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What I Like to Tell Myself About the Relationship Between the Lyrical and Harmonic Content of the Song “Things We Said Today” by The Beatles

04 Mar 2013

Listen to this:

Here’s what I think about when I hear the above song, “Things We Said Today,” by The Beatles:

The singer of this song is speaking directly to a specific person — a woman with whom he is romantically involved. Taking that dialogue into account, I divide the song up into three separate, but interconnected, conversational spaces.

Conversational Space #1:

This is the verse — the part that opens the song. The harmony moves back and forth between an A-minor chord and an E-minor-7 chord. This is the section of the song that talks about the woman — her actual thoughts, feelings, fears, and proclamations as well as the speaker’s interpretation of her perceived intentions and feelings regarding what it takes for someone like him to be in a relationship with someone like her. She is, at the time of this story, sort of sad, thinking about how in love they are and what a bummer it’ll be if they ever can’t be together. The speaker explains the woman’s side of the dialogue with these sorts of statements:

1. “You say you will love me…”
2. “You’ll be thinking of me…”
3. “You say you’ll be mine, girl…”

Conversational Space #3 (Don’t freak — this analysis is, like, non-linear)

This is technically the middle-eight, but seeing as it happens twice in this song, I like to think of it more as a recurring bridge-lette. It’s the “Me, I’m just the lucky kind…” section. The reason it should melt our faces off is that it takes us out of A-minor and plops us directly into A-major, the parallel major key. The chords that we’re dealing with in this space are, in order:

A-major – D7 – B7 – E7 – A-major – D7 – B7 – Bâ™­7

No, you’re not dreaming. Let’s talk about it. This is the section where the singer speaks about himself and his own thoughts. It’s the same discussion as Conversational Space #1, but instead of the woman’s sad, what-if-it-turns-into-a-bummer, A-minor side of the discussion, here we’re getting the speaker’s I’m-so-lucky-either-way, love-cures-everything, we’re-going-to-be-fine, A-major side of the argument. He’s effortlessly sunny and shows it musically.

Here’s why pop music doesn’t get more optimistic-y than this chord progression:

1. It’s basically a I – IV – V progression, which, of course, is the rock-solid foundation upon which our system of music is architected.

2. Not only is there an authentic cadence (V – I) leading to the second half of the bridge-lette, but the dominant chord is, itself, prepared by the V of V (B7), making the return to the tonic that much more satisfying.

It’s just completely solid. If you’re writing a song and you want to give the impression that you’re standing on utterly firm ideological ground — and it’s, like, the early-to-mid sixties — this is what you do.

The one anomalous, unsettling part of the bridge-lette is the way it returns us to Conversational Space #1. We’re shoved back into A-minor by way of a Bâ™­7 chord. Granted, a similar thing happens, as we’ll see, in Conversational Space #2, but here it’s a little more suspish. Taking the two phrase-ending chords of this section together (E7 and Bâ™­7), we see that they’re separated by a diminshed-fifth. That’s a pretty effed interval to have lurking around a song about reassurance and love conquering all. Think about it like this: Why on earth would we ride a Bâ™­7 chord back to A-minor when built into this very chord progression is a perfectly viable and, up to this point, machine-tested E7 (the V7 in the key of A-minor (and A-major, obvs)). I mean, in any other song the V7 would spectacularly and iconically lead us back to the home key. I have two explanations for this — one kind of half-assed and one cool and fun, but utterly contrived and almost certainly unlikely:

Half-assed explanation: Toward the end of his triumphant exclamation of relationship-tional positivity, the speaker has a moment of doubt and no longer feels comfortable stridently arguing that everything will be okay in the end. Swapping the E7 for a Bâ™­7 is just unsettling enough to take us out of the moment and force us to wonder what’s going on.

I feel like this is a lame explanation because the Bâ™­7 is too weird of a chord in this context. If a moment of pause or uncertainty is what the speaker was trying to get across, he would’ve used something more Beatles-y and tension-making like the iv chord (here, a D-minor (two-thirds of which is, admittedly, fifty-percent of a Bâ™­7)) — or maybe he would’ve just paused most of the music on the downbeat and isolated the vocal “This Boy” style.

Cool and fun explanation:

The cool and fun explanation requires that you also listen to this:

Okay, here we go. In the overall narrative of the Beatles, like, extended-universe or whatever you’d call it, the only other place we see a change like this (â™­II – I or â™­II – i or â™­II7 – i or whatever) is in the song “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”. It’s the “do” from the bridge-lette going into the guitar solo/next verse (two middle-eights again).

This part: “The way you treat her, what else can I do? If you don’t take her……”

Let’s not get into it too much, but “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” released one year after “Things We Said Today,” lyrically, consists of a male speaker (Speaker, we’ll call him), like, lightly threatening another guy (Guy, say). Speaker is telling Guy that in Speaker’s opinion, Guy isn’t treating Guy’s female love interest well or appropriately and that, should this behavior continue, Speaker would have no problem whatsoever stealing Guy’s love interest. Speaker, it’s understood, believes that he knows how to treat “that girl” in a way that would make her fall for him or whatever people in the 60s said.

