Monday Notes

A Whiter Shade of Pale, all in one scale, like Bach

Italian flag
Leggi in Italiano

[Monday Notes no.167] A Whiter Shade of Pale is a classic Procol Harum song, the song that launched the band in 1967. While American rock is mainly inspired by the blues, British rock has always maintained a close relationship with classical music. No wonder, then, that A Whiter Shade of Pale is largely derived from the music of J.S. Bach.

Other examples of contact between classical music and English rock can be found in the music of the Emerson Lake & Palmer trio, in Genesis, in King Crimson. Even in the music of the Beatles one occasionally hears arrangements employing string orchestra and choir, with a clear classical inspiration.

Returning to Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, the piece is derived from a descending bass line typical of classical music, particularly reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s famous Aria on the Fourth String, contained in Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. Here is the beginning of Bach’s composition.

Bach aria sulla quarta corda, scala discendente

To better compare the different examples, I have transported them all in the key of C major. The progression is partly made up of “slash” chords, I remind you that in the symbol / the note after the slash indicates what to play on the piano with the left hand, or in any case the bass note. The resulting bass line is therefore a descending scale C B A G F etc., so now we see the beginning of A Whiter Shade of Pale, with its organ introduction.

A Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum. Spartito

The chords are almost the same and even the melody is similar, not so much in the pitch of the sounds but in the melodic rhythm: both songs begin with a long note and continue with a series of eighth notes.

While the similarity between A Whiter Shade of Pale and the Aria on the Fourth String is thus evident, there are also many pieces that use the same harmonic progression even while deviating from Bach’s piece. Another example of the same progression can be found in L.V. Beethoven‘s Sonata No. 30 op.109.

Beethoven Sonata op109 scala

In this case the melody is completely different, broken into short two-note motifs, but the harmonic progression is absolutely the same. Actually, Beethoven’s sonata is in the key of E major, again I have transposed the piece to C major to make comparison with the other pieces easier.

This harmonic progression has therefore been employed by various classical composers, in different eras, taken up by rock musicians such as Procol Harum, and also used by songwriters to write new tunes. This same series of chords is found, for example, in Vasco Rossi’s Albachiara.

Albachiara, Vasco Rossi. Scala discendente

There are many Italian songs that use these chords, e.g. La leva calcistica della classe ’68 by Francesco di De Gregori, Quello che le donne non dicono by Fiorella Mannoia, A te by Jovanotti.

However, it would be wrong to say that the composers of these pieces copied someone or something, this series of chords, with the bass going down, are in fact implicit in the scale itself. The scale is a fundamental part of music and using chords ‘in a row’ on the scale was a logical and natural thing for Bach as well as for recent songwriters.

Procol Harum clearly wanted to pay homage to Bach with a quotation, while the other songwriters simply used a series of chords that ‘fit together’, perhaps unconsciously rediscovering something that was already well known to musicians three hundred years ago. And you, can you point me to other songs that use the descending scale in a similar way? Write them in the comments, and I will add them to the list.

Until next Monday!

Do you want to receive my free lessons?

Sheet music, harmony lessons, music theory and musical analysis.