One of my favorite bands (or maybe I should call them a contemporary music ensemble, since they aren’t exactly a rock band) is Radiohead. They are endlessly inventive, have a great harmonic palette (meaning, in ordinary English, that their chords are beautiful and a little surprising), and use electronics to great effect*. Each album goes in a slightly different direction from the previous one – they keep exploring and they avoid formulas. The singer, Thom Yorke, has a voice that is dripping with real emotion, and although I have friends who find him unbearably whiney, I could listen to him all day. He is quite annoying to watch, so I stick to the albums (even though most rock bands are fun to check out on youtube).
The album Amnesiac contains a song called Pyramid Song (track 2). Before I proceed, a small warning: nerdiness to follow. OK, forewarned is forearmed. I have never been able to figure out the meter in this song. If you are wondering what the hell that means, I’m talking about where the beat (or pulse) is, and how many beats are grouped together before the pattern repeats. A song like Yesterday has four beats to a measure (after four beats, you hit another strong one, and after four more, yet another strong one, and so on**). Another Beatles song, All You Need Is Love, is in seven. Four beats, then three beats, then four, then three, and so on. Ever noticed? Listen and you can count them:
x x x x
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be
x x x
done [dum de-dum de]
The x’s mark the beats.
What’s great about this song is that you can listen to it and not be aware of the lopsided meter. Once you are aware of it, you can’t believe it never struck you before. And by the way, the Beatles were really into experimenting with this kind of stuff, which had never been used in pop music before, even though it was all over the place in Classical music. In fact, at the time the Beatles were writing their songs, Classical music had gotten so complicated that you had no idea where the beat was – obscurity was the message of that era. The Beatles dipped their toes into the world of Classical experimentation just enough to open the world of rock up to infinite new possibilities.
Back to Radiohead. If you listen to Pyramid Song (and there are, in fact, plenty of versions out there on youtube if you don’t own Amnesiac) and try to find the beat, you’ll find it pretty easy, except that if you try to count steadily, it slips away from you. All of a sudden, you are counting beats in a different spot from where the chords are being played. Get back on track and you’ll be off again in a flash. Slippery.
I have listened to the song approximately 8000 times, and I could never put my finger on what was going on. So I did what any sane person would do in 2011: I went to Google and searched for “where is the beat in Pyramid Song.” It turned out I was not alone. Many people were asking the question, with many poor explanations. I finally found a site in which a clever writer had marked out the beats with x’s as I did above (but perhaps a little more clearly).
Suddenly, the song fit into a framework. It was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz where the color comes on. Suddenly, the chords of the song (the piano plays them) were tugging back and forth on the invisible beat, creating a tension that brought the song even more to life. And, lo and behold, the piano player (the very same Thom Yorke who was singing) was phrasing right to the strong beat whenever a chord occurred on that strong beat. How could I have missed it? Perfectly clear, but camouflaged in plain sight. Just like All You Need Is Love, the first time you notice it is in seven.
The song, like many by Radiohead, is about death. The refrain line is “There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.” What a perfect musical setting for this thought: in the face of seeming confusion (fear and doubt, the chords coming seemingly without pattern), there was actually order (nothing to fear, the piece unfolding four beats at a time). And thus does Radiohead rise to heights that most bands don’t even dream of. Plus, it’s a great tune.
*Bands use electronics to alter sounds, create loops (where music repeats itself), create effects like reverb, and generally create a sound world that is different from the “ordinary” sound of the instruments being played. Think of the wah-wah sound an electric guitar can make (using a pedal called, appropriately enough, a wah-wah pedal) as a simple example.
**The song Yesterday is actually quite amazing. The word “Yesterday” falls on the strong beat, but the next strong beat doesn’t have a word, only a chord. Like this: Yesterday 3, 4, 1, all my troubles seemed so far away 4, 1 Now it looks as though… Also, listen to that chord on the first strong beat (beat 1) after “Yesterday.” It’s actually really unexpected and quite colorful: a chord that sends the harmony off into a completely different direction (if you want to get technical, it’s called a secondary dominant). What a great setup for the line, “All my troubles seemed so far away.” You might say this is nerdy and the Beatles had no idea about any of this. To which I respond, who cares? This is the stuff that makes a great song. The Beatles had an intuitive feel for the way that the worlds of chords and rhythms intersected with the world of words. Radiohead, too.