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Notes on "Eleanor Rigby"

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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 "Eleanor Rigby"

KEY e minor

                 ----- 2X ----
FORM Intro -> Verse/Refrain -> Bridge (intro) ->
   Verse/Refrain -> Outro (w/complete ending)

General Points of Interest

Style and Form

As one of the most "serious" pieces of the entire Beatles cannon, this song straight-facedly vaporized several commonly supposed limitations of what the 2-minute AM-radio pop/rock musical genre might be capable of including within its purview and power of expression. Pigeon-hole terms, such as Crossover, Fusion, or Hybrid, somehow don't seem to do it justice.

You can look at from at least two angles and try to pull it apart with great clinical precision; the Verismo lyrics and grainy, tintype backing arrangement for strings on the one side, and the more familiar bluesy, syncopated, boxy form on the other. But the truth here is even more elusive than usual, and I dare say that the real irony of this song is to be confronted in the extreme to which the otherwise analytically separable elements within its blend are so well synthesized. Think of it as an amalgam whose elements can no longer be so easily separated ever again once combined.

Although the music here is highly syncopated, instead of the jumpy kind of high-stepping effect you'd expect, you find the song to be characterized overall by a gesture resembling an anxious sigh (like a sharp, sudden intake of breath expelled in enervating slow motion) that applies not only to foreground rhythm, but several other parameters as well, including harmonic rhythm, phrasing, and even the contours of the tune itself.

The "story" is typical of Paul with its two characters who seem to be unrelated to each other when introduced respectively in the first two verses, only to be brought into ironic proximity of each other in the final scene, as though this were some kind of novel by Dos Passos, or Paul's not much later song, "Penny Lane" :-) On the other hand, I can't help but sense the influence of John upon Paul's particular choices of detailed imagery and idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

Melody and Harmony

The melody here is in the Dorian mode; that's the one with the minor 3rd but Major 6th and 7th, and it's a relatively uncommon choice for the Beatles, over the long run.

The harmonic resources are quite spare, with a very small number of chords actually used, and those that are used make for relatively weak and modally "plagal" establishment of the home key. Aside from the large drone-like air play given to the e-minor i chord, we have no more than VI (C) and iv (a); the Major IV chord (a nice modal touch in context of a minor key) is implied as a passing chord over the e drone.


The backing arrangement for small string ensemble is well crafted by someone who clearly understood the string quartet idiom. Though eight players are used, the writing is in essentially four parts where, except for brief flashes of solo playing, each is doubled for strength.

George Martin credits the influence upon him of Bernard Hermann's score for the film, "Farenheit 451", though I also detect an affinity here for the same composer's infamous "Psycho" overture. Against a "warp" of mechanical and strident chords (the effect of which is heightened by their being played in short, choppy down-bows 'near the frog' of the bow, the non-vibrato fingering, and the close miking) is woven a continuously varied and syncopated series of melodic counter-figures in either the cello or violin; trace it, section by section, yerself! And if you do, notice the exquisite "softening" effect created by the sometimes retreat into eight notes in the warp, instead of the very stark quarter notes.

Paul's single-tracked solo is the backbone of the vocal arrangement, with John joining him briefly in the Intro, Bridge, and Outro sections, and Paul doubling himself for the refrain. The stereo mix contains an anomoly at the start of the first verse where the changeover from double-tracked Paul to solo is made abruptly right before the final syllable of the opening "El-ea-nor".

Section-by-Section Walkthrough


The 2-times-4 ("AA") phraseology and arch-like shape of the tune in this intro are standard enough ... :

 --------------- 2X --------------
 |C |- |e |- |
e:  VI   i

... but it remains, indeed, one of the great non-I openings, distinguished by the manner in which it asserts what I earlier characterized as the gesture of an anxious sigh.

"Anxiety", resulting from the way in which the music starts right off at what you surmise to be a peak of tension but which only goes to increase still further a bit before winding itself down.

"Sighing", from the extent to which the respective peaks and unwindings of the voice-versus-accompaniment pull out of synch with each other; note, for example, how the vocal part has peaked and is already winding down far ahead of the chord change in measure 3, and the way that the cello's emphatic arrival on the low E in the middle of the same measure is delayed a couple beats *behind* the chord change.


