The 1967 song “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has a very impressive résumé.
In 1977 it was named “The Best British Pop Single 1952–1977” at the Brit Awards.
In 1998 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 2004 the performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited recognized it as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years.
In 2009 it was reported as the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK.
In this ebook, we will try to answer the question: Does this song deserve this level of fame, and if so, what makes it great?
Firstly, we will analyze the musical structure of the song and try to see what feelings (if at all) the music evokes in us. In this part, we will also hypothesize what musical influences this song draws from.
Secondly, we will examine the lyrics. We will try to see if these are “good” or “bad” lyrics, and whether they complement the music of the song.
Finally, I will give my opinion as to whether this song deserves the fame and why.
Part One: The Music
I believe that humans want a story. We go to the movies to experience a story, we gossip with friends to hear a story, we read the news, we watch reality TV, we follow a sports team our whole lives – all because we want to see a hero go through a perilous path and see how his journey has changed him.
Music is no different. What is a chord progression if not a story? We start at the tonic (fancy word for home). We then travel to all sorts of places (chords), before (hopefully) resolving – returning home.
The melody tells us where the hero is and the harmony tells us how he feels along the way. We will analyze the harmony and the melodies to extract a story from the music.
Of course this is a huge simplification, and melody can tell a story and convey feelings even without harmony and vice versa.
And to be sure, there are more things involved in a musical story than harmony and melody, but we will focus primarily on those two.
Listening to this song, one may notice that the opening of the song is extraordinarily long – about 30 seconds.
Now one might reply that this is a slow song so it takes longer to finish the opening, and additionally that many popular songs have much longer openings. Hotel California and Stairway to Heaven are two examples of popular songs with a 50 seconds opening.
The difference however, is that both of those songs (and most other songs with long openings) repeat a single cycle of chords a few times before the opening finishes.
Notice how in 00:27 of Hotel California the band repeats the same chord pattern it started with.
I am by no means claiming that this is a bad thing. I am only using this song as an example of a repeating chord progression.
A Whiter Shade of Pale doesn’t have a repetition of the chord progression in the opening. That makes the opening of the song a much longer and much more coherent story; we start at home, we embark on a long journey, then we finally return home.
In the classical music tradition, it is a well known fact that the longer it takes us to return home, the more satisfying the resolution will be.
In A Whiter Shade of Pale, the journey home is longer and more arduous compared with most other songs of the time, moreover, it is full of gentle plot twists along the way, which ultimately make the resolution satisfying.
A great and well known example of a long journey home can be heard in Chopin’s Prelude no.4 in E minor. Notice that we start at home, and we only return home once – at the very last note!
This is what makes this piece so satisfying.
Back to a our song, we start with a variation on the most basic “50s progression” featured in countless songs. But we quickly diverge from that progression just when our ears think “we’ve heard this before!”
Our hero goes through all sorts of trouble along the way. He even manages to return home once (at 0:21) but he understands that something is wrong and he quickly leaves again, before even taking off his shoes.
After a few more uncertainties, he finally learned all he needed to know about himself and about the world and he triumphantly returns home.
So right at the opening of the song we see that this song does not conform to the customs of modern popular music. Namely, that we return home after a very short journey (usually of 4 chords) and that we do the same journey over and over again in rapid succession.
This alone gives us an almost introspective feeling, like reading a book.
It is important to note that there are many songs with this feature, such as “Because” by the Beatles for instance. But it is still a feature worth mentioning.
I strongly believe that humans seek introspection. Danceable songs do indeed awaken something primal in us that probably goes back at least as far as homo-sapiens do. But there is more than rhythm and dance to be found in music. It is harder to produce introspective, story-like music but the reward is great.
In the tradition of the popular music of the 20th century, we often distinguish between the “melody” and the “bassline”.
The melody is usually sung by a singer or played by the high notes of an electric guitar, piano, saxophone etc. While the bassline is played by a bass guitar, a double bass or the lower notes of the piano.
The issue with this distinction is that one might forget that the bassline is also a melody in its own right. It tells a story regardless of what the upper melody is singing.
In this perspective, most songs actually have two intertwining melodies, singing in tandem regardless of each other.
So if we can have two melodies singing independently, why can’t we have three? Why not four? This concept of intertwining melodies is called “counterpoint” (point against point – melody against melody)
For those asking themselves how can 4 melodies exactly go together, here is an example by Bach. Notice how each melody does its own thing. The harmony is derived from the intertwining of the melodies.
Chills. Literal chills.
This type of piece is called a fugue. We have the main subject that is presented in the beginning, then we have 4 simultaneous independent voices that each sing a different melody that reintroduces the original subject every few bars.
Examples of a great melodic bassline can be seen in countless popular songs, not only in Bach’s music. Here is an example from the Beatles’ 1963 album With The Beatles. Notice how much “melodic substance” can be found here. If one were to sing it in a higher register, no one would deny that this is a melody.
Now let’s take a look at what Procol Harum does with counterpoint.
If one listens closely, the bassline can be divided into three parts. The first part starts at the tonic (home), and descends stepwise down an octave to the tonic again.
What a glorious and simple melody!
We then do that again but from Sol to Do, and go back up all the way from Do to Do.
The simplicity is astounding. Just as astounding, is the fact that this is an actual sing-able melody that sounds beautiful on it’s own.
Here is the bassline (almost) by itself. Again, notice that this is nothing but a beautiful melody.
Upper Melody Played by the Organ
The most prominent melody other than that of the singer is played by an organ at the alto (or soprano) range.
