Thursday, September 8, 2011

sometimes tension is ok (anatomy of a lennon melody)

In my last post, I dissected a typical McCartney melody (the song "I Will"). This one will use "Julia" to look at what makes a Lennon melody intriguing.

Now, it's important to say upfront that John wrote some melodies that are appealing for the same reasons Paul's melodies were (i.e. because they build up and resolve tension). But I'm going to examine a melody that typifies the type of tension-filled, almost non-melodic melody John himself believed he more naturally wrote.

Most listeners of Western music prefer melodies that build up and resolve tension. Resolving tension basically means that the melody and chords work such that we feel like the melody goes somewhere (i.e. builds up tension) and then returns home (i.e. resolves the tension). Once the melody gets back home, we feel satisfied and that the melody is complete.

Usually, when a melody ends without resolving tension, we feel unsatisfied and as though we don't like the song very much. However, in "Julia," John doesn't always resolve the tension, and we still love the song. Why is that?

I think it has something to do with the fact that melodies (or at least the melody in "Julia") play a different role for John than Paul. As we saw in "I Will," a McCartney melody is front and center in the song. Everything else is built around the melody. In "Julia" and other Lennon songs (ex: I Am the Walrus, Come Together), the melody is somewhat secondary to the words, the instrumentation, or both. I think this is because John approached songs as efforts to construct a particular soundscape/atmosphere (at least once he started writing more personal songs in 1965/1966).

It might help to look more closely at "Julia" in order to understand how the melody works to support the soundscape John built. The beginning of the song has three elements: an acoustic guitar, vocals, and lyrics. In my opinion, John is attempting to convey both beauty (through the fingerpicked guitar part) and helplessness (through the lyrics and the melody). Beauty--or his mother/his love for his mother--and helplessness--his pain at losing her, and his inability to reach her--exist in opposition to each other. The melody thus acts as a way of enhancing the meaning of the lyrics and, consequently, the soundscape of conflict and opposition John has built.

How does the melody enhance the soundscape of conflict?

Let's take a look at this idea of unresolved tension. If you listen to the last line of the first verse ("but I say it just to reach you Julia"), you'll hopefully notice that he's about to resolve the tension (which is what Paul would've done at the end of a verse). But then we notice that the last note of the first verse is cut off by the first note of the second verse. In this way, John doesn't resolve the tension. Why would he do that? I think it's a way of conveying pain, which supports the themes of helplessness and pain we hear in the lyrics.

Another aspect of the melody that conveys pain is the lack of tonal variety. In other words, we hear the melody resting on just one or two notes. This is in marked contrast to the guitar part, which flows through many notes. Thus, we see again the contrast between the pain-filled melody/lyrics and the beauty-filled guitar part. The melody also involves half-step intervals and the introduction of sharps and flats that create a melancholy sound, which only builds up more contrast between the melody and the guitar part, which involves several major chords, which sound happier.

This essentially describes the soundscape of the entire song. However, at the end, John does something very interesting. As I've said, the guitar part throughout 99.9% of the song acts as the representation of beauty. However, the song ends with a chord that sounds quite minor. Maybe that represents his mother dying, along with his hopes of connecting with her. In any case, it's quite interesting, I think.

So there you have it. John's melodies might not have tended to be as classically constructed as Paul's but they remain appealing to us because they act as one part of a coherent soundscape. Of course, this doesn't apply to every single John song (In My Life is one exception), but I think it describes most of his songs.

Stay tuned for an analysis of a George melody soon. And as always, let me know what you think in the comments section!


  1. Oh my word Chelsea you are deep LOL
    Beautifully written piece about a "pure John" song as i would term.
    John had a wonderful way of conveying his pain to the listener.the song is almost like he is in a dream and is singing to his mother.
    "her hair of floating sky" just sheer beauty of lyric.and the picking style you mention adds to the solemn nature of the song (Donovan taught John how to pick)the first 18 notes are the same,giving an impression of sadness,almost like the tolling of the iron bell.
    This is the only Beatle record were only John sang and played,again,maybe John needed to be on his own to record such a cathartic outpouring.John seemed to favour the words over melody,his natural demeanor dictated a lot of this,like in the classic "it's getting better" Paul sang it's getting better all the time" and John replied with "it couldn't get much worse" literally straight after Paul sang the firt line,I digress.
    It is song's such as this that,made my mind up that John is my favourite beatle.
    such powerful evocative word imagery,the song is both very sad and pleasing to the ear at the same time.Which is a contradiction in terms.But John was brilliant at the, "what ever you want it to mean" song writing.
    We never really know exactly what John is singing about.
    some even suggest this song is more about Yoko.
    Now there is a thought to conjure with.

  2. Wonderfully Done, Chelsea!
    One of my favorite songs of John's, perfect for analysis.
    Keep up the good work!
    Happy Beatle Weekend to you!

  3. Thank you for reading, Theresa and Jon! :) I really appreciate it. I agree that this song typifies John's style, and that it's appropriate that he recorded it on his own. It was so intensely personal that I don't think anyone else could've helped him with it.

    As for it being like Yoko, I just can't believe it ... but who knows!