Mind of Brian 1: God Only Knows

by Greg Panfile


This is the first entry in what I plan to be a continuing series of excursions into the Mind of Brian. Here are the chords and some discussion of the compositional techniques and arrangement choices and so forth, all of the usual interesting things. Since this particular piece is supposedly Paul Mc Cartney's favorite song, someone might want to post this and the continued discussions over to rec.music.beatles and/or the BB newsgroup; I can't access them due to absurd occupational politics.

Note that each letter symbolizing a chord is assumed to have four beats as the default. Those that go longer will be doubled or whatever; shorter or passing chords will be bracketed in some vertical lines. Where there is relevant, essential material in a melody line or bass I'll add that too.

God Only Knows (music by Brian Wilson)

Key of E (? or is it A, D, or F#m...)


Chords:    A       E      A     E     A       E      F#m    E
Melody:    C# D    E  B   A           C# D    E  B   A
Bass:                                                          E F# G
Without words, we begin what may be the best BB song ever, certainly one of the top five. The key is already ambivalent... Brian seems to believe it's in E (his statement about it starting on the major seventh is itself ambiguous; if the song is in E, what he means is that the verse part starts on the major chord of the flatted seventh, that is D major in the key of E. But when you add in that the intro starts on A, you have a song putatively in E where none of the parts start on the root, tonic chord). Looked at in isolation, this looks like a song in A is starting... The material here is interesting in itself, and moreso as a variant of what is to come later; a close but not exact match will be used (in two different keys) for the "hook" when the title is sung, and still another close variant for the outro/rondo at the end.

Verse 1

Chords:    D       Bm      F#m     B     E      D#dim      E        C#m
Bass:      A       B       F# E    D#    E      F#         E  (D#)  C#   (B)   
So with four beats each, this material takes us from "I may not always love you" all the way to "I'll make you so sure about it." Note that kind of like Good Vibrations, this is a strange chord combination no matter what key it's in. On the face of it it looks like it's in D, especially if you ignore what just happened in the intro; but after three in-key chords that idea breaks down nearly completely, because none of the rest of them fit into the standard key of D. The heavy leaning on E towards the end of the line is certainly indicative of at least a tendency there, and choice of that key is somewhat supported by the intro. The E passing tone under the F#m is a definite; the D# passing from E to C#m is kind of optional as is the B passing out of the C#m at the end. I include a bass line here because understanding it is absolutely integral to the flow of the piece, and it was written by a person who played a lot of bass.

It's hard to add more except to say that this line, these mere eight chords, are exceedingly subtle and beautiful. They seem to have been composed by someone following the pure voice of melody, both in the treble and bass ranges, with no regard whatsoever for any rules or formulas. The bracketed major and minor Bs, the use of the diminished chord at a negative point in the lyric when doubt is mentioned... you look up genius in your CD ROM dictionary, and you should hear this song.

Chorus 1

Chords:    A       E      F#m    E
Right, so it's the ending of the intro. And four nicely balanced, in-key chords, though still ambivalent between the keys of E and A.

Verse 2

Exactly the same as verse 1. So I guess this is a good time to talk about the arrangement, and not rewrite the chords. Harpsichord, French horns, Hammond organ, jingle bells, coconut hoofbeats, bass and piano doubling some of the low lines but not all of them, pizzicato violins... man, this thing is a masterpiece. We are repeating material here, but the new feel of the horns sustaining over the staccato chord accompaniment recolors things enough to avoid any sense of boredom.

Chorus 2

Chords:    A       E      F#m
Same as the first chorus, nearly. But there is a measure lopped off the end, no E chord. There are at least two discernible reasons: one is that we don't need the E because we're not going immediately back into another verse; there is a journey coming up, an extraordinary one that will take us back home by a subtle and beautiful route. Also, putting the E in here would just waste time; we are following a melody and a vision here, not a recipe for filling egg crates based on multiples of four. So after this F#m, when you expect another E and to loop around to another verse... everything stops. What you get is the Break, a strange and wonderful creature both musically and productionwise. Owners of the boxed set and other boots have no doubt heard the live tape where the stacatto idea comes out and is instantly accepted, and the trials on exactly the right drum fills. I don't have the time or inclination to figure out and write down every little melodic detail of this portion, but I'll put enough to get you through it.

The break actually has two parts to it, though. The first is simply a nice melody played pizzicato on the strings over two chords twice:

Break (part 1, do this twice)

Chords:    A           G            
Melody:    C# A C# A   B  F# B A G F#
Besides being musically interesting and unexpectedly leaping out of nowhere where an E chord would be presumed, this material is completely unique; there is no corresponding part like this earlier or later in the song. And what key are we in? Looks like the 4 and 5 chords of D; could be in A with a 7 major chord; if the song is in E, it looks like we may have modulated. What comes in next proves the latter theory, because what follows is actually the entire verse and a chorus, all pulled up five semitones. The verse portion is scat-sung with sophisticated, open, contrapuntal harmonies and interesting movements, full of incidental ninth and seventh notes far beyond the diatonic ken of pop harmonists of the Everly Brothers ilk. I'll try to "track" you all through the chords by highlighting the most prominent scat syllables:

Break Verse and Chorus (up 5 semitones)

Chords:    G       Em      Bm                  E    
Scat:      Ah      ah ah   ah dodo do dodoo     Bom bompa bompapa

Chords:    A            G#dim               A        F#m
Scat:      Bom bom      Bompa pa pa bom     Ba bom   Ah, ah...
Ignore the lineup of chords from line to line, remember it's the four-beat default.

Chords:    D       A      Bm
And just like Chorus 2, this modulated chorus in the break (the hook is sung again here, 5 semitones up) has only three chords because the fourth would be a waste of time and not add anything. And in an amazing act of skill and daring, this approach allows us to go back to a standard verse in the original key (whatever it is!) directly, without any filler or transitional material.

Verse 3

Chords:    D       Bm      F#m     B     E      D#dim      E        C#m
Bass:      A       B       F# E    D#    E      F#         E  (D#)  C#   (B)
The effect of this is indescribable. Somehow the same D and Bm chords we just saw in the modulated chorus sound completely different when restated here as part of a standard verse in material we've already heard twice before! The first chord of the verse sounds like a transition... one stands in awe. We are about done because all that is left is the coda, an endless repetition of Chorus 1 (but not the intro or any of the other choruses!)


Chords:    A       E      F#m    E
This fades out with another set of nice contrapuntal harmonies, actually it seems to be a two-part round or rondo like Row Row Row Your Boat. If someone can digitally edit the acapella bit from the box set onto the released cut, please send me a tape. That is totally cool and the nearest thing to an error of omission on what is seemingly an absolutely perfect cut.

I've mentioned in other contexts what I perceive to be a problem with many of the Pet Sounds lyrics: they fail to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end; they just seem to evoke moods or feels without going anywhere or advancing a plot, arriving at an internal or external decision or resolution of any sort. But on this cut, and its seeming companion Good Vibrations, it's like, who cares. The song is about a mood and a feel, and it's perfect: incidentally, there is no variation in the harmonic rhythm, every chord lasts exactly four beats. God Only Knows exists in a realm beyond stories and decisions, a plane above and beyond time if you will. The way those diminished chords come in when he mentions doubt, or the world showing nothing... there's no point in finding any faults here. There is plenty of beauty to admire and enjoy, and that will have to be sufficient.

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