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The introduction to this song by The Beatles starts off in the key of Eb minor. I'm trying to figure out how to analyze these chords.

The first chord would be i, the D major chord I'm unsure about, the Db is VII in the key of Eb minor, and then Bbm is v. Then the i chord returns, the D major pivot chord into the key of D major, and then ii V etc.

The first D major chord is the one I am unsure about. The intro clearly sounds to be in Eb minor, so I don't know how the D can be analyzed. I'd appreciate reading any thoughts on this chord and where it might be coming from. Thanks in advance.

6 Answers 6

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Don't be fooled into thinking the first chord in a song is tells the key the song's in. This song is in Db - probably better called C#. They actually played it in D, although it comes out as C#.

Given that it is in C#, the first chord is D#m. Second is correct at D - D7 sounds better. That's known as a tritone substitution, which is instead of G#7. Taking the two notes from G#7 - the 3rd and 7th - B# and F#, which together make a tritone (the interval of 3 tones). They are swapped round to produce the tritone of F# and C also found in the chord of D7.

EDIT: Yes, the intro is in a key a semitone lower than the rest of the song. Why, I can't figure out. So, concert pitch wise, the intro is in C, while the rest is in C#. Video shows them playing 'in D'.

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  • I know the first chord isn't always the key of the song. Based on the context of the other chords, that intro definitely feels like Eb minor is the key. Also, I have perfect pitch, and I can confirm that the song (outside the intro) is in D major and the chords are right. Some recordings I've heard of the song sound slightly flat, but it's definitely D major. Thanks for the info though, and yeah the tritone substitution thing makes sense. Apr 20, 2019 at 1:49
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    Listening carefully - I haven't played this for 50 yrs - the intro is in one key, which modulates into another after the intro, so analysis is tricky. That 1st chord doesn't define the key for me, it's a ii. It's 4 in the morning here, I'm going to sleep on it, and have a re-think when I'm properly awake. Although it'll probably keep me awake thinking about it!
    – Tim
    Apr 20, 2019 at 1:55
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Alan W. Pollack has an excellent article on this song here:

http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/AWP/iif.shtml

He analyzes the intro in detail. I agree with his take on it personally. The first 6 bars are in Db and the D chord in the 6th bar is the pivot chord that serves as both the bII in Db and the I in D. in a nutshell:

in Db: ii bII I vi ii [bII (becomes I in D)] ii V

I do not agree with the tritone substitution explanation mentioned above. First, it is a D triad, not a D7 and saying D7 "sounds better" is opinion, not analysis. Tritone substitution is legitimate for dominant 7th chords but it doesn't apply here. It is simply a descending chromatic major triad passing chord that magically turns into the tonic in the new key in the 6th bar.

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  • +1. I agree that tts can't occur without both chords being dominant 7ths. It was 4 in the morning. And that could be good for a song...
    – Tim
    Jul 21, 2021 at 12:27
  • @Tim Thanks, it’s interesting this song should come up again because less than a week ago I was working with a student who is a huge Beatles fan and he wanted to work on this song. He started playing it on an E minor chord, completely unaware that it started on Eb minor with that sneaky modulation! Jul 21, 2021 at 12:33
  • @Tim …and you’re right, 4am can be good for a song! Jul 21, 2021 at 12:34
  • In my (teenage) band at the time, we started on Em, and stayed in D - somehow. Funny, in the Complete Beatles book, the intro has been omitted.
    – Tim
    Jul 21, 2021 at 12:55
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The melody to the first 4 chords strongly outlines Db major, so I'm inclined to analyze

ii - bII - I - vi.

Here bII, the Neapolitan, is not functioning as a predominant, as is typical in classical music, but as a chromatic passing chord from ii to I. The underlying chord progression, ii-I, is a variant of the plagal cadence and is common in Beatles-era rock.

The next bit of the verse sounds as if it's going to repeat the same chords, but just when the tonic (Db) is about to appear, the harmony suddenly shifts to diatonic chords in D major, the key of the remainder of the song. So the second D major chord is a pivot chord, as the OP suggested.

Note that at the end of the song, when the words "if I fell in love with you" recur, the harmony is Gm-D, iv-I, a strong plagal cadence that's only one note different from the opening bII-I (after adjusting for the change of key).

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My lead sheet copy of this song shows D flat major for the 8 bar into, and D major for the rest of the song.

