
Another indication of the harmonic series is the increasing emergence of bVII chords, as noted previously by Tillikens. A non-diatonic chord in a major key, the scale degrees align with the 7th and 9th partials (and possibly the 11th partial, see above) and the mixolydian mode, often serving as substitute V or a dominant preparation. Although not an outright indicator of harmonic series content, its tonality suggests its presence, and unsurprisingly, it appears more frequently on the aforementioned middle-period albums. We have already shown the flat seven chord making its presence in ‘A Hard Days Night’, but as Pedler points out, it was “a very specific device at the heart of the revolution”, emerging as an alternate dark flavor in early songs such as ‘All My Loving’ (as the dominant preparation for “I’ll always be true…”: ii-bVII-V7) and as a dramatic undertone in ‘P.S. I Love You’ (‘You, you you’: bVI-bVII-I). However, by Revolver the bVII had become virtually synonymous with Beatles sound, appearing on no less than eight of the albums songs (those noted previously) with addition of two McCartney songs, ‘For No One’ and ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’.  McCartney’s use of a bVII is different in that he uses the chord more as additional colour in transition, preferring to move onward in line with his melodic tendencies, whereas Lennon will happily stay in one mode for the duration, as in ‘She Said She Said’, where the cycle of I-bVII-IV throughout the verse/refrain is only interrupted by a shift, harmonically and metrically, to the dominant minor (v) in the bridge (‘when I was a boy…’), again emphasising the flat 7 scale degree. Despite the economy of chords, the spectrally dense arrangement, with its crashing cymbals, heavily compressed drums and ringing guitars, reinforces the series on several levels at once. The dominant minor would feature again soon in a more sophisticated context as the opening phrase in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (‘Let me take you down, cause I’m going to…’: I-v).

Johansson also notes the frequency of the II chord in the Beatles oeuvre, placed just after the bVII in popularity, and this non-diatonic (but harmonic series related) chord with its b5 (or #11) becomes noticeable on tracks such as the aforementioned ‘Eight Days A Week’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ sometimes as a dominant preparation, but more often moving to the IV chord. This Beatles ‘trademark’ appears on Rubber Soul in ‘You Won’t See Me’ and on Revolver in ‘Dr. Robert’ and ‘I Want To Tell You’.  Although not as blatant an indicator as the bVII chord, the II chord nonetheless draws our ear to an alternate tone colour lying within the upper realms of the series, lending a ‘bright’ colour to an otherwise diatonic sequence.

Guitar sounds and studio technology
To place Rubber Soul and Revolver in historical context, there were exotic flavors apparent in other releases in the UK around this time. The Kinks ‘See My Friends’ and the Yardbirds ‘Heart Full Of Soul’ (both 1965) featured quasi-Indian flavored guitar riffs, and following George Harrison’s use of the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood’, there was a rapid uptake of what would soon be termed ‘raga-rock’, notably by the Rolling Stones and the Byrds. What should also be recognised however, is that the evolving timbre of electric guitar sounds leading up to this point. Advances in the development of guitar amplification, guitar technique (use of feedback, distortion), types of guitar (12-string electric) effects (such as ‘fuzz’ boxes and echo units) and studio technology (the use of compression, limiting, ADT) all affected the guitars timbre. Compression enables the sustaining of notes on an electric guitar, as does amplifier distortion (lending to drone qualities), and effects such as ADT and phase shifting widen the spectral image, particularly in stereo, and introduce high order harmonics. Following the Beatles use of guitar feedback on ‘I Feel Fine’ (1964), the tonal quality of guitars begins to feature more prominently in their recordings, and by the time of Revolver, guitar timbre is more carefully considered in the overall soundscape, partly thanks to the studio techniques of the newly appointed Geoff Emerick as chief sound engineer at Abbey Road studios. Apart from ADT, manipulation of the magnetic tape onto which recordings were made was becoming more commonplace: the single ‘Rain’ (1966) recorded during the Revolver sessions, features a backwards vocal (lifted from the first verse, adding to the cyclic quality of proceedings) and also displays manipulation of tape speed. Apart from the obvious slowing or speeding up of tempo, this also has the effect of changing the timbre of instruments; as noted by Everett on the former:

Lennon’s distorted Gretsch Nashville guitar… recorded much faster than heard, introducing a subtle but rich tone of queasy hesitation that could be likened to the nausea of an acid trip, in the center (of the stereo image): the composers lead vocal, recorded about a major second lower than heard, resulting in the brilliant iridescence of an acid-streaked sunshine, is heard on the left.