It features a very expressive hook with a baroque-like ornamentation: an ascent of two notes then a descent of a perfect fifth downwards, followed by a baroque-like lower mordent, giving the hook both stability and instant recognizability (0:10 and 0:18).
In my opinion, what makes these hooks so beautiful is the fact that in each hook we are “falling down” into a minor chord (first D minor then E minor), but after each fall, we have the happiest interval in all music – the major sixth.
So we are optimistic, but then immediately sadness invades, we allow ourselves to be optimistic again, but then again the sadness invades us.
We then have yet another happy major sixth interval upwards. The previous use of the sad hook taught us to expect a sad drop. But this time, we stay on that note, allowing it to linger, unwavering, before descending ever so slowly until a resolution.
In my opinion, this whole passage is genius.
But here comes a plot twist: they are only getting started!
Because while the organ lingers on that high happy note, something peculiar happens. A second melody from the organ reveals itself!
Second Melody Played by the Organ
The second melody can actually be heard (in the upper tenor or alto voice of the organ) from the very beginning of the song but it is almost indiscernible.
However, when the upper melody finishes its catchy hooks and finally lingers on longer notes, the second melody reveals itself with a hook of its own. Its hook is much simpler: it simply walks a fourth up stepwise, descends a fifth (or a tritone, depending on how you view it), and walks up a fourth again.
Again, the simplicity is astonishing and extremely effective.
(This is the part where one starts to think this is a masterpiece)
Now observe the two upper melodies simultaneously. The higher one (one the right) is the first melody, the lower one, (on the left) is the second. Notice how each could work on its own but that they still lift one another.
The Singing Melody
Usually, songs have an opening, then the opening stops, and we enter a new phase of the song, that makes us wonder why they even bothered with an opening if it’s so incoherent with the rest of the song.
Not here. Here the band lets us in on a secret.
The opening is not an opening at all! It is just the background to the vocals. And a 3-voice counterpoint background will be heard throughout the rest of the song, while the singer is singing his own independent melody.
One has to respect their audacity and courage.
The melody that the singer sings might remind us of a violin accompaniment to a singer in a Bach cantata.
So we are in a strange situation where the main singing melody is actually somewhat of an accompaniment.
This allows us to hear the beautiful contrapuntal background clearly. Thus we may appreciate the song as a coherent whole, rather than an over-indulgent singer who won’t allow the beauty of the accompaniment to shine.
So in conclusion, we get a very balanced piece of music. It reminds me of a story with 4 characters who are constantly interacting with one another, for better or worse.
Possible Musical Influences
In my opinion, the band had Bach in mind while writing this song.
Bach was (probably) the greatest contrapuntal master who ever lived. A Bach piece for keyboard or orchestra typically has 3-6 independent melodies, and no one single melody is more important than another. No other composer, before or since, is as associated with contrapuntal writing as Bach, and no other known composer ever got close to Bach’s level of contrapuntal writing.
I will now indulge myself and theorize which Bach piece influenced them the most.
Air from Orchestral Suite no. 3
This popular Bach piece, (commonly known as “Air on the G string” for some reason), features many of the hooks in A Whiter Shade of Pale. We will now list some of the more prominent ones.
I encourage the reader to patiently listen to this piece and allow the utter beauty of this music to reveal itself.
Firstly, notice the long note it starts with. In both cases it is the third degree of the scale and both are very long. Bach lingers on the note longer, while in the song they ornament that note, but afterwards both pieces resolve on the 6th degree of the scale.
Secondly, it has almost the exact same descending bassline, except for minor changes in the rhythm.
Thirdly, notice that same hook of the upper melody which we mentioned earlier, appears at 0:39.
Lastly and least quantitatively (but I would argue most convincing) is that the whole “feel” of the song just screams unmistakably “Air on the G string”.
Part Two: The Lyrics
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
The crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale
And the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards
Would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as well’ve been closed
Right off the bat we see that the lyrics are almost undecipherable. The more you try to analyze them, the more you understand how undecipherable they are.
But in my opinion, that is not such a bad thing. We could spend hours to trying to come up with excuses as to why he used a specific word here and there. But I don’t think that our understanding of the song will benefit from that.
Take for example the “miller’s tale”. Some might recognize that Geoffrey Chaucer’s second tale from his famous work “Canterbury Tales” (1387-1400) is the miller’s tale.
But the writer of the song was not aware of the miller’s tale from Canterbury Tales at all.
In my opinion, the lyrics are just there to convey a feeling of “things are happening and changing”, aka, a story is happening. We don’t know the specifics of the story, but we understand the “feel” of the story. The specifics of what is happening doesn’t matter, all that matters is that something is happening
Thus, the lyrics serve as an enhancer to the story-like and imaginative feel of the music. It is up to the listener to decide what the story is, and the listener may imagine a different story in different listening sessions.
This may very well be another feature that contributed to the success and apparent immortality of the song. The listener can have a totally different experience each listening session and not get bored.
Yes! It absolutely deserves this level of fame.
From the incredible story the harmonies tell, to the simple hooks of the bassline and melodies, the audacious 4 voice counterpoint and the evocative lyrics, the wise choice of instrumentation and the overall production.
On a more personal note, as a great admirer of Bach’s music, it is incredible to see how they took the famous Bach piece, and made it their own. This is not a “fuse of genres”, it is the band’s understanding of Bach’s music through their 20th century ears.
Interestingly, Bach did the exact same thing to pieces by earlier composers he admired, such as Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Buxtehude and many more. So this reimagining of Bach’s music may be regarded as a continuation of the old tradition of learning from the masters of the past.
Published: Dec 10, 2021
Latest Revision: Dec 14, 2021
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