Yesterday appears on The Beatles’ 1965 album, Help.
The sounding key is F major – the guitar is tuned down a step: D-G-C-F-A-D.
The song has four verses and two bridges: both bridges are sung to the same lyrics, ‘Why, she, had to go…’, while verse three and four also repeat the same lyrics, ‘Yesterday, love was such and easy game to play…’.
0:00 – 0:04 – Intro – 2 bars
0:05 – 0:21 – Verse 1 – 7 bars
0:22 – 0:38 – Verse 2 – 7 bars
0:38 – 0:58 – Bridge 1 – 8 bars
0:58 – 1:17 – Verse 3 – 7 bars
1:17 – 1:37 – Bridge 2 – 8 bars
1:37 – 2:03 Verse 4 – 7 bars plus 2 bar outro – 9 bars
All of the verses consist of seven bars which are broken into four phrases: one phrase of 1 bar length and three phrases of 2 bars length. This is unusual when compared with the more typical four or eight bar verse and chorus lengths of Pop songs.
The verse chord progression is the same for all four verses: F – E minor – A7 – D minor – B flat – C7 – F – D minor – G – B flat – F, or, I – (ii – V7) – vi – IV – V7 – I – vi – II – IV – I, in F major. This progression helps to shape the phrasing for the verse: the beginning F major chord ‘stands alone’ to establish the progression, while the E minor, A seven and D minor create a ii – V – I progression in D minor (more on this in a moment); the B flat, C seven and F create a IV – V – I progression in F major; and the D minor, G, B flat and F major chords create a vi – II – IV – I progression in F major. In this way, the harmony, melody and lyrics all help to create the phrasal divisions: 1, 2, 2, 2.
Just as major, minor and dominant chords may be tonicised by a single secondary chord, such as a secondary dominant or diminished chord, so too can they be tonicised by a secondary ii – V progression. In the following example we can see that the ii – V – i progression in D minor can also be used as a secondary progression tonicising chord vi in F major.
This type of secondary progression is commonly found in many styles of music such as Classical and Jazz.
Looking again at the verse chord progression of Yesterday, the D minor to G major move also suggests a ii – V secondary progression to a C major chord; V in F major.
Perhaps the song’s composer, Paul McCartney, originally intended to use this secondary progression to the dominant of F, which would have created a (ii – V) – V – I progression, but chose instead to use the B flat major chord (IV) to create a Plagal cadence. The G major chord in the context of the verse progression is therefore heard as an altered supertonic rather than V of V.
The bridge chord progression is eight bars in length and consists of two 4-bar phrases. Each phrase consists of the following progression, E minor/A – A7 – D minor – C – B flat – A minor – G minor – C7 – F, or, (ii – V) – vi -V – IV – iii – ii – V – I in F major.
Once again, chord vi (D minor) is preceded by its own ii – V progression, while the rest of the bridge chords are diatonic to F major. The final F of the bridge is preceded by a ii – V progression which creates a Perfect cadence to complete this section.
During the verse and bridge, the chord progressions are embellished by passing notes between the roots of certain chords, these are originally played only on the guitar for the first verse and later they are doubled by the cello when the string quartet joins at the beginning of the second verse, at 0:22.
The following example shows the passing notes in the cello’s verse section.
The string parts essentially sustain the chords of the underlying verse and bridge progressions, their parts do, however, occasionally have some independent melodic interest. For example, over the verse’s Dm – G – B flat – F progression the viola plays a line which creates some tension and release over the D minor and G chords.
Here, the viola’s C note, played over the D minor chord, creates a suspension which resolves onto the third (B) of the G major chord. Suspensions are very common in many styles of music, especially Classical.
There is also some sharing of melodic ideas between the vocal melody and the strings. For example, at the end of the first bridge, Paul McCartney sings the word ‘yesterday’ and sustains an F note while the viola plays an F arpeggio with a passing B flat.
This same arpeggio is later sung at the end of the second bridge (1:37) while the strings sustain an F major chord. The sharing of melodic ideas helps to create cohesion between the string quartet and the vocals and guitar, it also creates timbral interest.
Further interest is created during the second bridge, at 1:25, where the cello embellishes the F major harmony with a line which suggest an F seventh chord.
This adds a ‘bluesy’ touch to the simple F major harmony while also giving some melodic interest while the vocals rest in the second half of the bar.
Techniques and concepts used in Yesterday:
- Secondary progressions
- Passing notes
- Melodic interest in other instrumental parts