7

I have seen many different song sheets for the Beatles Song Norwegian Wood using time signatures of 3/4, 6/8 and 12/8. My question is, why are they all different, why is there no consensus? What I hear in the original are 2 different time signatures (and 2 different modes): the verses with a kind of 3/4 feel and the chorus 12/8. Shouldn't the time signatures convey to the way you interpret the song?

Original lead sheet original lead sheet 3/4 Piano arrangement some piano arrangement 6/8 Piano arrangement another piano arrangement

5
  • 1
    By any chance, can you get screenshots of all of them at the point the "I once had a girl" lyrics are sung?
    – Dekkadeci
    May 19 at 15:28
  • 1
    @Dekkadeci, take a look at my answer, I gave a few snippets of key passages. May 19 at 20:42
  • I thought 12/8 already had the 'swing' feel to it, why is there the rhythm direction written at the top? (1st example).
    – Tim
    May 20 at 10:35
  • I've seen this phenomenon on other Beatles songs as well - turns out they weren't all that consistent themselves when writing it down - if they wrote it down at all. It was only for their own benefit at the time anyhow - they knew what they wanted it to sound like, the notation was less important. It's not just the Beatles either - many pop artists never bother with writing things down - sometimes not even the lyrics. May 20 at 13:57
  • @Tim the swing is on the semiquavers. That's perhaps the most compelling reason for writing it in 3/4 instead: then the swing is on the more typical quavers, IOW it approximates 9/8, which is a lot more palpeable than 18/16. Though TBH I wouldn't even call it swung in this way – even though many of the weak semiquavers may be delayed a bit, it's nowhere near the indicated tripled rhythm. May 20 at 22:07

6 Answers 6

11

The first image is from The Beatles, Complete Scores. The book provides transcriptions of the songs as originally recorded. They aren't original lead sheets, nor are they arrangements like the second and third images. IMO the high quality attention to detail of the transcriptions lends weight to their "authority" as regards notation.

Here are a few additional snippets of the transcription, include the vocal part from both verses and the bridge...

To see the meter...

score excerpt - intro

To see the initial vocal part... score excerpt - vocal entry

To see the bridge... score excerpt - bridge

To some degree you can say that the various meter choices - 3/4, 6/8, and 12/8 - are all equal. But, I think if you give consideration to the harmonic rhythm, the pace at which chords change, 12/8 does seem to better reflect the rhythm of the song.

Overall the harmonic rhythm is slow with some passages going four bars with no chord change. When the harmonic rhythm quickens in the bridge - rehearsal mark B - the chord changes last mostly four beats. There is a strong association with the bar line and harmonic changes. So, the bridge does suggest 12/8 time. There is an actual, structural cadence at the end of B with F#m7 B7 | E, and the yet fast pace there of two chords per bar is fairly common for cadences. So, again that seems to fit typical notions of harmonic rhythm, meter, and the placement of notated bar lines.

One could argue endlessly for one or another meter. There is no absolute way to settle the matter other that to look at a composers original notation. The Beatles didn't actually write musical notation so that won't settle the matter. But, I think the harmonic rhythm does strongly support the choice to notate it in 12/8.

15

Lazy’s answer sums it up well but I would like to add that the reason there is no consensus on the notation for this song is that the song was created by a composer with no knowledge of music notation and no thought of how it would appear on sheet music. It was transcribed and notated after the fact, first by the publishers then by anyone else who wanted to make a chart of the song. This is where Lazy’s answer comes in. Any song with a 3 pulse can be interpreted in a number of ways. If the composer does not create their own written notation with their interpretation of what it should be (3/4, 6/8, etc.) then whoever writes out the song after the fact will interpret it in one of those ways and write it that way. All the versions will sound alike to a certain degree with the exception of the way strong beats are stressed in different time signatures.

I personally would go with 6/8 because the strong beats line up best with the lyrics: I once had a girl or should I say she once had me… Regarding your observations, there is only one time signature throughout, not two. There are two tonalities like you say, E Mixolydian for verses and E Dorian for the choruses which I identify as Dorian because of the A chord since there is no major or minor 6th melody note in that part of the song.

9

Well, they are pretty much the same thing, just differently grouped. Note that the 3/4 is taking a different base unit, so here 1/4 is what would be 1/8 in the other cases. So clearly our base is a 3-divided unit. 6/8 combines two such 3-divided units, 12/8 combines 4 such units. 3/4 is one such unit. So basically you get

1 2 3 . 1 2 3 . 1 2 3 . 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 . 1 2 3 . 1 2 3 . 1 2 3 | ...

and

1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | ...

and

1 2 3 . 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 . 1 2 3 | ...

You need to keep in mind that we are dealing with very conventional music, i. e. symmetric phrases. We can always interpret a four bar phrase of single units as a single bar of four units and the other way round. Thus you get different ways to bar the whole thing.

2
  • 5
    Also keep in mind the target audience for the sheet music. For example, a Beginner book would be unlikely to print something in 12/8.
    – Duston
    May 19 at 16:40
  • @Duston True. It also depends on the transcriber. I’m sure 12/8 is something even many musicians do not encounter that often.
    – Lazy
    May 19 at 18:33
6

Having had a hard listen to Norwegian Wood, I can't put it into anything but 6/8.

Reasons being - the bass plays on 1 for each bar, as does the guitar. There's a distinct 'it could be a two feel, but the quicker three feel is still there'.

Were it 3/4, the second bar each time has little definition not really making it a separate bar.

Were it 12/8, the second '6/8' bar would be less defined - it's not.

The 3/4 version (in an easy-to-play key) would be a simplified version for beginners. The 12/8 version, not sure. Although it's in the recorded (and probably 'written' guitar friendly key), it doesn't need to be a more complex 12/8, when 6/8 scans well.

While writing it, it's quite possible that John and Paul didn't even consider what the time signature was - it was just the way this song developed - and didn't really matter, until some poor soul had to commit it to print.

The 6/8 piano arrangement is just that - an arrangement - and as such, could be written in any way preferred by the arranger - he could have arranged it in 5/4 if he so desired ! But, for me at least, he kept the time signature to what I believe is most appropriate for the Beatles' recorded version of this song. I rest my case!

1

Ballroom dance music characteristically has a fixed beat. Popular music is re-recorded to provide a cover version with a fixed beat for ballroom dancing. Except for special purposes like that, there is no reason for performance music to have the same beat from one note to the next -- and even the notion of 'note' comes from specific instruments -- the vocal part is never sung exactly to the instrumental notes.

The time signature that is selected for a particular transcription is part of a communication between the publisher and the reader. As much as anything else, it depends on who the intended reader is.

3/4 time signature is common because it's an easy time signature that beginner musicians are familiar with.

2
  • So are you saying this is in 3/4 - because it's easy?
    – Tim
    May 22 at 16:12
  • @Tim I was going to say "don't know how 'easy' that version of NW is. Only that many people are more comfortable with with 3/4 than with 6/8". But look at it -- even from the bars shown, it's obviously an 'easy playing' beginners version.
    – david
    May 23 at 0:50
1

All good discussion. The three-pattern of the song fits in to all those time signatures. But what does it feel like? Does it feel like a waltz? Does it feel like a triplet march?

I prefer the 12/8, because it feels like two-bar phrases from the chord and melody movement, and can live with 6/8.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.