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Notes on "Doctor Robert"

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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 "Doctor Robert"

KEY B Major


FORM Intro -> Verse -> Verse -> Refrain ->
   Verse -> Refrain -> Verse/outro (into fadeout)

General Points of Interest

Style and Form

While "Doctor Robert's" most conspicuous claim to infamy may be its oblique-yet-obvious reference to recreational drug usage, it is musically most interesting for its harmonic/home-key trickery.

I am also quite fond of the incongruity of the Christmas-Carol type of arrangement given to the refrain, but I reiterate that the game played here with the home key is (IMHO, of course) one of John's more daring experiments with harmony this side of "Strawberry Fields Forever," or "I Am The Walrus." You might want to think of it as an "harmonic hallucination," that (intentinally placed here for this reason or not) is ironic in context of the song's lyrics.

The lyrics make constant wordplay with the title phrase; mostly as an interjection at the end of lines, but also, for the sake of avoiding foolish consistency, you find it surprisingly fitting in within the flow of the narrative just once in a while, and, best of all, you also find it popping up at the start of lines, where you'd least expect it.

Overall, the song feels a bit "slight" in terms of its short form, lack of an instrumental break, and no variation of the arrangement later than the first refrain. It's interesting to contemplate how one's perception of the "size" of a song is related as much to matters of formal and instrumental complexity, as it is to temporal duration.

Melody and Harmony

In the final analysis, I believe that B Major clearly asserts itself as the home key of this song, but that opening on the A chord, which is sustained so nonchalantly for a full eight measures, has a funny way of getting things off to a tonally equivocal start.

True, you *can* establish a sense of home key by droneful insistance of a single chord, but one of the hallmarks of so-called "Western/Tonal" music is the establishment of home keys by virtue of chord progressions. In this song, the first real cadence in the song is the one to B Major towards the end of the verse, and though as it unfolds it feels somewhat like a modulation to B from A, I truly believe that one retrosepctively interprets the A Major chord as flat-VII of B!


The backing arrangement features a relatively rich mixture of instruments, though the recording of it, to quote Lewisohn, is rather "gimmick free." BTW, I hear no piano in the mix, regardless of what ML says.

There's some staggered layering in the arrangement. For example, the backing vocals start in the second verse, and the lead guitar overdubs commence just before the bridge. The bridge nicely contrasts with the verses by virtue of the added harmonium and the lush vocals mixed to sound like more than just 2 or 3 Beatles singing.

By the same token nothing new is introduced past the mid-point, and given the group's solid track record in the area of avoiding foolish consistency, it feels like a bit of a letdown when they don't do it. In contrast, consider the value added in the final verse of a song like "We Can Work It Out" where, in the same place where there always *was* a syncopated kick in the rhythm, they execute the phrase in rather perversely equal eighth notes.

John's lead vocal sounds automatically double tracked with each of the two slightly-out-of-phase tracks split onto separate stereo channels; this is a surrealistic "effect" we saw earlier in the "The Word."

Section-by-Section Walkthrough


The intro is a simple four-measure vamp on the A Major chord which, at this point of the song, you'd think is the I, rather than the flat VII.

The most significant thing about this intro is the way the lead guitar part introduces the 4->3 appoggiatura motif that shows up later in both the verse and the bridge.


The verse sounds like a relatively four-square, four-phrase song section, but there's a rhetorical blip added to the third phrase which pushes the total section length up to 18 measures:

 -------------- 2X ---------------
 |A |- |- |- |
B:  flat-VII

 |F# |- |- |- |- |- |

 |E |F# |B |- |
  IV  V  I

The 4->3 melodic motif shows up here in the third phrase, on the syllables, "bet-ter" and "un-der"(stand).


The refrain sounds like a predictable eight-measure, two-phrase song section, but very similarly to the verse, it rhetorically rounds itself out to an unusual ten measures, the final two of which ellide with the start of the next verse.

 |B |- |E |B |
  I   IV  I

 |B |- |E |- |A |- |
    IV   flat-VII

The E Major chord of the first phrase sounds unequivocally like IV, but in the second phrase it sounds rather like the "V-of-flat-VII;" think about it ...

The 4->3 motif here is found on the second of the three "well, well, wells."


The official track is mastered to sound as though it were a typical fadeout ending, but if you listen carefully, it appears that the take in the studio may have broken down just where the track is quickly faded. Note how when they reach the F# chord in this final verse, the vocals drop out and the rhythm track moves back to B long before 6 measures of F# have elapsed.

Some Final Thoughts

Something subtle but nice was lost when "Doctor Robert" was pulled from the American Revolver album.

"For No One" is in the key of B.

"I Want To Tell You" is in the key of A.

"Doctor Robert" is in the key of B, but it tries to trick you into thinking it might be at least partially in the key of A.

As such, it effects an interesting harmonic transition between the the songs which surround it. Alas, when you put the song on _Yesterday and Today_, the effect is lost.

Alan (

"Well, not your real opinion, naturally.  It'll be written out and
 you'll learn it."             030595#100

Copyright (c) 1995 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 The content from this newsgroup is archived at, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at

. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.

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Arranged by The Beatles

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