The Beatles introduction of additional instrumentation added to their sonic palette: beginning with the use of string quartet on ‘Yesterday’ (1965), the increasing use of additional instrument colour such as strings for ‘Eleanor Rigby’, brass on ‘Got To Get You Into My Life‘, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘For No One’, a range of Indian instruments on ‘Love You To’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the Hammond organ, coupled with the Leslie speaker (also used for guitars and vocals) on ‘Dr Robert’ and ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, and the complex sound collages emerging in ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, all contribute to a broadening of the Beatles soundscape. Although perhaps not a direct indicator of harmonic series content, it does however show us, in a more vertical sense, the ever widening awareness of the sonic space they could potentially inhabit as recording artists and not just as performing musicians, as the studio increasingly became the more important aspect of their music creation, reaching an apex in the orchestral climaxes of  ‘A Day In The Life’ (1967) the following year.

Conclusion
Without going into a great deal of further detail, this essay can only hope to serve as the briefest of overviews to harmonic series content in what is after all, a considerable body of work. However, from this initial investigation, I would conclude that additional research will uncover further insights into the attraction of the harmonic series in not only the music of the Beatles, but other popular recording artists of the time and have implications for analysing spectral content in popular music in general.

Bibliography

Babuik, Andy. Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four’s instruments, from Stage to Studio. 2nd ed. San Francisco, USA: Backbeat Books, 2002.

Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Johansson, K. J. The Harmonic Language of the Beatles. 1999. http://www.musikforskning.se/stmonline/vol_2/KGJO/Johansson.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013).

Lewisohn, Mark. The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. London, UK: Hamlyn, 1988.

Mellers, Wilfrid. Twilight of the Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect. London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1976.

MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties. London, UK: Pimlico, 1995.

Pedler, Dominic. The Songwriting Secrets of The Beatles. London, UK: Music Sales, 2003.

Platt, Peter. “Debussy and the Harmonic Series”. In Essays in honor of David Everett Tunley. Frank Calloway ed. Callaway International Resource Centre for Music Education, School of Music, University of Western Australia, 1995.

Pollack, Alan W. “Notes on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ “. Notes on … Series no. 194, 1995. The ‘Official’ rec.music.beatles Home Page (http://www.recmusicbeatles.com). (accessed May 23, 2013).

Riley, Tim. Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary. London, UK: Bodley Head, 1988.

Sheff, David. The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon and Yoko Ono. London, UK: St Martins Press,1981.

Tillekens, Ger. “A flood of flat-sevenths: Or, what are all those flat-sevenths doing in the Beatles’ Revolver?” In Every sound there is: the Beatles’ Revolver and the transformation of rock and roll, ed Reising, Russell. Aldershot, London, UK: Ashgate, 2002.

Valdez, Stephen. “Revolver as a pivotal art work: structure, harmony, and vocal harmonization.” In Every sound there is: the Beatles’ Revolver and the transformation of rock and roll, ed Reising, Russell. Aldershot, London, UK: Ashgate, 2002.

Performance day

Set up in the Playhouse

Set up in the Playhouse

Wow, what a buzz! Despite some last minute preparations and a rush to the finish line, the Music by Degrees group as a whole brought everything together beautifully – a very smooth operation from beginning to end, and some truly inspired performances. All groups went well beyond what was required of them to bring about a final production that was eminently worthy – we can all be quite proud of what we have achieved.

Last minute preparations

Last minute preparations

To our credit, our soundscape group pulled off the performance magnificently – the weeks of preparation for this performance certainly paid off. Alex and Ben did some sublime work with their audio samples up front of stage, Blaise held down some tasty grooves and licks, and Tom and myself had some great interplay between parts, synchronising beautifully for the key change into A minor and then back to C#. It was very, very good, I couldn’t fault the performance at all – the acoustics of the Performance Space at UWS probably had a great deal to do with the openness and subtlety of the performance.

Blaise getting ready

Blaise getting ready

The entire show was recorded for the UWS broadcast unit TVS, and will be used in promotion of the Bachelor of Music for the university, so I’m keen to see how everything panned out – being backstage for almost all of the production, I hardly saw any of it, but it certainly sounded great!

This will be my last post for this category, but I look forward to posting more news on my university studies, and sound and video experiments in the future… stay tuned.

