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Songwriters: Officially, Lennon and McCartney share the songwriting credits as with all their Beatles songs. But Yesterday was actually written by Paul McCartney alone, with a little help on the lyrics by producer, George Martin.
Singer: The Beatles. Again,Yesterday is actually a Paul McCartney solo, accompanied by his own guitar and a string quartet.
The apparent simplicity of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday tantalises the long-suffering aspiring songwriter: “Why can’t I write a song like that?” McCartney’s smug assurances that he just woke up one morning with the tune in his head only serve to rub salt in the wound.
So where’s the magic? And how can I possibly add to the copious amounts of dissection and analysis that have neen heaped on this little song, which clocks in at just under two minutes? Deep breath, hear goes…
So much emphasis has been put on the melody of Yesterday that McCartney’s harmonisation of it tends to be forgotten. In fact, I think the way harmony and melody work together in this song are the key to at least part of it’s magic. Strip out the accompanying chords, and you are left with a melody in D melodic minor. If you are able play Yesterday on the guitar or piano, try this little experiment:
Play or sing the melody of Yesterday over the normal chord sequence, but replace every occurrence of F major with D minor. While you’re at it, you might replace the final G major with a G minor. It sounds a lot more ordinary – we’ve just removed some of the pixie dust.
By starting his D melodic minor melody with an F major chordal accompaniment, McCartney performs a dazzling sleight of hand. The rising scale of the second bar (“all my troubles seemed so”) must now become a modulation from F major to D minor. This dramatic modulation occurs remarkably early in the melody, when we have barely found our harmonic footing, and just as something very interesting is going on in the melody…
If you can pick out Yesterday on a keyboard or other melody instrument, try another little experiment. Play the melody without any accidentals, i.e. the B natural and C sharp of “all my trou-bles” become B flat and C natural. A bit more ordinary again; another little cloud of pixie dust is gone with the wind. You’re now playing the melody in an unmodulated F major (or a D Dorian mode – it’s a little ambiguous).
Now I’m going to stick my neck out. Go back to McCartney’s superior version, and look at the notes he uses for the opening four words: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed…”. If we play them as an ascending scale we get: F, G, A, B natural, C sharp. That’s just one D sharp short of the whole-tone scale, which is found more commonly in the works of Claude Debussy than two-minute pop songs.
For my money, it’s this second bar, with its stretching, yearning whole-tone scale and the associated modulation that raises Yesterday from the levels of very good songwriting to truly great songwriting. Fab.
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