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Notes on "Don't Bother Me"
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This article is from Alan W. Pollack's groundbreaking series "Notes on the Beatles". Links in the orginal article is written in this colour: index to the series, while links I have added appears as standard links. Go here for more information on my site about the song
Notes on "Don't Bother Me"
KEY e minor (with Pentatonic & Dorian inflections)
FORM Intro -> Verse -> Verse -> Bridge -> Verse -> Verse/half-solo -> Bridge -> Verse -> Outro (fadeout)
General Points Of Interest
Style and Form
This moody and exotic sounding number was, of course, the first solo- original composition George was to do With The Beatles. As a premiere effort, it is technically quite polished, yet even more notable for its compositional individualism, especially in light of what must have been the creative climate within The Beatles as a group at the time of its composition, in the second half of '63. Even without any kind of direct peer-pressure from John and Paul, you'd think, given the rapidly rising tide of Beatlemania, it would have been the easiest, or at least easier, path for George to show up with something a lot less imaginative and rather more slavishly imitative of his older, more experienced mates.
Instead, though you might be sorely tempted to want to pull him down on the bed with you by his shoulders and beg him to lighten up (would ya' ?), you've got to admire him for being himself at all costs, and for coming up with a song that turns out in retrospect to uncannily foreshadow musical techniques and tendencies with which he would preoccupy himself for years to come; in particular, the minor key, the sensually modal melody, and the inwardly focused and sad/angry theme of the lyrics.
Although the song sounds overall as though in a minor key, there are a number of positively modal touches to be found in the chord choices and progressions. In particular, the 'v' chord used here is a minor triad, unsuitable for use as a strong Dominant in establishing the home key. Consequently, the burden of that function is shared in this song between the VII chord (which in a Major key would have to be called '*flat* VII' because it does not occur naturally in Major keys, whereas it is actually quite at home here in the minor/modal domain), and the IV.
The appearance in this song of the *Major* IV chord in a *minor* sounding mode is a unique twist on a trick we're used to see being played in reverse. Strictly speaking, this device is associated with the ancient "Dorian" church mode; think of it as the all white-note scale starting on d -- and note, how its 6th scale degree is a Major sixth above the tonic note of the scale, whereas the other modes we're familiar with that have a minor bottom half, such as the "natural minor" (aka "the Aeolian mode"), have a minor 6th degree.
The melody of this song is equally as pentatonic in pitch content as "All I've Got To Do", but there is a crucial difference between the two songs. "All I've Got To Do" uses the five notes of the pentatonic scale to conjure a mode that is primarily Major in feel; our song here, "Don't Bother Me", rearranges the same five notes to convey a deeply minor mode.
In order to explain this, let's "normalize" the two song melodies by transposing them so that they both lie along the black notes of the piano. In this case, the home key of "All I've Got To Do" may be said to be F# Major, and the melody is for the most part built out of a Major scale that has some unusual gaps; i.e., with rare exceptions, mentioned in our note last time, the tune of "All I've Got To Do" is limited to a scale of F# - G# - A# - C# - D# - F#. Note carefully, the distinctive modal inflection created by the absence of both a 4th and 7th degree in this scale. On the other hand, the presence of A#, a Major third above the tonic note, is sufficient to establish the underlying feel of a Major key.
"Don't Bother Me", when transposed to this world of the black notes, is in a home key that sounds very much like d# minor, but which contains its own unique set of modal inflections. In contrast to "All I've Got To Do", our scale for "Don't Bother Me" is spelled as D# - F# - G# - A# - C# - D#. This time it is the absence of a 2nd and and 6th degrees in the scale which lend a characteristic pungency to the song's melody. And yet again, the presence of F# in this scale, a minor third above the tonic note, is sufficient to establish the underlying feel of a minor key.
What's particularly interesting about "Don't Bother Me" is the way in which those missing scale degrees *do* make their subtle, limited appearance. The second scale degree (E# -- let's keep it all transposed to d# minor for the moment), for example, is carefully saved for its powerfully unique melodic appearance at the very climax of the bridge section; it also turns out to be the highest melodic note in the entire song. By the same token, the harmonic trick of alternating throughout the song between a minor and Major chord on IV (A minor as alternated with A Major) is made possible by manipulation of the 6th degree of the scale (in the transposed context of d# minor, we're talking about B and B#) which is otherwise entirely absent from the tune.
And to hopefully head off my critics at the pass, I *know* that none of the Beatles could read or write musical notation and were untrained in the rudiments of theory. I acknowledge with equal unequivocality that none of them as composers would likely ever work the sorts of technical pirouettes we've been discussing into their songs aforethought, even if they *had* been trained in music theory. But that in no way diminshes the manifest sophistication of the finished product. If anything, the fact that they were capable of such intricacy on the subconscious, intuitive level makes their achievements all the more impressive, in my humble opinion.
We get George's double tracked vocal the whole way through in this song, and there are no other backing voices. If you have the chance to hear the single-track vocal on take 13 (which is the actual base track to which the second vocal was overdubbed) you'll acquire a sense of the power that double tracking has to paper over a multitude of notes sung slightly out of tune.
The rhythm track is characterized by heavily reverbed guitar parts and an almost ostentatious battery of world-music percussion instruments; the latter being overdubbed by the other three Beatles along with George's second vocal.
The solo guitar section is structured in a remarkably similar way to the one in "From Me To You"; an example of yet another formulaic device of the genre, in which the instrumental solo part is a close paraphrase of the original melody, and the vocal part is then resumed for the last phrase or two of the section as though it were a refrain.
