Is "With a Little Help From My Friends" the Perfect Song?

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

I believe the best songwriters in the world are the best listeners. You can spend a lot of time trying to come up with the next gem, but it’s the ones who really listen to successful songs, trying to figure out why they work, that succeed. And in my opinion, Lennon & McCartney’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” is perhaps the quintesential perfect song.

So what makes this song work so well?

  1. Simplicity. There’s nothing tricky, nothing overly unexpected. In fact, it’s the perfect balance between predictability and innovation. I’ve always made the point that hit songs are strongly balanced toward predictability, with only a touch of innovation.
  2. The use of the tonic (key) note. The verse almost entirely avoids the tonic note, leaving that pitch to be stated and restated by the refrain. This works because verses should have a feeling of incompleteness about them, a sense of needing a chorus (or in this song’s case, a refrain) to complete the song. The refrain’s “Oh, I get by…” does this.
  3. Melodic structure. The verse undulates mainly between the tonic note and the dominant note. Because the refrain is basically lower in pitch than the verse, we get the dominant note in a strong position at the very beginning of the refrain. This places a high note in a structurally important place in the song. The bridge features the highest pitches of the song – crucial in a song that uses a rather limited range in the verse and refrain.
  4. The lyrics. They’re simple, using everyday words that everyone can relate to. Not to say, of course, that clever lyrics and double entendres aren’t the hallmark of many Beatles’ hits, but the simple lyric really works well here.
  5. Chords. The verse uses simple diatonic chords from E major with no surprises. The refrain uses a flat-VII (D), helping to differentiate it from the verse. The bridge (middle 8) uses a major II chord (F#), taking it a little further afield from the diatonic choices of the key of E major, but that’s as adventurous as it gets. For those looking for the elusive killer chord progression for their own songs, you’ll find that the zanier the chords get, the more you leave audience behind. Simplicity always trumps complexity.

As a final thought, let me say: Being clever in a song can and will work for you, but if you are looking for a way to really connect with the heart of your listener, you need to be real, use simple words, and describe common emotions. “With a Little Help From My Friends” is the perfect example.

FOR A LIMITED TIME: Gary’s newest e-book, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- Chord Progression Formulas” is being offered for free when you purchase any other of his songwriting e-books. Read more..

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  1. Not forgetting the brilliant outro : “with a little help from my friends, with a litle help from my ‘C’ frennn ‘Am6’ nnnz ‘E’.

  2. Interesting analysis…. My absolute favourite Beatles song would be Oh Darling, which is equally simple in the chord department. But things like A Day In The Life and Happiness is a Warm Gun succeed in a much more complex way. Is a perfect song conceivable? I’m not sure.

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