George Harrison’s ability to tweak with conventional rock standards did not end at chord structures. George, very rarely, stayed in one time signature for very long. Most rock is written in 4/4 time. That means that each measure has four beats and that the quarter note is getting the beats. George didn’t care one bit about most rock (and neither did Lennon, I must point out). The most noticeable stamp on Harrison’s music is a sudden shift in meter. Ever wonder why your foot taps funny when you listen to Here Comes the Sun? It’s because, in the course of a few measures, Harrison shifts from 4/4 to 3/8 to 5/8 to 2/4. It’s craziness unmatched anywhere else in rock music but it’s brilliant. Harrison takes whatever means necessary to get what he wants out of a melody. Many critics attribute his lose timing to the Indian influence in his music. Wherever it comes from, it’s there a lot.
More from Stairway to 11
Listen to the chorus of Beautiful Girl (…and when I saw the way that she looked at me…). That portion of the song is written in 7/8. When dealing with meters where the eighth note receives the beat (6/8, 12/8, 7/8) it is very rare to have an odd number of beats in a measure simply because there are two eight notes in a quarter note. George, like many classical composers before him but few rock composers, ignores that school of thought. Furthermore, he changes the grouping of those beats. 6/8 is generally grouped into two groups of three. 7/8 can be split into a group of four and three (4 + 3), vice versa (3 + 4), two twos and a three (2 + 2 + 3) or vice versa (3 + 2 + 2) or any other mixture of those groupings. It’s these groupings that you tap your foot to and the drummer drums to. Every time your foot taps is the start of a new grouping. Now, listen to the chorus of Beautiful Girl and tap your foot. You should notice two taps per measure but they are uneven, lopsided. You can’t, if you’re doing it right, tap this out in a regular steady beat because of the odd amount of beats in the measure. Next, you’ll probably notice that the lopsidedness shifts every measure. That’s because for the first measure (and when I saw the way that she smiled at me) he groups the seven into a 4 + 3 pattern but for the next measure (I knew it then and there that she was a one) he switches it to a 3 + 4 pattern and then back again. I can’t put into words how brilliant I think his time signature work is and, as I write this, I’m not positive I’m being very coherent to anyone but myself, but I’m trying.
Another aspect of his timing was that he placed most of his melody on the upbeats. The rule of thumb in rock writing is that your strong syllables go on the down beats but Harrison (and again, Lennon did this frequently) puts most of his melody on the upbeat. What purpose does this serve? Well, for one it provides you with something different to listen to and it causes tension. When you base most of your phrase on the upbeat, the listener will feel agitated until you resolve it on a down beat. Like chord progressions, phrases need to have a cadence point so that the listener can enjoy the music. This is a very classical approach, again, because many rock composers don’t experiment with tension and release all that much. If I Needed Someone is a very early look at George’s syncopated style. “You’re THE ONE THAT I’D BE THINK ING OF” all the words in total caps appear on the upbeat. In contrast, take Penny Lane where all the strong beats land right on the down beats, “penny LANE there IS a BARber SHOWing PHOTographs…” there’s nothing wrong with putting the emphasis there. Musically it’s the most natural way to write a song but natural doesn’t always equal exclusive or best and Harrison was a master of syncopation. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, If I Needed Someone, Here Comes the Sun, Give Me Love are all prime examples of his syncopated rhythms.
Genius in Song
When you couple the syncopation with rare time signatures, you have an incredible amount of tension. Then, you throw in those naughty chords and the tension is even greater. Keep in mind, tension in a musical stance, is not a bad thing. Tension can be beautiful and is more of a tool than anything else. Composers use tension to keep the listener interested. It puts you into the song and makes you want, however subconscious it may be, the song to go a certain way. Harrison’s use of rhythmic and harmonic tension is what keeps us hooked in every song. It is the reason we listen to it and find joy in it because he was a master at it. He was a master of directing us through each of his songs, taking our emotions and manipulating them with naughty chords and time changes but always taking us back home in the end. As long as this entry has been, I have only begun to scratch the surface of Harrison’s masterful songwriting. In future updates I will discuss what production aspects give him his distinct sound as well as analysis his most impressive compositions so that we can all explore, together, the inner workings of brilliant music.