The Music by Degrees team

The Music by Degrees team

Recording the soundscape

A quick entry, only because I have so much work to complete this week: as well as the final preparations for this project, to be performed on Thursday(!), I also need to submit a ‘Statement of Intent’ for honours next year, which is proving more difficult than I thought – try to distil your entire reason for playing music for the last thirty years and how you intend to incorporate this into an intense final year of study in 1000 words, and you’ll see what I mean!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe group as a whole decided we would need for our final portfolio presentation a recording, as a document of our process this far. I booked the small studio at UWS for Thursday, and though several of us arrived early, we were beset by technical issues for most of the morning; by the time we were actually ready to record, it was about 11.30am and as there was another group following us, we had to get the soundscape right first take. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFortunately, I believe we largely pulled it off – apart from the occasional suspect gesture (keeping in mind this is a soundscape, so there are no ‘bum’ notes as such) it hung together fairly well. Again, I believe we’ve pulled better versions in rehearsal, but we’ve had to make do with what we have. I mixed the recording the following night, taking care to  clean up the studio sound (there was much spill through the piano and percussion microphones) and I think the soundscape came up fairly well – although there’s an elements of hit and miss, there are certainly sublime sections which I find are not dissimilar to some of Eno‘s early ambient work and some references to Pink Floyd, no doubt from the slide techniques I’ve been using. You can listen to it here:

 

The guys in the band  - from L-R, Blaise Parnell, myself, Tom Hodson, Ben Turner, Alex Salazar.

The guys in the band – from L-R, Blaise Parnell, myself, Tom Hodson, Ben Turner, Alex Salazar.

It’s been an interesting ride, but I’m exhausted: I’m also designing the program for Music by Degrees, which has taken up much of today to put together and design. It looks great, but I need to get on with other assignments, and especially need to finish this Statement of Intent which is due in on Tuesday. At least we now have an interesting document of this entire experience, rambling and chaotic though it’s been at times, and I’m quietly proud of our little group – not a bad bunch of fellas either. 😉

Getting very interesting…

Finally, after a few false starts, our weekly together yesterday resulted in what I believe we’ve all been striving for – some moments of sublime interaction, where all the disparate elements finally coming together in something we could feasibly call an actual ‘piece’.

Alex and Ben, our tech gurus

Alex and Ben, our tech gurus

Although still loose in a structural sense, our soundscape aesthetic is beginning to take shape and our respective roles have become more defined: Alex and Ben have taken on the mantle of being the ‘tech’ manipulators, with Ben’s role managing more of the sounds from the UWS environment, manipulated through Ableton, while Alex has taken on more of the musical elements, also employing Ableton but using samples taken from last weeks run through, looping the main piano motif that Tom devised, along with some evocative piano chords based on the C# dorian mode we seem to be working from, plus an assortment of cymbal crescendos, splashes and other audio manipulations.

Tom getting into bowing everything within reach!

Tom getting into bowing everything within reach!

Tom meanwhile has really come into his own; released in the environment of the percussion room at UWS and freed from the role of ‘pianist’, he has come to using a violin bow on cymbals and vibraphone to great effect, as well as augmenting this with tom rolls and accents, and occasional piano flourishes. Blaise has chosen to stay with his acoustic guitar, using an open tuning in C# and playing repetitive motifs and using the body of the instrument for percussive effects. Meanwhile I, instead of confining myself to percussion duties, have started to use an electric guitar, using techniques I initially employed in Expanded Practice: volume swells, bowed techniques using a bottleneck slide, using excessive analogue delay to create atmosphere and sweepable echo feedback loops.

It's basic, but does the trick - Boss blues driver through an Ibanez analog delay

It’s basic, but does the trick – Boss blues driver through an Ibanez analog delay

The overall effect is inspired and on occasion sublime – after plugging in, we freely improvised for about 20mins on the spot and achieved a gorgeous layering of sound, incorporating natural sounds from the university environment and manipulating them by way of pitch, repetition, reverberation and other effects. Tom’s piano motif was particularly effective as an element that would surface here and there as an identifier – we also discussed the idea of each of us having a signature ‘sound’ for each performer that was ours alone. We also discussed visuals for the project, and although the idea of using a projection screen with video footage was floated, we’ve decided instead that using an audio visualiser that reacts to our soundscape would be almost as effective – to that end I have purchased a visualiser called White Cap, that can run from a laptop and be projected onto a back screen.

If this is an indication of what we can achieve by pure improvisation, I’m quietly confident of the success of this subgroup. We still have 3 weeks until we present our part of the project, and at our present performing level we could easily present now. A very productive session indeed.

Ideas emerging…

Blaise and Alex in the control room

Blaise, Alex and Tom in the control room

Our second official meeting today, with the added intent of actually figuring out some music instead of just talking about it. Alex, Blaise, Tom and myself (Ben was ill) booked a studio and put our heads together to see what we could come up with musically. Based initially on some experiments that Ben had put together from audio samples I had provided, Alex set up a ProTools session that would loop this content so we could jam along in time and also record the proceedings. I chose to take on a percussion role, as Tom (piano) and Blaise (acoustic guitar) already had the melodic and harmonic side of things covered, and Tom had some musical ideas he wanted to try out.

