The Beatles' Keys and Chord Progressions

McCartney and Lennon of The Beatles writing music

What goes into a band's specific, trademark sound?  

A band's sound is definitely a mix of things- some obvious, some less so.

Ridiculous 80's example: you might have thought that a huge part of Van Halen's sound was David Lee Roth's voice, but then they swapped him out for Sammy Hagar and it seemed like a lot (most?) of whatever added up to "Van Halen" was still there.  Some of the remaining things were Eddie Van Halen's guitar sound, people's playing styles, instruments, etc. 

David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar

Some of it also comes down to the nuts and bolts of the creative process.  Who was writing their songs?  I think they listed all the band as song writers, but maybe it was more Eddie?

To really get some insight, you'd also have to ask how that person(s) actually wrote the songs.  They probably sat at a piano or with a guitar- most people use one or the other when trying out ideas.  Fingers and hands fall differently on different instruments, so what's in front of you shapes the process.  My early music school stuff for brass sounded suspiciously like piano chords, but arranged for brass.

Getting to the Beatles

I recently read a thesis paper on the "Harmonic Language of the Bealtes" (full link at the bottom), and there were some interesting tidbits scattered in there.  There was also a whole bunch of harmonic structural analysis that I won't go into- it seemed more to catalogue than explain (in my opinion).

Here are the parts I found most interesting, with some of my takes:

Major Keys

  • Of the 210 Beatles songs, 194 are in major keys.  At first this felt really extreme to me, but then I researched the general trends of pop music over time and found that in the 60's, the vast majority of music was in major keys, and over time it's gradually shifted to minor keys.  For some potential sociological explanations for this trend, read this.

Guitar Keys

  • Looking only at the breakdown of keys that were chosen, you can tell The Beatles wrote most of their music on guitar, though we know they also used piano.  165 of those major key songs are in the keys of E major (38 songs), G major (38), A major (36), D major (28) and C major (25).   This shows the dominance of the "guitar keys" of G, C, D, A and E major.  Fingers fall a little more easily in those keys.  Some of these are common to piano pop writing as well, but not all or to the same degree.
  • Don't believe me, or the thesis paper?  Just ask the "chord buddy," which seems to exist to bridge the gap between Guitar Hero Vet and Aspiring Real-Life Guitar Player, by creating something that you put over a real guitar and press buttons on.  Note the chords it helps you learn- those beginning chords and keys are pretty accessible on the guitar.  Also, note that the one minor chord included in the basic "chord buddy" -- E minor -- is the key of 10 of the 16 minor Beatles songs. 

The Chord Buddy

Chord Progressions

  • The Beatles had little in the way of formal music education.  This meant that they weren't constrained to typical ideas of "what chord should come next."  So naturally their chord progressions would be a combination of what sounded good to them, and what worked well on whatever instrument they were writing with.  As advanced sounding as the Beatles were for back then, their harmonic language: the chords they chose, what followed what, etc, was actually pretty firmly rooted in the 60's.  They did pull from a lot of diverse influences though- American rock and roll, folk, rhythm'n'blues and jazz, English music hall, etc.  There's a lot more to this discussion, but it involves things like looking at chordal patterns, circle of fifths, etc.  If you want that level of detail, take a look at the article linked to at the bottom.  In my mind it doesn't look too ground-breaking.

So what's left?  

  • This solidifies in my mind that anyone trying to figure out what made The Beatles sound like The Beatles needs to look at a lot more than harmonic language.  There's no common "Beatles progression" or anything.  It's a mix of all kinds of things: Paul's Hofner bass, John and Lennon's different but complementary styles, the work of the sound engineer, etc.  Many, many books delve into those contributions- but the actual musical analysis can be tougher to come by.

Out of curiosity, I looked at my own music for the most recent album and a half (11 tracks on "The Chill/Funk Trip", 5 on the upcoming "Narcotherapy Hypnosis"), and found that one was in a major key.  Yes, only one, and even that one has the word "Betrayal" in the title.  In reality it's more complicated than that, a lot of my stuff vacillates between major and minor, something I like the sound of.  

If you want to read the whole paper on the harmonic language of The Beatles- here's a link:

Also, here's a link to my main soundcloud page, if you like chillout funk, and/or want to listen to lots of music in minor keys:


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Dan July 24, 2016 @04:39 pm
maybe not the simplest for your minor key search, but this is seemingly a list of all Beatles songs alphabetically by key (including minor)
Larry July 04, 2016 @10:21 am
I'm trying to get a simple list of the Beatles songs which are in minor keys? Does such a list exist. Not really interested in the psychology of major & minor. Just a list

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