I believe that the tempo of this song is actually twice the speed of what George slowly counts in at the beginning of takes 11 - 13; if for no other reason than the section lengths will appear to be impossibly short in terms of numbers-of-measures if we take George at his word, without any recalibration. In any event, the intro is four measures long and is built out of material which cleverly anticipates the opening of the bridge section to come much later, right down to that recognizable figure in the bassline:
chords: |D |- |e |- | bassline: D F# |E D E e: VII i
Regardless of tempo and elaborate percussion noises, the song retains a measured, somewhat ponderous feel as a result of the slow and even pace of the harmonic rhythm.
The non-I opening with its reliance on the VII -> i progression to establish the initial sense of key is quite elliptical; you might even be fooled into thinking for an instant that the song is going to be in the key of D Major and that the e chord which follows is the ii, and not the i!
The verse is twelve measures long and built out of three phrases equal in length. Though the harmonies and overall style are far removed from the strict blues style, the structure here is undeniably quite blues-like:
|b |a |G |e | e: v iv III i |b |a |G |- | v iv III |e |A |e |- | i IV i
The first two phrases have a couplet-like parallelism to them, with the third phrase providing a refrain-like capping off; the flourish of drums at the end of the second phrase, followed by a sudden grand pause for just an instant further articulates this structure. Similarly, the fourth iteration of this section, with its guitar solo for the first two phrases and return of the vocal part in the final phrase also serves to underscore the refrain effect.
All such formal articulation aside, this section is relatively static and closed up in shape. All three melodic phrases are flatly declarative in the way they tersely finish saying their respective pieces well before the end of the four measures of music alloted to them. The harmony is similarly static, giving virtually unrelieved emphasis to the i chord of e minor. The ending of the second phrase on G for a change, and the way in which the downward melodic motion of the third phrase balances out the upward gestures of the preceding two phrases are our only dynamic formal gestures. At the very least, this claustrophobic and withdrawn feeling of the music here is very much in keeping with the sense of the words.
The minor iv chord is used in context of the chord-stream-like progression of the first two phrases where it fits in smoothly, and allows George to save that Dorian Major IV chord for expressive, surprise effect in the final phrase.
The bridge is sixteen measures long and is built out of four phrases even in length; perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the final eight measures as one longer phrase; just as in the verse, the third phrase comes to balance out the couplet parallelism of the first two phrases:
|D |- |e |- ||D |- |e |- || VII i VII i |b |- |a |- |C |- |e |- || v iv VI i
Several elements help create some sense of contrast between this section and the surrounding verses: the 4x4 phraseology, the opening up of the melodic space to allow for an effective climax on the high f# in measure 9, the appearance of a couple of chords not yet heard in the song, and the sudden slowing down of the harmonic rhythm to one chord change every other measure. Although the tempo of the song is steady throughout, the return in the following verse to chord changes in every measure creates a subtle illusion of acceleration.
In spite of all the above, the inwardly focused and static mood established in the verses is pretty well sustained in this bridge; primarily a result of the continued relentless emphasis on the tonic chord of our home key of e minor. The relative absence here of strongly functional chord progressions, which in most songs are the principle agent by which a key is established, winds up defaulting a large part of that function to a phenomenon that might be described as "establishing the key by repetitive insistence." As a listener it makes you feel paradoxically in no real doubt as to what key we're, but *still* you may feel vaguely dissatisfied; a feeling not at all out of keeping with the song's own inner feelings.
IMHO, the most sublime moment of pathos in the song is found in the arpeggiated melodic ascent to the high note of f# in measure 9, followed as it is by a descent from the minor v chord to iv; note the parallel fifths created between bassline and melody by this move.
The outro presents a typical sort of looping on the final sub-phrase of the verse which by no coincidence includes the title within its lyrics.
The harmony here oscillates between the i and IV chords. As a variation upon all previous appearances in the song of this chord progression, the IV chord is now emphasized by a hard-accented syncopation on the eighth note just before the downbeat where you expect it to appear; on "four-AND". It's a matter of what I so often describe as an avoidance of foolish consistency, but even more so, its a touch of musical agitation in keeping with and reflective of what has been described in the words of the song thoughout.
Some Final Thoughts
At the time of its release "Don't Bother Me" was likely the most negative lyric in the Beatles' canon to-date. And for all that it superficially would seem to pressage John's "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away", there are some key differences between the two songs which only serve to sharpen our view of George's individual profile and outlook.
Whereas both fellows might seem to suffer with equal amounts of inconsolable sadness, it is George who seems to rush in where John would fear (or is perhaps too crashed-out to want to) tread. In place of John's reticent perplexity, George gives us many words and pronouncements; blaming himself, complaining about the unfairness of his fate ("it's just not right"), and above all, certain there can never be another like her, crying/waiting/hoping that there's a happy ending somewhere in store when she'll come back.
Intentional or not, I believe that the wordiness of the song enhances and accentuates its impact. It's one of those cases where you can turn off the CD and read the text of the song quietly aloud to yourself from a book or computer screen; even without the musical medium, the message still seems come right at you, straight from the shoulder.
"Can I say something ? ... It's highly unlikely we'll be on. I mean the law of averages are against you and it seems that, etc. etc. ..." 101491#37
Copyright (c) 1991 by Alan W. Pollack
All Rights Reserved
This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.
These articles were originally posted in the News Group rec.music.beatles. The content from this newsgroup is archived at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/files/awp/awp.html. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.
If you want to learn more about the musical side of song writing, chord progressions, harmony and theory through The Beatles songs (and/or The Beatles in particular), I recommend the following book:
Artist: Dominic Pedler
Arranged by The Beatles
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