September 9, 2005

Procol Harum - A Whiter Shade of Bach?

MP3 - Procal Harum A Whiter Shade of Pale
MP3 - Johann Sebastian Bach Air for G string

I don't know how many times I've heard radio DJ's say something like, "And there was Procol Harum, improvising on JS Bach," or something of the like, after playing their song "A Whiter Shade of Pale." It's a common fact/myth/rumor that many websites and people will blindly accept. Do these radio DJ's even know what tune of the almighty JS Bach that Procol Harum (aka Van Morrison on Napster, or other download programs) is supposedly plagiarizing? The JS Bach tune is a movement from one of his Orchetral Suites, and is know as the "Air on the G String," because the melody can be played entirely on the G string of the violin.

If you haven't guessed already, I stand in defense of Procol Harum's composition, "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Without going into great detail, let's compare the harmonic analyses of both tunes. LISTEN TO THEM BOTH. That's all you have to do. Don't bust out your Schenkerian Theory books or anything. You will notice that they do have something in common - smooth voice-leading. In a nut-shell, for this song, that means: a suave descending bass-line with a melody that compliments it beautifully. It's not Nirvana (the band) with power-chords-R-Us (no offense intended) - but it is musical nirvana (that euphoric feeling that music often creates, without the aid of drugs). It's something our brain is trained, accustomed, and some will argue "wired" to hear as pleasing.

Continuing, the two melodies are not identical, and the harmony of both pieces is not the same. The only common ground that they hold is smooth voice-leading (descending bass line with a beautiful, contrasting melody).

That should be enough to convince any music theorist that Procol Harum did not rip off JS Bach. However, music theorists do not take into account the ear of the modern-day (let's say c. 1950-present) listener. Someone driving down the Dan Ryan at 6:35 AM, listening to the Drive hears a song start our with a church-like organ theme, accompanied by bass and drums. Immediately, something happens. It sounds old-fashioned; it sounds like something I've heard in Church before. The organ dominates for the majority of the song, and it's not a Hammond B3 organ pumping out some rhythm and blues, or jazz; it sounds like church. It sounds classical. This leads me to another point...

The average listener doesn't know what the lyrics for "A Whiter Shade of Pale" mean. They like it because of the organ melody. The singing fits in with the song, but the organ-bass-drums dominate. This brings up another important point: Bach had no lyrics for his "Air on the G String." The vocal line in Procul Harum's composition is something completely unrelated to Bach's piece.

If everything I've said so far isn't enough to convince you that Procul Harum's composition "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is not a rip-off of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Air on the G String," then consider this. Any piece of music composed in a "tonal" style in the 20th Century will sound, if not exactly, then close to something that someone else composed. It could be something similar to someone on the other side of the world, in a different time (i.e. JS Bach, German, 1685-1750), or something your annoying neighbor wrote 2 days ago. There's only so much you can do with music before similar melodies/harmonies start happening. These similarities can be masked by different instrumentation, which is especially easier to modern-day rock composers, who use all sorts of electronic instruments. However, the bare-bones analysis will show you many frightening similarities.

There is one important detail that I have omitted. The (1967) keyboardist for Procol Harum supposedly was a huge fan of JS Bach.

Let's suppose for a minute that the tune was, in fact, a rip-off of JS Bach: They fell way short. Bach goes to places with this theme that Procol Harum could not even imagine. Let's say at the very least, that the tune was based on Bach, and that's it. It still serves a different purpose than Bach's piece. Procol Harum composed in a different genre, a different time, a different country. The cultural aspect of a piece of music can never be forgotten. To compare the two melodies and conclude that they are identical (although incorrect in this instance) would be a travesty.

In conclusion..... take from this what you may. Don't believe everything that your local DJ tells you. Or for that matter, don't believe everything that you read online.... except for everything you've read in the last few minutes. Yeah, believe that, but Nothing else that you've ever read online.

Coo' de la

Posted by roche at September 9, 2005 4:16 AM


I'm a Procol Harul fan.
I tried download the mp3 of song "I whiter shade of Pale", but I can not this thing.
Please send me the mp3 of the Procol Harum song "I whiter shade of Pale" on my e-mail
I thank you for your understanding.

Best whishes


Posted by: Irenaeus at October 24, 2005 1:16 PM
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