What Makes Pet Sounds So Appealing?
Brian Wilson’s Harmonic Techniques

    Thirty five years ago, I was high school student with no money.  I was attracted to the novel sounds in the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and I just had to have it.  I still remember the day I went downtown to buy the 45 rpm single.  On the flip side was an obscure song, “God Only Knows.”  Weeks went by before I (or the disc jockey)  played that song.  But when I did, it changed my life.  “God Only Knows” was so beautiful, and it so resonated with my deepest feelings, that I was driven to understand how music could touch me so deeply.   That moment marked the beginning of my lifelong fascination with music’s ability to affect the human spirit.

    Just as the Universe obeys physical laws, and just as physicists’ theories are important tools to describe how things work, Brian Wilson, consciously or unconsciously made up and followed rules of his own.  Referring to another musical genius, any Baroque aficionado knows how faithful Bach was to his own inviolate rules, rules which, after hundreds of years, continue to provide homogeneity, consistency, tension and release, satisfaction and beauty.

    In A Brief History of Time, physicist and cosmologist Steven Hawking intends to describe complex theories of the origin of the Universe to a very wide audience.  He successfully does it without using a single equation.  Since my audience consists of internet users with widely varying musical backgrounds, I’ll try a similar approach, describing what is going on in general terms, mostly refraining from making a chord-by-chord analysis.

    Lyrically and musically, much of Pet Sounds is about yearning, angst, and hope.  Going beyond traditional tension and release, Brian Wilson creates rules that result in tension and hope for release.  The following rules are not inviolate, but they give a glimpse into the masterful writing style that makes Pet Sounds a landmark album.

Wilson’s Rules for Creating Tension and Angst

1. Start a phrase on a dominant or subdominant function rather than the normal tonic, so the listener expects resolution immediately from the outset. (Dominant functions can include sevenths or diminished chords, subdominants can have the root on the fourth or the second.)

2. Change keys so often and so subtly that the listener becomes unsure what key the music is in

3. Use homogeneity as a comforting device, repeating phrases to help the listener stay engaged with the music. This can be done by repeating an opening phrase, but transpose it a 2nd, 3rd or 4th higher.  This technique is wildly successful if the first phrase contains a lot of tension, because the second (duplicate) phrase serves to maintain that tension.

4. Use 7th and diminished chords, but don’t necessarily resolve them

5. Use inverted chords often: Try never to let the bass line play the root of chord

6. Replace the dominant chord with a diminished chord (these chords sound incomplete, in traditional harmony they are used as passing chords only, but Wilson uses them as prominent elements) ; instead of resolving diminished chords, go somewhere else, like back to the tonic

    To illustrate the implementation of some of these rules: The first chord in “Don’t Talk” is a seventh chord (Rule 3).  A seventh is normally used not as the first chord in a progression, but as the next to the last chord, so it can resolve to the tonic; even when not used normally, a seventh regularly requires resolution to at least something.  Wilson, instead of resolving the chord immediately, delays resolution by taking the chord up to the next inversion, then he resolves it to another seventh, itself yearning for resolution!

    This goes on to create a second phrase, slightly modified and transposed (Rule 2), until it gets to “Don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder.”  There, Wilson invokes Rule 1, using a seventh as a kind of dominant, but instead of resolving it to a tonic, he takes it back to a subdominant function, then dominant again, where it cries for resolution, but instead he transposes again! (Rule 6)  When the seventh is finally resolved (Rule 6), it is to a new, transposed tonic where Wilson still does not let the listener have the anticipated release. (On “beat” of “heart beat.”)   Instead, he maintains tension by using second inversion (Rule 4).  By making the bass play the fifth of the chord instead of the root, Wilson keeps the listener yearning for resolution to the tonic.  The musical result is breathtaking.  We’re at the tonic, but why is the bass just hanging there? Please, please just play the root!  So the listener is taken on a trip of harmonies that hold promise for resolution; any resolution is slow in coming and when it does, it’s incomplete, and it still keeps the listener hanging.

    Wilson uses similar techniques in “God Only Knows.”  I defy anyone to determine what key this song is in (Rule 6). He starts the song on subdominant, resolving to tonic (Rule 1). Is it a coincidence that this is the same chord pair that comprises “Amen” that so often follows hymns?

    The second line “You’ll never need to doubt it, I’ll make you so sure about it” is indeed the first line slightly modified and transposed up (Rule 2).  Wilson builds tension by keeping the bass off the root (Rule 4).  On the word “need” Wilson uses a diminished chord, the sound of incompleteness, to perfect his intended feeling. But the diminished chord does not resolve, but reverts back to the temporary tonic (Rule 3). The tension is then released at “God only knows what I’d be without you…” where we hear the “Amen” chords in comforting progression that seems to be heading for tonic.  It’s arrival is short lived, as a sudden and brief transposition leads to the second verse.

    “You Still Believe in Me” uses much more traditional harmony than the previously discussed songs. It implements some of Wilson’s rules.  Starting on the tonic, it defies Rule 1, but sure enough Rule 2 is implemented when  “Every time we break up” is a modification of the first phrase, transposed a 4th higher.  Things start to happen at “bring back your love to me.” At “me”, the music arrives at a new tonic, the confidence in the text being exemplified in the music by having the bass play the root.  Then comes the phrase “And after all I’ve done to you, so faithfully…” Over “done” is laid a comforting subdominant function, the bass very purposely still on the subdominant root.

    Then magic happens at “You still believe in me.”  The chords change to the tonic (“still be-“) but the bass just hangs there at the subdominant.  The bass does go on to the tonic, but by then the chords are back to subdominant (“-lieve”), totally out of sync with each other, creating tension with unresolved sevenths (Rule 3).  Then on “me,” with a glorious, unexpected, and extended diminished chord (Rule 3), it becomes clear why the chords and bass had to disengage for a while.  Next to that diminished chord, which is extended for several beats through “I wanna,” the beautifully resolved “Cry” is a very welcome tonic.  This is what the ear yearned for, and it cascades down in lovely traditional harmony.

    I hope you found this interesting and helpful. That’s all for now.

    Tom Polk