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Wow In Music – Strawberry Fields Forever

Wow In Music – Strawberry Fields Forever

| On 19, Sep 2018

Darrell Mann

One of the greatest singles of all time. An enduring classic that it is difficult to tire of listening to. Why is that?

Let’s start the investigation somewhere else. Somewhere a long way from the Beatles… The Pearl Jam song ‘I Got Id’. The lyrics to which describe a man trapped in his own mind, unable to discern reality from imagination. As suggested by the song’s title, he lacks the ability to rationalize conflicting desires. Verse 1 opens by describing the physical manifestations of his anxiety, “My lips are shaking, my nails are bit off, been a month since I heard myself talk.” He describes his confused mental state in metaphorical terms, e.g. “an empty shell seems so easy to crack . . . picture a cup in the middle of the sea.” His memories clearly haunt him – “I got memories, I got shit” – and these memories affect his dreams, “so I’ll just lie alone and wait for the dream where I’m not ugly and you’re looking at me.” The central memory that seems to be the source of his torment involves the lover to whom the song is addressed. The chorus’ description of this memory suggests that the singer feels regret about an unspecified decision: “I walked the line when you held me in that night.” By the end of the song we learn that the memory itself may be pure fantasy as the singer replaces words in the chorus to sing, “I walked the lie . . . never held you in real life.” This (Principle 17, Another Dimension) final twist of the lyrics adds another layer of uncertainty and invites the audience to similarly question the line between reality and imagination. Sigmund Freud (1917–1919) describes our psychological reaction to such reality-bending moments as “Unheimliche,” or uncanny.

Beyond the lyrical contradiction twist, the main reason for including the song in this article about Strawberry Fields Forever is that the song’s primary musical progression participates in its own kind of uncanny process. As shown in Figure 1, the opening D-major chords alternate with B-major chords with stationary Ds in the top and bottom voices.

Figure 1: Pearl Jam, ‘I Got Id’

The voice leading between the tonic and its chromatic submediant features a peculiar kind of parsimony, namely, two voices moving by half step in opposite directions (Principle 37, Relative Change). In tonal music, this type of motion is typically reserved for progressions between dissonant and consonant intervals. However, the contrary motion of half steps in the Pearl Jam example occurs between two consonant triads, inviting the listener to question the line that divides consonance and dissonance into two mutually exclusive categories, which, contradiction-wise forces a more intriguing (Principle 1, Segmentation) resolution in the listeners mind.

Principle 37, Chromatic, major-third root movements comprise a special class of triadic progression. The contrary motion of half steps, described as ‘PL voice leading’, produces a perceptual paradox that simultaneously destroys any sense of background diatonic collection and forces irreconcilable interpretations of consonance and dissonance. Several composers since the 19th Century have used the effect, but arguably, it was when John Lennon used it in Strawberry Fields Forever, that the modern songwriter got the message and started using the ‘wow’ evoking trick more often.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” features the chromatic major-third root movement between the subdominant chord and a chord that has no clear function in the governing tonality. One of the most effective text-painting moments in the song occurs in the chorus at the line “Nothing is real” (where the lyric sets up a parallel contradiction). The accompanying G7 chord supports the notion of non-reality by drawing the tonic pitch, B, into what we might call an “identity crisis”. The G7 might be heard as an altered submediant (VI7) or as a V7/ii that resolves deceptively to IV. As Figure 2 demonstrates, the oscillation with the subdominant chord, E major, plays out the Principle 37 effect. In the context of this song, the E chord clearly serves a functional role. The song’s introduction sets up IV–I as the normative cadential pattern just before the music in the figure. Similar to the introduction of Pearl Jam’s “I Got Id” explored earlier, the alternation with the functional E chord further marks the G7 as an “unreal” harmony. Therefore, just as the lyrics in Lennon’s song elaborate on the concept of non-reality, so does the chord progression. (Perhaps the truly uncanny contradiction set-up moment is when we realize John Lennon is asking us to accept non-reality as (Principle 39?) “nothing to get hung about.”)

Figure 2: Beatles, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’

You can read the whole Principle 37 perceptual paradox story in a truly fascinating dissection of a host of other examples at: http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.17.23.4/mto.17.23.4.forrest.html

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