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Notes on "Only A Northern Song"

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Previous page: Album "Yellow Submarine" Next page: Notes on "All Together Now"

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 "Only A Northern Song"

KEY A Major
FORM Intro -> Verse -> Verse -> Refrain ->
            Verse (Instrumental) -> Refrain
                Verse -> Refrain (Instrumental) -> Outro (fadeout)

General Points of Interest

Style and Form

If this song, released as it was in '69, seems on the heels of our White Album studies to sound like a throwback to the the Pepper days of '67, with it's relatively straightforward backing track overlaid with alot of "noise" (in the manner of "... Mr. Kite"), you shouldn't be surprised.

Contrary to some misinformation that has become well entrenched in the literature, this song was NOT thrown together right before the Yellow Submarine film was due. Rather, it was given a standard workup during the earlier Pepper sessions, sandwiched in "A Day in the Life" and (no surprise!) "Mr. Kite."

The form is a hybrid, with pop-like doubled up verses at the start and a folk-like persistent repetition of the refrain.

Those repeated references in the lyrics to "chords ... going wrong" and the like are most obviously painted in the music by what I call the "noise track" below. Howver, the chord progressions themselves and the changeable phrase lengths admirably follow through on the same idea on a more subtle level.

For the purpose of this article, I'm parsing the song in 2/4 rather than 4/4 in order to make the uneven phrasing easier to notate.

Melody and Harmony

The tune, with its primarily step-wise motion and limited range, suggests a mood both obsessing and in-drawn, uncannily in tune with the lyrics.

The harmony, by contrast, with its erratic pace of change and sudden changes in direction, seems uncomfortably restless; uncannily in tune too with yet another dimension of those lyrics.


The base track features organ, bass guitar, and drum kit, onto which is overlaid a stylized "noise (or interference) track" that contains the sounds of trumpets, metallic and broken glass-like percussion, and piano doodling.

In true Beatles layering style, the noise track is first introduced at the end of the first verse, though I believe it runs continuously from there to the end of the track, mixed way up or back down as the mood suits. Note, too, how even in the first verse, the organ part finds its own subtle way to anticipate the noise that is to come.

As a general rule, the volume of the noise track is turned down at the beginning of sections and up at their endings. Exceptions to this are the instrumental middle verse, the partially instrumental 3rd refrain, and the outro, in all of which the volume level is kept high throughout.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough


The intro sounds more random and out of tempo than it is largely because of the lack of clear drumbeat until the last couple measures.

Harmonically, the second half introduces, over an E pedal point, what you'll only realize later is to be the chord progression that accompanies the title phrase of the song.

The home key is converged upon from left field:

G - A|B |... |C7 |e |D |A |E |- | A: flat-III v IV I V


The verse is a surprising 19 measures long. It starts off innocently enough, with two related phrases (AA') over the satic harmony of the first eight measures. But then, just where you'd otherwise expect a third phrase to be, you find a rather rhetorical pause in the tune. And the final line of the section changes harmony a full measure ahead of where you'd expect; after 3, instead of 4 measures.

        |A |- |- |- |
A:  I

        |- |- |- |- |

        |b |- |- |- |

        |E |- |- |D |- |- |- |
         V    IV

That off-kilter chord change in the last line helps put a little body English onto what shapes up as an almost agonizingly long, slow passage in terms of harmonic rhythm.

The harmonic shape of this section slowly but surely opens wide to V, but then cautiously pulls back to IV. This is a classic approach-avoidance reflex played out in chords, as though the protagonist, after screwing up some unacustomed amount of courage, suddenly felt as though he had overstepped himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth.


The bridge is 15 measures long, and it continues the rhetorically uneven phrasing pattern established in the verse. This time we have three phrases filling out 4, 6, and 5 measures respectively. And then, there's the matter of the third phrase opening with a single measure of 3/4 (or perhaps 6/8) interpolated; shades of Lennon in "Strawberry Fields Forever."

        |E |b |G |C# |
A:  V  ii
              b: i       VI      V-of-V

        |F# |- |b |- |F# |- |
b:  V   i   V

        |D   A |E |- |- |- |
b:  III

The harmony makes a forcible modulation to the key of ii (b minor) that somehow looks much smoother on paper than it sounds. It settles in b for a while, only to switch back even more forcibly than before to the home key, ending the section on V, this time without any flinching or pussy footing.

In contrast to the Tortise-paced harmonic rhythm of the verse, the chord changes here tend toward every, or every other measure.

Aside from the functional pivot, what helps make the modulation in the first phrase work is the appearance of the note 'B' as a common pitch in all four chords.


The outro features a mix that is very similar to what is heard in the earlier instrumental verse, and form-wise, it fills out a complete verse and refrain, ending with a final verse that fades out completely before reaching its midpoint.

The noise track is mixed so far forward in this outro that you have to strain to recognize the familiar underpinnings of the base track.

Some Final Thoughts

In this song, according to the conventional wisdom, George is bemoaning the second-class treatment he gets as a song writer from the other Beatles; the apparent creative invisibility he feels it is futile for him to try to transcend in their eyes.

Certainly, I'd never envy George's predicament of being caught in the competetive, psycho-sexual crossfire of Mssrs. L & M, nor question the sincerity of the pain he expresses about it in this song.

But I wonder whether if, in choosing to nobly refrain from lashing out directly at the others and instead, focusing no matter how cleverly on his own bitterness, the strategy backfires in aesthetic terms.

The song, though it may have been targeted to arouse from us a reaction of pathos-like sympathetic sadness and compassion, it ends up hitting the unintended mark of merely pathetic scornful pity.


Alan (


"You don't think he's a new phenomenon do you?"             110898#157


Copyright (c) 1998 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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Artist: Dominic Pedler

Arranged by The Beatles

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