In terms of analysis identifying keys for the chords does not necessary fit exactly where the key signatures are given. This is an important part of understanding modulations, notation, and analysis. Musical sections are often no it simply on key. It's common to have ambiguous transitional material in sections, the sections that get labeled like "A" and "B" or "verse" and "chorus".

In the song intro bar 7 & 8, with | Em7 | A7 | are transitional. The chords are "in the key" of D major, but the key hasn't yet been confirmed until the D of bar 9. Putting Roman numeral analysis under the chord symbols...

INTRO
Key signature: D♭, 5 flats

| E♭m | D | D♭  | B♭m7 |
D♭:ii  ♭II  I     vi
  
| E♭m | D | Em7 | A7   ||
  ii   ♭II D:ii   V7

VERSE
Key signature: D, two sharps

| D Em | F♯m...
D:I ii   iii

...you can see the "intro" is a combination of harmony clearly in D flat major and an ending that transitions to D major.

If you expect the intro, as a eight bar section, should be analyzed in simply one key, it will be perplexing.

But the way the notation is handled is different from the analysis. The end of the intro and the beginning of the verse is were the key signature change is made in notation. That is the point where the key is confirmed by arriving at the tonic chord of D major.

Defining musical sections at the point of confirming a key, but preceding that point with transitional harmonic material, is fundamental to the structuring of music, whether a Beatles pop song or a classical sonata.

Getting back to the choice of key for the intro, you could question why it should be in D flat major. AFter all, there is no dominant chord A♭ for that key. Indeed, there isn't a tonic/dominant pair anywhere in the intro.

Rhythmically , the word "help" in the line "and help me", stresses beat one, the other phrases don't stress beat one, and that gives it some weight as a "goal", therefore the place for a tonic.

Also, in absence of a tonic/dominant pair the D♭ and B♭m7 make a tonic and relative minor pair that sort of serve the same purpose.

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My take is that the intro clearly is in Db major with the melody notes (other than the passing D and E chromatic) all in the Db major scale. I agree the key change occurs in bar seven when the Em leads to the dominant A7 setting us firmly into the D-major key, clearly the home key of the song. This is definitely one of the most innovative tunes and harmonic "journeys" of Beatles material in any period of their composing. A great display of their innate talent and gift for composition.

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I’m going to disagree with everyone here. As far as I am concerned, the intro (everything before the Em on “just”, at which point we’ve changed to the key of D) is actually in the key of F# (or F# Lydian, depending on whether you interpret the C natural in the melody, on the first syllable of “understand ”, as diatonic or chromatic). When I say “everything”, there is of course the qualification that the D chord is a chromatic chord (a fleeting excursion outside the key). But that is equally true if you analyse it in either of the other two ways seen above.

And yes, I know what you are thinking. An F# chord is never played at any point in this song, how can that be the key of the intro. The genius of this song is that the key change happens BEFORE the intro has had a chance to resolve. It never gets to its tonic chord.

Determining the key is a job for the ears, not the analytical part of the brain that reads key signatures and counts how many sharps and flats there are. The tonic chord is the chord that is implied as the place of rest, that feels like “home” if and when it is played, and none of the four chords that are actually played in this sequence cut it. Stop on any one of those chords and it doesn’t feel resolved. We still have somewhere to go. But bail out of the sequence at almost any point and play an F# major chord, and you’ll realise that was the implied place you were heading all along. You just never get there because the key change to the key of D happens first.

As I said… If you want to be pedantic, let’s call it F# Lydian, if it’s important to anybody to keep that C natural in the melody as part of the key signature rather than an accidental. Anyway, don’t READ the key. HEAR the key. Use your ears! They’re much more trustworthy. Seriously, does anybody feel like they’ve reached “home” on the third chord of that sequence (Db)? I seriously doubt it.

The Ebm (relative minor of F#) feels a little more resolved than Db, so analysing it that way would make a bit more sense (you could call it Eb Dorian if you want to account for the C natural in the melody). But it still doesn’t feel nearly as resolved, IMO, as it does if you subsequently move to F#.

To my ears, that third chord in the sequence (Db) is clearly the dominant, not the tonic, because the intro is actually in F# or F# Lydian (depending on whether you want to consider that one C natural in the melody as diatonic or chromatic), even though we never actually reach the tonic chord, and the sequence is vi / #V / V / iii. If the key change didn’t happen, there is an expectation that we will eventually resolve to F#, but the key change to D happens before we can get there.

