Friday, June 11, 2010

The Beatles, "Musicologically": New York Times, Feb. 10, 1964

Musicologically ...
By Theodore Strongin

(Originally published in The New York Times, February 10, 1964)

"You can tell right away it's the Beatles and not anyone else," is the opinion of a 15-year-old specialist on the subject who saw the Beatles on the "Ed Sullivan Show" last night.  The age of 15 (or 16 or 14 or 13) is essential in a Beatles expert.

Taking the above axiom as gospel, this listener made an attempt to find out just what is musically unique about the British visitors.

The Beatles are directly in the mainstream of Western tradition; that much may be immediately ascertained.  Their harmony is unmistakeably diatonic.  A learned British colleague, writing on his home ground, has described it as pandiatonic, but I disagree.

The Beatles have a tendency to build phrases around unresolved leading tones.  This precipitates the ear into a false modal frame that temporarily turns the fifth of the scale into the tonic, momentarily suggesting the Mixylydian mode.  But everything always ends as plain diatonic all the same.

Meanwhile, the result is the addition of a very, very slight touch of British countryside notalgia, with a trace of Vaughan Williams, to the familiar elements of the rock 'n' roll prototype.  "It's just that English rock 'n' roll is more sophisticated," explained the 15-year-old authority.

As to instrumentation, three of the four Beatles (George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon) play different sizes of electronically amplified plucked-string instruments.  Ringo Starr ("He's just like a little puppy, he's so cute," said our specialist) plays the drums.  The Beatles's vocal quality can be described as hoarsely incoherent, with the minimal enunciation necessary to communicate the schematic texts.

Two theories were offered in at least one household to explain the Beatles's popularity.  The specialist said: "We haven't had an idol in a few years.  The Beatles are different, and we have to get rid of our excess energy somehow."

The other theory is that the longer parents object with such high dudgeon, the longer children will squeal so hysterically.

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