Notes on "Norwegian Wood" (NW)

KEY E Major

METER 3/4 (6/8)

FORM Verse (Instrumental Intro) -> Verse -> Bridge -> Verse -> Verse (Instrumental Solo) -> Bridge -> Verse -> Outro (w/complete ending)


Style and Form

- This understated and characteristically oblique song of John's is also admirably economical in terms of both form and content, with everything but the bridges being derived from the same hook motif. In lesser hands, the large amount of unvaried repetition and static harmony of this piece might have resulted in a moribound, boring mess. The Beatles leverage it all in favor of and unity and focus.

- It is also another one of the very few Beatles songs in a ternary meter; this time, most lilting and very un-waltz-like.

- The much commented-upon use of a sitar was surely ground breaking enough at the time per se. What I am particularly struck by, given the novelty-numbing distance of time, is the extent to which the psychadelic buzzing of that exotic instrument is so uncannily complemented here by the high level of percussive noise achieved by using a hard pick on the otherwise standard 12-string guitar.

Melody and Harmony

- The extent to which they must have *known* in their souls that they had an especially fine hook going for them in this song is likely borne out by the way in which it is used repeatedly throughout to almost hypnotic effect.

- This so-called hook would, indeed, make a for a lovely and sophisticated textbook example of one of the archtypal melodic paradigms; i.e. the prevaling downward sprial, as distinct from the arch (do pardon the clunky analogue used here in place of a true music staff):

| |C# | | | | | | | |B | B | | | | | | | | | A | | A | | A | | | | | |G# | G#| | | | | | | | |F# | | | | | | | | | |E | | | | | | | | | |D | | | | | | | | | C#| | | | | | | | | |B |- |

- The melodic contour of the above essentially lays out an octave descent with a mix of linear and disjunct motion. The initially simple gesture of a downward scale that turns around its upper neighbor tone is further developed twice-over by a pattern in which the overall downward progression is marked by a two-jumps-down/one-jump-up kind of subfigure in which the jumps are increasingly wider. The modal use of the melodic flat 7th (D natural) adds some additional spice.

- The hook phrase stretches out liesurely over eight measures that are bound to an harmonic "envelope" on the I chord (E). We could likely argue all night about whether or not one hears equally implicit chord changes during this hook, but we've got better things to do all night than that, right, buddy ? In any event, this drone-like element in the harmony combines with the sound of the Indian sitar to create a stylistic "sound" which, if you stop to think about it, anticipates here in "a John song" what would soon become very much a specifically Harrisonian trademark.

- The bridge strays briefly into the parallel minor (shades of "I'll Be Back" and other earlier Beatles tunes) and provides some welcome harmonic movement, but interestingly, the melodic gesture of those otherwise contrasting sections still remains previalingly downward.


- The instrumental backing is acoustic in flavor, and, quite typically for the Beatles, is worked out to a finer level of detail than at first meets the eye or ear. Examples of this are the staggered opening; the way in which melodic-versus-rhythmic interest is traded back and forth between guitar and sitar even to the point where they double each other in several places; a tamboura-like buzzing drone sound from the sitar that kicks in during the verse following the first bridge; and the clinking of finger cymbals which starts in the second bridge and follows through the final verse and the coda.

- John sings the wry lead vocal fully exposed in single track with Paul taking the the top part for the bridges, which although it is actually the melodic line of that section, is ironically mixed back.



- The intro is sixteen measures long and consists of a verse-like two-fold presentation of the hook phrase; the first, for solo acoustic guitar followed by the entrance of the sitar (which then carries the melody) and bass guitar.


- All the verses follow the pattern set up in the intro with John carrying the tune, the guitar stepping back into a role of rhythmic support, and the sitar occasionally providing a mockingbird reprise of the hook's ending as a rejoinder (e.g. verse #1 and the first half of the final verse).


- The bridge is also sixteen measures long and though we finally feel the release of some harmonic movement, the slowness of the harmonic rhythm helps maintain the measured mood established earlier:

|e |- |- |- |A |- |- |- | i IV |e |- |- |- |f# |- |B |- | i ii V

- The use of the Major IV chord in context of a minor key lends an antique, modal touch that resonates with the melodic flat 7th used in the verse hook. In context of the Beatles we're much more used to seeing the reverse trick of the *minor* iv chord in a Major key. In fact, the only other time we have seen this Major IV/minor key gambit used in a Beatles song was way back in George's "Don't Bother Me."


- The outro provides one repeat of the hook. Two repeats would have been more consistent with the established pattern of the rest of the song, but specifically breaking the rule at this point is what good art and composition are all about (IMHO).


- The preliminary though fully worked-out Take 1 version of this song has been widely available on Beatlegs ever since "Ultra Rare Trax", volume 3, appeared on vinyl. It makes for a number of provoking comparisons with the official version (mixed down from Take 4):

  1. - Take 1 was apparently performed in the lower key of D, though in light of the recent debate in this newsgroup regarding the speed of the Decca tapes, I'll have to grant that this observation may be an artifact of an off-speed bootleg copy. Still, I think John sounds vocally out of breath on the low notes in this outtake, hence the motivation for transposing the song upward.

  2. - The arrangement of Take 1 is not only different per se from the official version, but is in many respects more fussily detailed than it, perhaps too much so:

  3. - The tempo may be close in speed but the whole feel of the beat is more lumberingly deliberate, even a bit mechanical.

  4. - The solo section in the middle contains only one iteration of the hook phrase.

  5. - John double tracks the end of every phrase in every verse.

  6. - The phrases "biding my time/drinking her wine" are reversed.

  7. - The sitar playing is rather clunky sounding but it holds all the instrumentally melodic interest, relegating the guitar to a role of entirely rhythmic support.

  8. - The sitar provides a mockingbird rejoinder in the bridges instead of the verses, and it also throws in a corny "that's all folks" little riff at the very end.

  9. - Finger cymbals are used throughout, with marracas and a tambourine added for the bridge.

    - Lewisohn seems to judge the official remake as the "heavier" of the two treatments, but I'd be happy to argue him back the opposite way. While some of the differences in the later version (all of 1 week on the calendar!) may be explained by their simply having the song that much better under their fingers, I dare say the more substantive changes may be traceable to a better-judgment consideration of the aesthetic principle that "less (not to mention a lighter, faster touch) is more."

    Alan ( <--- please note the change of address!
    "I showed ya!"						      031893#78
                    Copyright (c) 1993 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.
    Click here to return.

    Click here to return to AWP's index.