The Beatles, “Oh! Darling”

Once you’re familiar with the techniques described in the previous chapters, use them freely – not as rules, but as inspirations. Good music does not always follow rules, as we’ll see as we look at a few examples of complex pop songwriting. First up is the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.”

After its opening augmented chord (a V+ chord, as we discussed in Chapter 16), “Oh! Darling” announces itself as a basic doo-wop song.

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Pretty straightforward, right? The first two lines are a standard I/V/vi/IV chord progression in A major, and the next two lines feature the same chords along with a couple of ii chords.

When the progression repeats, though, strange things start to happen, just as the lyrics start to get a little creepy and Paul McCartney’s voice starts to strain.

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Quick – what’s that A7 chord doing there? It contains a G natural, which isn’t a part of the key of A major. The A7 is a secondary dominant — a V7/IV, or the V7 chord of the key of D major. We should expect to see a D chord at the start of the bridge, and lo and behold, we do.

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Although the Beatles introduce this section with a V7/IV, we never really feel like we’re in the key of D, so we’ll continue to consider this section to be in the key of A. In that case, the F7 chord is probably best viewed as a borrowed chord – that is, bVI from the key of a minor, except with an added Eb to give it a bit of extra spice. The seventh, and other sevenths throughout, also give the song a bluesy feel.

Not everyone sees that F7 as a borrowed chord. In an analysis from his series on the Beatles, Alan W. Pollack notes that these F7 chords could actually be described as German augmented sixth chords, in which an augmented sixth interval (F to D#, in this case — D# is enharmonically the same as the Eb from the F7 chord) resolves outward to an octave (with both notes on E). Typically, augmented sixth chords head toward V.

Augmented sixth chords were common in 19th-century classical music. They’re unusual in pop music, but might be worth checking out if you like your songs to include complex harmonic devices. I prefer to describe the F7 as a modified borrowed chord, rather than an augmented sixth chord, because the first F7 chord does not resolve to a V or second-inversion I chord the way an augmented sixth chord usually does.

Let’s return to the chords of the bridge. Here they are again.

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At the end of the second line, the Beatles play an A7 chord, preparing our ears for the possibility that the third line will return to D. Instead, the Beatles shift up a whole step to B7. This is a clever move. In the key of A, B7 is another secondary dominant – the V7/V. V is E major, so it’s no surprise when the fourth line of the bridge focuses on E (with a brief move up a half step to F7). After a harmonically adventurous bridge, the extended V chord resets the song for the second verse, and as if to make that clear, the Beatles end the bridge with the same V+ chord that began the song.

The second verse, the second bridge and the third verse all follow familiar patterns, and then the song ends with an A major chord, then a Bb7 and an A7, a callback to the E-F7-E half-step motion at the end of the bridge.

As Beatles songs go, “Oh! Darling” does not seem particularly subtle – it has a 1950s feel that was retro even at the time, its lyrics are blunt, and nothing about the structure or the harmony sounds all that original. And yet it features a number of complex harmonic devices, including secondary dominants and a borrowed chord. You can make a good pop song with just I, IV, V and vi, but trickier chords can enliven even a simple-sounding song.

Next chapter: 22. Beyonce, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”