Hold that in your brain and let’s go back to “Things We Said Today” and the weirdly placed Bâ™­7 chord. I like to think that this chord in the context of “Things We Said Today” symbolizes an imperfection in the sunniness of the singer’s positivity. Like, he has this questionable dark side — a sort of below-the-surface psychosis that’s forcing its way through his optimistic exterior with this creepy chord. So, follow me here: If that’s the case, and it turns out that this chord-change identifies the singer’s seedy underbelly, then the person singing “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” might’ve also recognized it and could actually be singing “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” TO THE PERSON WHO IS SINGING “THINGS WE SAID TODAY”. To use last-paragraph’s language: Guy, from “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” could be the singer of “Things We Said Today.”

To make it crystal clear(er): The person singing YGLTG, by way of the song YGLTG, is lightly threatening the person singing TWST who, in turn, IS the person from YGLTG who is mistreating his female companion. The reason that this is plausible is that the chord change from the “The way you treat her, what else can I do? If you don’t take her out tonight…” part of YGLTG (1) is, in structure, the same change as the one in TWST and (2) doesn’t exist anywhere else in any other Beatles song. The singer of YGLTG, when writing YGLTG, could’ve included the change as a personal message to the singer of TWST to make it clear that he knows what the guy is up to. It’s like the Beatles-version of leaving a horse-head in your bed. Also, and needless to say, from this vantage point, the female love interest in both songs is the same person.

Whoa. So, let’s all just take a deep breath and un-blow our minds for a second.

Okay, prepare for re-blowing.

Conversational Space #2:

Conversational space #2, by my lights, is the future-space of the song. This is where the speaker demonstrates to the female actor in the dialogue that, one way or another, everything’ll be okay. The part starts off with a C-major chord (the relative major of Conversational Space #1’s A-minor chord). Swapping out the A-minor for a C-major is the speaker’s way of putting a positive spin on the doom and gloom of Conversational Space #1. Of particular note here is that the second chord in this section’s progression is the only chord in the song to contain a 9th. Here’s the progression:

C-major – C9 – F-major – Bâ™­-major

The first two chords of this section are deeply interesting to me because one of them (C9) is simply a more complicated orchestration of the other (C-major). That, in itself, is perhaps not so interesting. Taking the last paragraph into account, however, the C9 is a reorchestration of a chord (C-major) that, itself, is already a reorchestration of a different chord (A-minor).

I think of it like this: The first time around, we enter Conversational Space #2 with the lyrics “Someday, when I’m lonely…” indicating that we’re firmly in the future. EVERY other time, however, we enter with the lyrics “Someday when we’re dreaming…” The reason that’s significant is because it’s, essentially, a line talking about dreaming ABOUT DREAMING. Like, the speaker in the song is dreaming about what will happen in the future and in that future, he and the woman are, themselves, dreaming. That line — specifically the word “dreaming” — activates the C9 chord and really brings the reorchestration of the reorchestration (A-minor → C → C9) alive. In short, the singer is using a reorchestration of a reorchestration to indicate dreaming about dreaming. The C9, itself, is almost like a sub-conversational-space-lette (either #4 or #2a — you pick it) secretly located in Conversational Space #2; it represents the future OF THE FUTURE.

As stated previously, Conversational Space #2 returns back to Conversational Space #1 with the flick of a Bâ™­-major chord. Here, however, we see it functioning pretty seamlessly, sans-seventh, and in a way which we’ll refer to [in the absence of a larger conversation regarding the pandiatonicism of The Beatles] as “the key of F-major or something like it.” We still have that weird â™­II – i change (Bâ™­ – A-minor), but here, it comes across as confident and courageous. If this was the only context in which we met this particular singer’s Bâ™­-major chord, we’d think, “He seems like a pretty cool dude. Maybe we should see if he wants to get dinner or join us for some kind of a hang.” After taking a stroll through his Conversational Space #3 Bâ™­-major chord, though? No way. We’d be like, “Diminished-fifth down from the last cadential chord, brah? We’re all good.”

It would be roughly like meeting a guy who seems cool and learning that he’s going to a Strawberry Shortcake convention with his niece. You’d be like, “Seems like a nice guy; he’s tight with his niece.” Strawberry Shortcake in this scenario is Conversational Space #2’s Bâ™­-major chord. Say, though, that a few weeks down the line, you’ve seen him a few more times and he invites you over to his apartment to chill. You walk through his front door and immediately observe that he has different Strawberry Shortcake characters dressed up as representative members of his real-life family and he talks to them all like they’re real people. In this equation, Strawberry Shortcake is the Bâ™­7 from Conversational Space #3 and you’re like, “I just remembered I have an appointment.”

So, those are the sorts of things I think about when I hear “Things We Said Today”. That said, there are certainly things that I think about when I think about HOW I think about the things that I think about when I hear “Things We Said Today.”

Things like:

1. Maybe I’d stop being so creeped out by the speaker if I cut down on supernatural thrillers and [what Netflix calls] “Emotional Made-for-TV Dramas from the 1980s”.

2. Given my particular Beatle allegiances, it’s a little too convenient that in my analysis John Lennon swoops in and saves the day in some sort of hyper-artful/meta way.

And a slew of other, less interesting and more esoteric items.


Recommended reading:

1. The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles by Dominic Pedler

2. Words and chords – The Semantic Shifts of the Beatles Chords

3. The Beatles – Complete Scores

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