I Want To Tell You About A Chord That George Harrison Did Not Invent

The skeptical cardiologist has of late been obsessed with a Beatles song. It is the fifth song on the second side of the four mop tops seventh studio album and the third George Harrison contribution to Revolver, arguably the best record album of all time.

With a subscription to Apple Music I can listen to the entire Beatles catalogue now and one day I Want To Tell You (IWTTY) began playing. I hadn’t closely listened to this song before but at 25 seconds in someone begins playing very loudly two notes on a piano and keeps playing them for 8 seconds. The effect is strikingly dissonant but mesmerizing.

It turns out much has been written about this section of I Want To Tell you (along with anything else remotely related  to The Fab Four.)

The two notes are F and E and they are being played by Paul McCartney emphasizing the flattened ninth (and highly dissonant) portion of the chord E 7 b9.

Tim Riley in his Beatles song by song analysis, “Tell Me Why” writes of IWTTY:

The guitar line is central, the backbone for the esoteric lyrics, and the piano’s annoying dissonant figure at the end of each verse disrupts its stability.

The piano conveys the frustration of the singer, and its single-note solo is the peace he wants to attain

I’ve also seen this section described as “creating a frustrated bitonal disonance ( G sharp 7 diminished against E7 or E7 flat 9)

Apparently Harrison:

Lacking formal music training, apart from in his sitar studies…later described the harsh-sounding E79 as, variously, “an E and an F at the same time”  and “an E7th with an F on top, played on the piano”.

The Wikipedia entry on IWTTY spends considerable time on the significance of the E7flat9.

Writing in Rolling Stone’s Harrison commemorative issue, in January 2002, Mikal Gilmore recognised his incorporation of dissonance on “I Want to Tell You” as having been “revolutionary in popular music” in 1966. Gilmore considered this innovation to be “perhaps more originally creative” than the avant-garde styling that Lennon and McCartney took from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky and incorporated into the Beatles’ work over the same period.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to say that the chord “became one of the most legendary in the entire Beatles catalogue.”

Harrison was deliberately using the chord’s dissonance to create an emotion.”The musical and emotional dissonance is then heightened by the use of E79, a chord that Harrison said he happened upon while striving for a sound that adequately conveyed a sense of frustration.”

“speaking in 2001, Harrison said: “I’m really proud of that as I literally invented that chord.”

 I thought it highly unlikely that George Harrison “invented” (literally or figuratively) the seventh flattened ninth chord but had no way of checking the accuracy of the Wikipedia quote (from Guitar World magazine.) or the context. Was Harrison that musically naive, was he joking or did he mean something else?

Later that day I sat at my Kawai baby grand piano and began playing songs from The Encylopedia of Jazz.

One of my favorites from this book  is Satin Doll (written in 1953 by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) and as I was playing it I realized that it was loaded with  flattened ninths. There’s a D7flat9 when the word Satin is sung. These chords make the song more complex and memorable.

Next I played my favorite song in this Jazz book i “Lullaby of Birdland” (music written by George Shearing in 1952) which features two 7flat9 chords (F# and B7) in the second measure (played with the words “that’s what I.”)  Later on in the song we are treated to 7flat 9 in D and the chord that George Harrison claimed to have literally invented E7b9.

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald singing it with Duke Ellington

So a cursory review reveals that the chord was being utilized a lot in 1953 (and that I have a special attraction to its complexity.)

Perhaps Harrison can claim he was the first to appropriate the chord in rock and roll music? Alas, we know that an F#7b9 is prominent in the Beach Boys’ Caroline, No which was released in March, 1966, 3 months before the Beatles released IWTTY.

He may not have invented the chord or even been the first to use it in rock and roll but his use in IWTTY coupled with McCartney’s hammering on the F and E have made me forever cognizant of that song’s beauty. 

For that plus his brilliant guitar work and songwriting during and after The Beatles I will be eternally grateful.

Nondissonantly Yours,

-ACP

N.B. Dear Readers. If any of you have access to the Guitar World interview of 2001 (from Wikipedia-Garbarini, Vic (January 2001). “When We Was Fab”. Guitar World. p. 200) wherein Harrison is alleged to claim he invented the magical 7b9 please share it with me. 

Also, please note there is a new button on my website which allows you to sign up for my weekly emal newsletter (which i promise will be mostly related to cardiology and not esoteric musical chords.)

17 thoughts on “I Want To Tell You About A Chord That George Harrison Did Not Invent”

  1. Wouldn’t disagree about Revolver maybe being the greatest album of all time except it’s hard to pick just one, as Abbey Road, The White Album and Sgt Pepper present some stiff competition for that number one spot.

    1. Agree. For most of my life I would have put Abbey Road first, White album second in the Beatles ouevre. But this had more to do with those albums being released at a time I was old enough to appreciate them.

  2. Will we get the weekly email newsletter if we are already subscribed to the blog? I can’t find a button for the newsletter.

    1. Let me consult with my IT team… oh wait, that’s me. I believe you have to opt in separately for my up and coming and potentially amazing newsletter.

  3. A friend of mine at work got me started reading the Skeptical Cardiologist. We were talking about my taking a statin. I find your blog to be interesting, not only with regard to your views about cardiology, but also in your willingness to share other interests that you pursue. At this moment I have just read about George Harrison’s believing that he had struck a new chord.
    I do not know much about chords altho I am trying to learn music in my old age. I started playing the violin and then the cello, altho I have been a slackard in these matters lately.
    With regard to statins, I was concerned about reducing my dosage, contrary to me cardiologist’s direction, but I finally deduced/decided that it was OK to NOT take the dosage on days I played racquetball, and work on projects at home. This way I reduce the days my muscles ache.
    Eric.Hathaway@stonybrook.edu

    1. Eric,
      Glad to hear of your late dabbling in music. And the concept of skipping the statin on days of intense physical exertion is an interesting one.

  4. I think when a songwriter says they ” invented a chord”, they likely mean they, themselves, had never seen that chord before and built the voicing on the spot to suit a song- common for self taught musicians/song writers to be told about the theory of their music after the fact. I dont think George was arrogant enough to think he invented a flat 9, but he did in essence discover it – for himself.

    1. Ian,
      As a songwriter myself I totally agree with what you’re saying. I’ve stumbled upon what to me are fascinating and totally original chords or chord progressions that I’ve put in my songs. As time passes I will ultimately hear those chords or progressions in an earlier work than mine and realize that 1. I didn’t invent them and 2. I was clearly influenced by earlier work. I agree with you that this is “discovering” the chord. Kind of like Columbus discovering the New World. He certainly didn’t invent the New World.
      I also agree that Harrison seems lacking in arrogance. That’s why I’d like to see the full context of that quote.

    1. Because I’m the chief cook and bottle washer on this site I failed to completely negotiate adding the signup for the newsletter.
      I’ve spent a little more time on it and i believe now an annoying pop-up will politely invite you to sign-up for the amazing newsletter the first time you navigate to the site.

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