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Deconstructing the Beatles: Alan Pollack's 'Notes On...' Series

Nick Stone
Contributing Writer

As an undergraduate at Stanford, I worked an endless series of part- time jobs in various departments of the school's labyrinthine library system. My favorite by far was the Archive of Recorded Sound, located in the basement of the music building, where my duties mostly involved shelving, cleaning and documenting a vast assortment of aging jazz, classical, opera and pop records.

To get to the Archive, I had to walk through the music library, where an imposing collection of centuries' worth of scores and theoretical treatises sat silently. When my shifts ended, I would retire to my dorm room to read Alan W. Pollack's "Notes On..." series, an ambitious HTML-based musicological survey of every song officially released by the Beatles. Pollack provided me some kind of connection, a link between the media and sensations hard- wired in the collective brain of my generation -- such as web pages and the sound of electric guitars -- and the daunting, dusty world of music history and scholarship that surrounded me at the Archive.

Alan Pollack recently spoke to me from his home in Massachusetts. Combined with background information available on his site, a few comments sufficed to provide an insight into the man who has painstakingly deciphered the magic of the Beatles - by ear! - for the edification and enjoyment of countless scholars and enthusiasts.

At the age of fifteen, Alan Pollack first encountered the Beatles through the band's now-epic 1964 performance on the Ed Sullivan show. A few years later, as an undergraduate music major, he began to apply his developing knowledge of music theory to the Beatles' then- contemporary albums Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. After a period of teaching classical music at the college level, Pollack decided that his computer programming skills would prove more lucrative and took a full-time job in the burgeoning tech industry. But Pollack never stopped applying his talent for musical analysis. The "Notes On..." series is Pollack's ten-year re-engagement with the music teacher within.

Beginning in 1989, Pollack carefully
analyzed the entire Beatles canon from a music theory
perspective, freely sharing his work online.

He employed what he now describes as "non-doctrinaire, mainstream Roman numeral harmonic theory" to address the Beatles library, refining his approach as his series of notes progressed. Pollack notes that his method borrows heavily from two giants from his own musicological education: Walter Piston and his "vanilla but approachable Eisenhower-era theory," and Heinrich Schenker, whose diagrams of harmonic activity Pollack employs frequently as an elegant means to visually represent each section of a Beatles tune. Pollack strikes a balance between academic rigor and a more vernacular, affectionate take on the music, delivering the material with an inimitable style that is friendly and approachable while densely packed with detailed information.

As an undergraduate, I initially found Pollack's analyses overwhelmingly technical. Though I had done well in an introductory class, music theory still felt abstract, like mathematics -- a syntax which I could memorize enough to pass a test, but which still eluded any real-life application on an instrument.

Despite my discomfort, something in Pollack's series captivated me. I knew by what I heard in the Beatles' recordings that there was some unique magic to what these musicians were doing, and I was intrigued by the possibility that someone could, with enough study, actually figure out how it was done. In my experience as both a lifelong student and an occasional teacher, this is one of the basic joys of music pedagogy. The realization that one can actually understand and even reproduce the apparently supernatural effects of a particular piece of music is like seeing the man behind the curtain: the great and powerful Oz is in fact just a modulation to the relative minor!

See For Yourself

You can browse Alan Pollack's "Notes On..." series by clicking on the link below (link opens in new window):

Browse the series

As the years passed and I accumulated experience and theoretical knowledge, Pollack's series engaged me with increasing depth. I began to see the series as a tool not just for learning to play Beatles songs, but for enriching my own songwriting. Pollack identifies the Beatles' signature compositional tricks, or "gambits" -- one of my favorite terms from Pollack's lexicon. Pollack always provides links to other songs in which the same gambits appear, and a vocabulary for the Beatles' vernacular starts to materialize. For a pop songwriter, this is like manna from heaven. Anyone with perseverance can learn to play "She Said She Said" note-for-note, but to really get under the surface, to be guided beyond what Pollack calls the "metrical hijinks" of the bridge into the formal guts of the song, is a revelation. Simply put, on any number of levels, Pollack's analyses serve to make the music not just more enjoyable, but more useful.

As an academic underneath it all, Pollack can't help but address the snobbery and skepticism often adopted toward pop music in the academic milieu . His "Notes On..." can be seen at times as a passionate vindication of the Beatles' material as being worthy of serious scholarship. Pollack uses academic tools to document the Beatles' iconoclastic tendencies as composers. The band itself had a love-hate relationship with previously established harmonic rules and conventions of composing, and Pollack's work highlights the specific harmonic and melodic idiosyncrasies that make their work unique and groundbreaking. Since most fans take a decidedly non-academic approach to the music, Pollack's work provides a valuable forum where both traditionally informed, academic analyses and more homespun, individual readings of the material can and do enter into discussion.

On the "Notes On..." website, Pollack writes that the series was inspired by a number of factors, from the re-release of the Beatles catalog on CD to a "mid-life crisis-inspired" desire to dust off his musicological training in the service of some substantial project. Mark Lewisohn's Recording Sessions set an analytical example, and Beatles Usenet contributors provided a likely online audience. At the time, the very existence of such a newsgroup testified to the power of a new medium, one that offered the possibility of immediate publication.

I believe the medium Pollack chose for his "Notes" is crucial. The internet has emerged as a powerful database for both academics and independent scholars, and it makes commentary and discussion available to the public. While the internet may be just a shopping mall to many, the existence of resources like Pollack's "Notes On..." prove that it can also be an excellent forum for music pedagogy.

When I spoke with him, Pollack was somewhat reluctant to speak about himself for publication, seeming to fear that he had sold out as a teacher by taking a job in computers so many years ago. Yet he revealed that more than half of the responses he receives to the "Notes On..." series come from individuals learning to play the material he has presented. He told me that his notes were written "as if sitting down in a living room" with a student. I wouldn't be surprised if, twenty or fifty or even hundreds of years from now, Beatles aficionados are still "sitting down" at their computers with Pollack's series. LM

Nick Stone was born in Wiesbaden, Germany and raised in various American army bases and suburbs. He is currently an independent scholar and musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and can be reached via

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