Alex in the control room

Alex in the control room

The headphone send from the studio didn’t appear to be working unfortunately, so we abandoned the idea of playing along with a loop and purely improvised; as this was our first official session of playing together, it was more to get a feel for each others musical sensibilities. Tom had an interesting idea of superimposing a 6/4 motif in his left hand against a 5/4 in his right hand, which sounded great when it worked, though it took a while to settle in – Blaise attempted some hammer on techniques on guitar, while I attempted some syncopations and atmospherics on congas and cymbal. Sometimes this worked well, sometimes it almost fell apart, but as this is still early days I feel we’re only tentatively begin to feel each other out musically, so will withold any judgements for the moment!

The studio set up

The studio set up

Although not a total waste of effort, as there were good ideas that emerged in the recording, we probably spent unnecessary time setting up microphones and recording the proceedings – at this early stage, I feel we should concentrate more on idea generation in a musical sense and not so much on audio fidelity. I suggested upon hearing the playback of the session, that we each come up with a short musical phrase that we could extrapolate upon in the next session. I again reiterated that if this group is to be truly representative of the ‘soundscape’ aspect of the unit, we need to not only use parts of the university soundscape to manipulate, but we need to show the progression from that soundscape into the manipulated sounds, whether they be musical or otherwise – I believe this is key and fundamental to the project.

Tom putting an idea to Alex

Tom putting an idea to Alex

Tom has some musical ideas that I believe are quite valid, using repetitive motifs reminiscent of Terry Riley and Mike Oldfield, in C# dorian (relating back to the E major drone of the previous subgroup), which gives a nice, floating quality. I will attempt to come up with something similar this week in a related key and hopefully will be able to slot it into what we’re doing. Four weeks until presentation and counting…

A rough demo recording of todays session:

More developments

After having a weekly meeting for our tutorial group on Thursday, it appears the ‘music degree as production’ idea wasn’t a bad one after all; this project has some quite real potential, as in one fell swoop, it serves as a great promotional device for the music degree (and the university) and of course, it has a ready-made audience in future students for the course.

Bruce Crossman, our lecturer, is already excited by the potential of the project, and has recommended to talk to our technical staff and to Rachel Bentley at TVS (the university television station) about marketing potential for the project. I do believe this thing may have legs on it….

The soundscape emerges

Had another meeting, today with my ‘subgroup’ (one of the smaller groups within the main Music Project group) and caught up with Blaise Parnell and Alex Salazar, who along with Ben Turner and hopefully Thomas Hodson (another member, Jeffrey Tchung, has been strangely absent) will constitute Subgroup 6, officially in charge of the ‘soundscape’ aspect of the project. By way of explanation: as per the previous blog, the overall concept is that of showing the progression through our degree, by each subgroup performing an aspect of it. Blaise, Alex, Ben, Thomas and myself will be incorporating aspects of the Sound Synthesis and the Sound Environment unit, which employed as one of its projects, a sound collage, very much in the style of Pierre Schaeffer and musique concréte. Each member has something quite different to the mix: Alex is very much into electronica, Blaise is a talented guitarist, Ben is a bass player, Thomas apparently plays keys and I, amongst the various instruments I play, also have a background in sound engineering. I’m quietly optimistic about this project, it has a great deal of promise already!

First thoughts on the big project

An interesting couple of days – our group as a whole (well, 13 of us anyway) met yesterday to discuss initial plans for the production of our major project for the final year performance unit entitled, aptly, ‘Music Project’. In a nutshell, this will be an hour long presentation, to be performed in November to our peers and notable others. We are one of three groups of roughly 30 students, who need to divide into further subgroups of roughly 5-6 students each. The production needs to have theme of some description, and needs to come together as a cohesive whole, with our blogs reflecting not our individual contributions, but those of our subgroups and of the entire group and production overall… phew!

Fortunately, things seem to be moving along quickly: following yesterdays meeting, a theme has emerged, that of somehow portraying the Bachelor of Music degree itself as the production, reflecting aspects of what we’ve learnt in the degree through vignettes performed by each subgroup within the production. This has a interesting aspect to it, as in a way we already have a potential audience in future students who may be thinking about studying the degree, as the production will showcase aspects of what we’ve already studied, and will give future students an insight into the degree in an entertaining fashion (hopefully).

Ideas are fermenting, and discussion is underway… it’s getting interesting. 😉