The Verse component of this section features offbeat phrasing that tensely contrasts with the underlying march-beat of the accompaniment. The five-measure length is unusual enough, but what really makes it noteworthy is the internal parsing of that 5 into a "1 + 3 + 1" pattern, combined with the harmonic rhythm that returns to the i chord on the second half of the final measure; you might find this intruiging to compare w/"Yesterday":

 ------------------- 2X -------------------
 |e |- |- |C |-    e  |
  i    VI       i

Expressive appoggiaturas abound, the spiciest of which is the the one that creates an added-sixth to the C chord (on the word "been"); the rest of which you're on your own to locate.

There are some theory teachers who, erring in the direction of trying so assign Roman Numerals to *every* vertical slice of notes, would argue that there is more harmony "implied" in measures 2-3 here than what I've labelled; i.e. -- they'd point out the 7th added to the i, and the IV6/4. IMHO, the structurally significant chords here are just the ones I've labelled above, and the remainder is all a matter of linear motion against a background.

The structure of the Refrain subcomponent is more straightforward, with its 2-times-4 ("AA'") phraseology (viz. the Intro!!), but *it* is made unusual by its harmonic content:

   --------------- 2X --------------
 inner voice |D |C# |C-nat. |B |
 implied harmony |e |(A) |C |e |
    i7  IV  VI  i

We have, here, a very John-like example of harmony under the influence of the compositional cliche sometimes referred to as the downward chromatic scale fragment in an inner voice; just remember that even *sex* can be alternatively described in equally unappealing clinial termonology :-). Again, one can make a "theoretical" argument that the harmony here is, structurally, just a droning i chord. But even those who might agree with this perspective will still acknowledge the extent to which the inner voice here connotes that saddened, sighing gesture -- if you don't believe me, try singing that inner line along with the recording.

Note how the second iteration of the refrain phrase is melodically just a tad so-satisfyingly more extravagant than the first one; the first one tops out on 'E', but the second one stretches way up to 'G'. All this going to demonstrate yet another one of the Great Compositional Principles -- you not only don't shoot your whole wad the first time around, but whatever you save for the next time must be *especially exciting*. And, as if to underscore this truth, we have the lead violin mimicing in snappy syncopation the tail of that second refrain every time this section comes around.

Also note how even this second iteration of the refrain phrase does not upstage the "ultimate" peak of this song which is still to be found in intro/break phrase (up to 'A') -- ultimate peaks being yet another one of those archtypal principles of life, love, and music.


This is, I believe, a rote repetition of the intro.


Superimposed over what is essentially Paul and the string players' one last repeat of the refrain couplet we are treated to John's tag line from the intro, dubbed in here almost sotto-voce, and in perfect counterpoint. The violin's mockingbird repeat of the second refrain line is rhythmically stretched out this time in even quarter notes to help safely guide the music into the complete ending.

These couple of details elevate what is otherwise a formalistically simple ending into something elegant and sophisticatedly unified.

Some Final Thoughts

I had a professor who used to say that sometimes a good hard question (an "eisener kashe") was better than a hundred simple answers. In that spirit, I close this Note with three of this kind of question for you to consider as homework :-)

1. How much of the compositional credit should George Martin get for this song? Granted, "Eleanor Rigby" could survive an arrangement for other forces than string octet, but I'd dare say that Martin's contribution goes far beyond mere orchestration, and is truly an integral part of the message of the original; no?

2. Where does the inspiration for something like this song come from, and whatever happened to the cute Beatle who wrote it? I personally encounter in this song a level or dimension of further potential growth that has, alas, not been realized.

3. Could any one individual or group other than the Beatles have pulled off this kind of stylistic fusion with as much commanding respect and success? The many other classically-influenced entries by other groups from this period (I'm thinking here of a broad spectrum roughly marked out by the likes of "Walk Away Renee", "Classical Gas", and "MacArthur Park") remain curiosities at best. And I wonder, putting aside for the moment the undeniable special quality, per se, of "Eleanor Rigby", whether perhaps onea critical element in its ability to succeed is the fact that it comes to us with the imprimatur of The Beatles.

Alan (

"As it is you took the wrong turning and what happened -- you're
 a lonely old man from Liverpool."        021394#93

Copyright (c) 1994 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.

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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