Musical simples: Dear Prudence

John Lennon supposedly thought that “Dear Prudence” was the best song he wrote for the Beatles, and I’m inclined to agree.

“Dear Prudence” combines major and minor sounds, so there is no standard scale that includes all of its pitches. You can, however, use a special scale called the Supermode, which combines the pitches from the major scale and the natural minor scale. The diagrams below show the Supermode on the chromatic circle, on the left, and the circle of fifths, on the right. The pitches of the bassline follow the blue arrows.


The groove under “Dear Prudence” is a cousin of lament bass. However, it’s more likely that John Lennon was inspired by the blues.

Here’s a chord chart for twelve-bar blues in D:

| D7 | D7 | D7 | D7 |
| G7 | G7 | D7 | D7 |
| A7 | G7 | D7 | A7 |

There are many ways to embellish this basic template. One common method is to add more chords to the second-to-last bar, to create a little drama that culminates in the chord in the final bar. These short progressions are called turnarounds. The descending version of the turnaround goes like so: D, D7, G, G minor, landing on A7 in the last bar. If you voice these chords the right way, the top notes spell out a descending melody: D, C, B, B-flat, A. You could also use that melody as a bassline. And if you slow that bassline down and embellish it a bit, you get “Dear Prudence.”

The chord progression of the “Dear Prudence” groove is:

| D  D7 | G  Gm |

Let’s look at the middle two chords more closely. Taken out of context, you might guess that you were seeing a V7-I progression [concept page: cadence] in the key of G. You could, if you wanted, think of those two chords as introducing a temporary shift from the key of D to the key of G. This is all plain-vanilla Western tonal harmony so far. But then you get the unexpected move from G to G minor. This sudden shift from major to minor, coupled with the descending motion of the bassline generally, gives the tune its melancholy feel.

The “Dear Prudence” groove consists of four little mini-phrases, each containing four eighth notes. Each mini-phrase has the root note twice, then D, then the root note one more time. It makes sense to do that, since each of the four chords includes the note D. By repeating the root of the key so often, Paul McCartney creates the sense of a drone or pedal tone, an unchanging harmonic ambience more typical of Indian music than the linear narrative structure of European music. It should come as no surprise that the Beatles wrote this tune while they were in India.

The bassline has another feature that reinforces its floating, timeless vibe: the fact that it starts on A rather than D. Rock songs use the root of the chord on the downbeat of a phrase about 99.9% of the time. Why does McCartney start on the fifth of the chord instead? Maybe because of the way it throws off your sense of where exactly the loop starts and ends. The pair of A’s at the beginning feel like a continuation of the C, B, B-flat line from the previous iteration of the loop. Harmonically, the A feels like the conclusion of the phrase, while rhythmically, it feels like the beginning. Add to that the song’s extremely slow tempo and a top-line melody consisting mostly of empty space, and you get quite a meditative feel.

The song was written about Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, who the Beatles met during their stay in India. John was concerned that she was taking her meditation practice too seriously and wanted her to hang out with the band more. For most of us, this is not a very relatable situation — John was a canny enough songwriter to make his lyrics open-ended, so they could be interpreted as referring to any shy person.

“Dear Prudence” represents one of the Beatles’ first forays into eight-track recording, which helps explain the intricacy of its arrangement. A guy named Alan Pollack wrote a very nice analysis of “Dear Prudence” as part of his exhaustive music-theoretical study of the Beatles’ entire repertoire. Pollack observes that the tune shows John borrowing characteristics of George’s style — the droning pedal tone and air of melancholy. Pollack draws a parallel between “Dear Prudence,” “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” While most Lennon tunes have an arch shape to them, “Dear Prudence” is more riff-oriented.

“Dear Prudence” has not only a static harmonic profile, but even a formally flat floorplan; a steady stream of harmonically identical verses interrupted only once at the formal mid-point by a simple bridge which, itself, is as harmonically single-minded as the rest of the song.

The impressive accomplishment is that such a satisfying build up of tension and its release is achieved in spite of all stasis… The challenge is to create a sense of build up without relying much at all on either harmony or melody. Instead, the strategy is to carefully sustain an atmosphere within which texture and dynamic crescendo are developed over the long run.

Alan Pollack informs us that the Beatles also used this progression in the verses of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and the chorus of “Magical Mystery Tour.” In keeping with my philosophy that there are no original ideas in music or anywhere else, I should point out that this chord progression is a well-worn blues cliche. The genius of the Beatles is to stretch it out so that each chord gets a full bar instead of just a beat or two as is common in the blues.

The most famous cover version of “Dear Prudence” is the one by Siouxsie and the Banshees. It doesn’t do much for me — it’s too stiff. I much prefer the version by the Jerry Garcia Band. Jerry plays the tune slow and contemplative, with a gospel flavor from his backup singers and organist.

Brad Mehldau recorded a pretty happening jazz version on his album Largo. The recording of Matt Chamberlain’s drums is especially nice. It was done with just two mics for a garage-y rock sound, a much less polite vibe than the jazz norm. I like the groove in Brad’s version, but he omits the B section, which is a shame.

Brad is a highly creative interpreter of other Beatles tunes too. It’s well worth checking out his versions of “She’s Leaving Home” and “Martha My Dear.”

A few other interesting covers of “Dear Prudence,” in ascending order of corniness:

My own jazz band regularly performed my arrangement of “Dear Prudence,” which combines Brad Mehldau’s spacy funk vibe with Jerry’s closer adherence to the structure of the original. We had a particularly hot New Year’s gig where we did “Dear Prudence” in the third, after-midnight set. The solo section stretched way out, a Miles Davis flavored open-ended groove on a D pedal. The band members who weren’t soloing went out into the room and danced. A good time.

Here’s a mashup of my five favorite versions of “Dear Prudence,” enjoy.

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