Tuesday, August 30, 2011

song analysis: i will (or, the anatomy of a mccartney melody)

For the second song analysis (the first one, which tackles Isn't it a Pity, is available here), I've decided to tackle a classic McCartney love song: I Will. This song not only stands in obvious contrast to the Lennon track, Julia, which it precedes on the White Album, but it also contains a typical McCartney melody. This means that we can use this track as an opportunity to explore what makes Paul's melodies so appealing.

In the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, Paul is typically considered the one who contributed most of the trademark melodies. Where John played with words (ex: Please Please Me, I am the Walrus) and creating sonic atmospheres (ex: Strawberry Fields Forever), Paul's strongest tracks tended to lean on melodies (other than I Will, examples include Yesterday, Here There and Everywhere, and Hey Jude).

I Will is a great example of this. Take the melody away, and you have a very simple track; add in the melody, and it becomes absolutely addictive, and instantly memorable. Why does the melody have so much power?

Without going into a lot of music theory, I believe it comes down to one of the most fundamental musical concepts: building up tension and then resolving that tension. Where John (and George) was comfortable letting tonal tension remain without resolution, Paul nearly always resolved tension.

Examining I Will might help make this clearer. It'll help to refer to the track (available here), unless you can recite the melody in your head.

Let's look at the first verse of the song:

Who knows how long I've loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to I will

Paul builds up tension during the first line. Basically, if he were to stop the song at that point, you'd feel uncomfortable. You'd want the melody to go somewhere. In more technical terms, you'd want the melody to resolve itself, making it feel complete. Paul doesn't resolve it at that point because he wants to continue the melody further. So he builds up more tension with the second line. The melody still doesn't feel complete. Finally, at the end of the third line, he's resolved the melody. The fourth line is a melodic repeat of the third line. The only difference is that Paul goes down one note before singing "will." This is a melodic move very typical in classical music.

The second verse is melodically identical to the first verse. Repeating a melodic expression to open a piece is also very typical for classical music.

In the bridge, we hear the song sound more minor (basically, for a listener, that translates into more melancholy), and the melody changes:

Love you forever, and forever
Love you with all my heart
Love you whenever we're together
Love you when we're apart

In this verse, Paul creates tension in the first line that he then resolves in the second line. The third line is melodically identical to the first line, but then in the fourth line, he ends with tension. This allows him to continue the song further, since we're not happy with him ending it with "apart." Thus, he uses the melody (written in couplets, except for the ending of the fourth line) to mirror the lyrics, which you'll see are written in couplets.

Here's the last verse:

And if at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
Oh you know I will
I will

In this verse, Paul begins with the same melody he used in the first two verses. But then he has to justify continuing the verse beyond four lines, so he repeats the tension-filled melody of the third line in the fourth line. In the fifth line, he develops the tension-filled melody further before resolving it in the sixth line. However, tension is still in the air; the only difference is that the guitar now takes the reins. Paul finally resolves the melody using humming and the guitar in tandem.

Basically, all of this means that Paul's melodies are attractive to our ears because they use the technique of building up and resolving tension. This technique has been fundamental to Western music since at least the time of Bach. It's especially fundamental to classical music of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Mozart & Beethoven, for example).

Thus, despite listening to very little classical music (except for a little bit of Bach, which inspired Blackbird), Paul was the most similar to a classical composer of all three primary songwriters. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that he's written several classical pieces since the Beatles broke up.

Stay tuned for similar analyses of Lennon and Harrison melodies. As always, please let me know what you think of this post in the comments section (especially if you disagree!).


  1. Terrific post Chelsea.
    I love Paul's music, he knows how to write about love, that's for sure.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. thanks, theresa! i definitely finished this post with a new appreciation for paul's skills as a melody writer. i've always loved his melodies, but i'm now convinced he's a master of them.