To see what I mean, start playing and singing the song with its existing chords, but then do any or all of the following:

  1. When you get to “promise to be true”, just extend the “true” note as if it was the end of the song, and rather than moving from the D chord to the Db chord, move instead from the D chord to an F# chord. Then stop. You’re home. As will be obvious to you.

OR…

  1. When you get to “and help me”, extend the “me” note as if it’s the end of the song, and rather than moving from the Db chord to the Bbm chord, move instead from the Db chord to an F# chord. Then stop. You’re home. As will be obvious to you.

Or…

  1. When you get to “understand”, just extend the syllable “stand” into the next bar, moving your voice up a half-step from F to F#, as you move from the Bbm chord to an F# chord (instead of to the Ebm7 chord). Then stop. You’re home. As will be obvious to you.

It doesn’t matter at what point you bail out of the chord sequence to resolve to F#, it’s completely clear that F# is where the sequence WANTS to resolve to, rather than any of the four chords actually IN the sequence. This is even true moving from the chromatic (outside the key) D chord (#V) to resolve to the F# tonic. D is outside the key, but it’s very clear that the key that it’s outside of - the one we instinctively want to get back to - is F#, not Db.

Alternatively…

  1. START with two bars of just the F# chord. Establish it as the tonic right off the bat. Then begin the song. See? The sequence makes sense when you are explicitly thinking of F# as “home”. Any way you slice this, F# is the tonic.

This actually makes the intro even more ingenious and unusual. How many pop songs establish a key without ever actually playing the tonic chord, and then modulate to a new key when they STILL haven’t done so? This is a song with a section in F#, but in which an F# chord is at no point ever played! That seems kind of remarkable in and of itself.

Oh, and one more thing: I would argue the key change to D happens on the Em, not on the D chord immediately before it. Because the D chord occurs exactly where we expect it to because of the repetition, we interpret it as a chromatic chord, which is what it was the first time we heard it. We don’t know we’re about to permanently move to the key of D, so we don’t hear it as a key change per se until the Em happens.

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    I enjoy exploring alternate ways to analyze things but the only one of your “try this” points that are a bit feasible to me is point 1 IF the song were to actually end there on an F# melody note. However this doesn’t hold up because of what follows, a Db chord with two Db melody notes in octaves followed by a vi chord. Lennon and the Beatles almost always resolved their songs amd main phrases to a tonic chord with a tonic melody note. This phrase is no exception. Let me offer you a “try this”: play the first 6 bars up a half step. It sounds like regular 8 bar intro in D. Jul 21, 2021 at 12:24
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    If you want pedantry, call your F# Gb.
    – Tim
    Jul 21, 2021 at 12:31
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    I wholeheartedly agree that it is important to use one's ears to analyze for this sort of key question, as you mention in this answer. I have to say I personally can't quite convince myself of the F#/Gb tonic, though. I think your thought exercises demonstrate how this song could quite easily have set up Gb from where it is now, but as written I hear Db without any special effort and Gb only by modifying a chord or two. Particularly because of the C in the melody and the Bb chord at the end of the first phrase. Gb is not "wrong" IMO, it just doesn't speak to me as much as it does to you.
    – user45266
    Jul 21, 2021 at 19:50
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    The Beatles wrote complex stuff, so ii bII i vi seems Beatles-y enough for me to believe. vi bVI V iii is a lot less clear, however. If the progression started on its 2nd or 4th chord, Gb would be more compelling. I'm still hung up on the C natural, too: it suggests Gb lydian, but accepting a Gb tonic means the V chord has to be interpreted as an ultra-strong dominant sitting on a strong beat with that octave leap soaring up from sol to sol. Then all of that momentum interrupted by an extremely weak iii chord and the melody halts on the leading tone? I'd put Dbmaj7 over Db7 there any day... +1
    – user45266
    Jul 21, 2021 at 20:13
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    I appreciate the thought and analysis that went into this post. Welcome to the site! Looking forward to reading more of your answers. I downvoted because of the phrasing, but I'd +1 if you were to edit. A professor once told me that "when someone says 'it is clear' or 'it is evident' or 'it is obvious,' then whatever follows will almost never be clear, evident, or obvious." I think this answer falls into that trap. In my opinion, there are good ways around it, though.
    – jdjazz
    Jul 21, 2021 at 22:38

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