Julia – Song Analysis

Arguably the most influential pop songwriters in recent history, the Beatles satisfy listeners all across the world with their messages of free love and free imagination… I dare say they are Super Hippies. Their songwriting contains a beautiful mix of characters and some very original ideas. One of my personal favorites is “Julia” from The White Album. It showcases two of their major compositional strengths: voice leading and advanced harmony. I’m going to go ahead and jump into an analysis of the tune. I did an arrangement for my brass band a few months ago and I really fell in love with some of the little tricks in this composition. Check out last week’s blog on Modal Interchange if you’d like also. Learning a little about that topic will help to explain its use in this song.


The chord progression is a very sophisticated reorganization of typical sounds. It maintains the key of D Major throughout and highlights use of the Tonic (I), Mediant (iii), Submediant (vi), and Dominant (V) chords for it’s most common progression. The intro and several interludes use these chords alone:

DMaj (I) Bmin (vi) F#min (iii) F#min (iii)

In the interludes and end of the chorus the second F#min is replaced with A7 (V).

These sounds serve as the harmonic backdrop for the mood and style of the piece. As the song develops into the chorus there are several very interesting harmonic choices the group makes. Here is the progression for the chorus:

DMaj (I) Bmin (vi) Amin (v) Amin9 (v)

B7 (VI) B7 (VI) G7 (IV) Gmin (iv)

DMaj (I) Bmin (vi) F#min (iii) A7 (V)

The beginning and end of the chorus uses the harmonic motif from the intro. First off in the chorus I think the the use of A minor is interesting. In the key of D, A minor would be the (v) minor chord. This is already a reasonably advanced choice. It shows that the Beatles were aware of the concept of modal interchange. Although the main key of the song is D Major (Ionian), they are borrowing this A minor chord from D minor (Dorian). Dorian is the second mode of the major scale and by using chords from both the Dorian and original Ionian mode in the chorus they are already entering an advanced harmonic landscape. Next in the chorus is a very beautiful voice leading passage also made possible by modal interchange.

From the A minor we arrive next at B7 (VI). This is a sound that is typical in blues and pop writing when the progression is headed back to the II chord. In relation to the key of D this sound is not strange. We hang here on B7 long enough to set up harmonic expectations but then another modal interchange event is used to prolong the resolution. G7 is borrowed from the same D minor (Dorian) mode as before and is a slight shock. Then the harmony shifts abruptly to G minor. This is a very interesting choice and has a very dramatic effect on the tonal color. This G minor chord comes from the Aeolian mode in the key of D (allowing for the Bb). The G minor resolves to D Major and after our brief departure we’re back to the home base of this composition. Already in a short 12 bar chorus the composition has borrowed chords from 3 different modes (Ionian, Dorian, and Aeolian) all with their tonic in D.

The voice leading made possible in this chorus is very tight knit. Here is an example from the first guitar line.

Notice that the D# in the B7 chord resolves downward into the G7 (becoming D). The B both resolves downward into an A (the 9th) on the G7 as well as jumps down an octave to become the Major 3rd of the G7. Then when the G minor hits B becomes Bb, the third of G minor, and finally resolves downward one last step to A, the 5th of the D Major chord. This is commonly referred to as a “Line Cliché.” This is when an ascending or descending line is taken stepwise through a chord progression. The Beatles were masters of this device. Nearly all instrumentalists use line clichés in their writing in some capacity. The Beatles add them into their pieces in very creative and surprising ways.

The next important harmonic event in “Julia” is the brief interlude section that comes after the second repeat of the chorus. It starts with the lyric: “Her hair of floating sky is shimmering.”

This is a direct departure from the harmonies we heard previously in the song. Here are the chords:

C#min (iiv) C#min (iiv) DMaj7#11 (I) DMaj7#11 (I)

Bmin7 (vi) Bmin6 (vi) F#min7 (iii) F#min6 (iii)

F#min b6 (iii) F#min (iii)

We have yet another example of Modal Interchange right away in this passage. The C# minor is borrowed from the Lydian mode of D Major (allowing for the G#). This is so far the most dramatic harmonic shift of the song. The melody here also has a much different shape then in the other areas of the composition. It starts low and climbs up the C# minor scale, dips down again, and then reaches the top note A and very powerfully states the D Lydian sound with the G# on the second beat of the D major chord.

Quickly the phrases is stated again under a different harmonic backdrop (B minor). Here is our next example of a line cliché in the piece. Starting with the A in the melody (which is doubled in the guitar line) the Line Cliché begins. We have a strong A over the Bmin7 then a G# for the Bmin6. Then another Line Cliché is used as a transition back to D major. We have an E natural over the F#min7, then a D#(Eb) on the F#min6, followed by a D natural on the F#min b6, and finally the end of the Line Cliché with a C# on the last F#min chord.

Here is an example of the inner voice leading created by this chord progression.

Notice the descending resolution from the A to the G#. Then also notice the extended line cliché that descends from the E on the F# minor 7 all the way down to the C# on the last F# minor chord. In this passage the line cliché is highlighted by the fact that the vocal melody sustains on a single note. This draws the listener’s attention away from the vocal and focuses it on the guitar line.

Besides the depth of harmonic variety and nuance in this piece it is also interesting rhythmically. Without any drums present, the bass and guitars supply rhythm. The bass chunks away half-notes in a traditional shape. The second rhythm guitar plays consistent quarter-notes which with the bass create a very solid texture. What adds the forward motion to the song is the first guitar part. It plays a syncopated rhythm that fits in the cracks of the other two figures. Here is an example from the intro:

Notice the simplicity in the arrangement. The rhythmic counterpoint stays exactly like this for the entire piece. There is no deviation and it produces the groove that you feel when listening. As it turns out, it’s the beautiful curves in the harmony and the organization of the melody and lyrics that create the different textures in the song.

Such simplicity and drive is present in work by many of the world’s great musicians. In passages from “Julia” you can obtain a view into the dynamic structure of the Beatles music. It’s surprising, innovative, and solid as a rock.

Joe SM

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One Response to Julia – Song Analysis

  1. Modium ? says:

    Regarding the “syncopated rhythm that fits in the cracks of the other two figures” – it comes from the guitar picking style called Travis picking, which John Lennon came to know during the time the Beatles spent in India. The song was written after playing around with this style, and therefore the rhythmic pattern was part of the inspiration and not just added as a choice of arrangement.
    I wonder which instrument got to play the syncopated notes in your arrangement. I bet those were the flutes (or clarinets?).

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