Rhythm Workshop: Get Familiar with Odd Bar Counts

One outstanding trait found in numerous songs written by the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Jimmy Webb (as well as many others) is the use of odd amounts of 4/4 measures to create very natural sounding harmonic foundations, i.e. chord progressions, for truly memorable melodies.
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One outstanding trait found in numerous songs written by the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Jimmy Webb (as well as many others) is the use of odd amounts of 4/4 measures to create very natural sounding harmonic foundations, i.e. chord progressions, for truly memorable melodies.
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One outstanding trait found in numerous songs written by the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Jimmy Webb (as well as many others) is the use of odd amounts of 4/4 measures to create very natural sounding harmonic foundations, i.e. chord progressions, for truly memorable melodies. We can’t print the melodies here, but we can inspect the frameworks from a pair of very recognizable tunes and analyze their harmonic structures.

Our first example, which ties in nicely with this month’s Under Investigation, breaks down Jimmy Webb’s timeless and iconic “Wichita Lineman” as rendered by Glen Campbell. (Tip: You can check out the instrumental version of the melody on page 66.) Ex. 1 illustrates the song’s 17-bar chord progression, which encompasses two key centers—F and D. (We don’t count the pickup measure of the vocal melody, as this is actually bar 17 of the progression.) Bars 1 through 3 constitute the first feeling of “oddness” with a three-bar Bbmaj7-Fmaj7-Gm7(9) progression (IV-I-IIm in the key of F) that completes the first melodic statement—the “call” to the “response” in bars 4 through 7. Bar 4 remains in the key of F (Dm7 = VIm and Am7 = IIIm), but the move to G in bar 5 falls outside of that key, and, along with bars 6 and 7, signals a shift to the key of D, where G is the IV chord and D becomes the new the tonic I chord. (Note how the ear initially gets faked out into hearing G as the I chord and D as the V.)

The move to Csus2 in bars 8 and 9 creates the impression of a IV chord in G, but it functions here as the bVII-chord in D. The ensuing G/B-to-Gm/Bb changes in bars 10 and 11 utilize a fairly common IV-to-IVm strategy that sets up both the return to the I chord (D) in bar 12 and the ultra-cool sounding Asus4 V chord in bar 13. The four remaining measures confuse the tonality even further by temporarily implying the key of D minor, with Bb acting as the bVI chord and C as the bVII, but we’re actually back in F, where Bb = IV and C = V, and both chords set up the return to the original key at the top of the progression.

The Beatles catalog contains numerous examples of odd bar counts—check out “Taxman” (13-bar verse), “I’m Only Sleeping” (15-bar verse), “Hello Goodbye” (9-bar verse and 7-bar chorus), and “I Will” (9-bar verse)—but the most famous by far is the 7-bar verse form found in “Yesterday.” Though Ex. 2 outlines the song’s progression as fingered in the key of G, Paul McCartney famously tuned his Epiphone Texan acoustic down two semitones (D, G, C, F, A, D, low to high), which makes all of the same fingerings sound one whole-step lower than written.

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We begin the steady eighth-note strumming pattern with one measure of the tonic G chord, and then immediately IIm-V into its relative VIm chord with the F#m-B7-Em changes in bars 2 and 3. A descending D bass note connects Em to the Cmaj7-D7-G (IV-V-I) movement that follows in bars 4 and 5. Another descending bass note (F#) leads to the Vim chord (Em7), the dominant II chord (A), and, ultimately, the concluding C-to-G (IV-I) movement in bar 7.

Of course it’s the songs’ melodies that so magnificently bring these odd-count chord progressions to life. Hum, sing, or just imagine them while playing the chords, and marvel at how musical oddbar counts can sound in the hands of a master composer.

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