Royal Society for Music History of The Netherlands

Not a Second Time

Wouter Capitain is lecturer in popular music studies at Utrecht University and doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam. His interest in the Beatles was inherited from his father. The argument in this piece initially evolved from discussions with musicology students during a BA course about popular music history. A longer version of this text has been published in the journal Rock Music Studies.


Not a Second Time


In popular songs, the music usually supports the crux of the lyrics. “I will always love you” would not have sounded as convincing if Whitney Houston had rapped the line in two seconds. Her elongated syllables, widely ranging intervals, and melismatic virtuosity all tell the listener: “yes, it is true, she will always love him!” <1> But can music also negate a text’s message? Could Houston’s melody have said, for example: “no, sorry, but this love is not going to last forever”? Does music merely serve a subordinate role in relation to the lyrics or can it also have a voice of its own?



On December 27th, 1963, the music critic William Mann surprised readers of The Times by claiming that “the outstanding English composers of 1963 must seem to have been John Lennon and Paul McCartney.” By briefly analyzing several recent Beatles songs, Mann explained why he categorizes the two songwriters as “composers.” His most disputed example of the Beatles’ compositional merits is “Not a Second Time,” in which he famously identified an “aeolian cadence” at the end, allegedly reminiscent of a chord progression in Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (1909). Mann may have been the first to analyze popular music in terms of pretentious musicological terminology and describe popular musicians as composers; what is certain is that few of his readers comprehended his technical jargon – least of all the composer of this song, John Lennon, who concluded that this music critic “is a bullshitter. But he made us credible with intellectuals.”


Mann’s jargon is confusing, to say the least, but he did have a keen ear by singling out this particular song as exemplary of the Beatles’ harmonic escapades. “Not a Second Time” does not adhere to classical tonal conventions. It sounds odd. Most notably, when Lennon ends the refrain by singing: “no, no, no, not a second time,” he does not close the phrase on the tonic, as the listener may expect, but on its parallel minor; that is, on E minor instead of the conventional G major tonic. It is precisely this harmonic cadence which Mann incomprehensibly designated as “aeolian.” Many have since wondered what an “aeolian cadence” is; although these two terms do belong to the standard musicological vocabulary, they are actually never used in juxtaposition. Webpages and book chapters are devoted to deciphering the definition, but unfortunately this preoccupation with Mann’s confusing terminology has distracted commentators from actually listening to Lennon. Rather than asking what Mann meant with this term, I wonder: why is Lennon reluctant to convincingly close the refrain on the tonic? In other words, the question is not what an aeolian cadence is, but what it does.


Lennon sings about a former partner who broke his heart, but wants to get back together again. “And now you’ve changed your mind, I see no reason to change mine,” he outlines the current affairs in the verse. In the refrain, Lennon succinctly summarizes: “you hurt me then, you’re back again. No, no, no, not a second time.” Out of self-protection he definitely shuts the door on their relationship. Lennon wants closure.


But does he succeed? Precisely at the moment when Lennon asserts that he will not be hurt a second time, the music fails to offer the desired closure on the tonic. The refrain does not end conventionally on a full cadence in G major, but instead on what in the classical lexicon is usually indicated as a “deceptive” cadence (not “aeolian,” whatever that may mean). The deceptive E minor chord suggests that, despite Lennon’s claim in the lyrics, this may not be the end of the story.


In addition to the harmonies, the song’s structural features also play with the question of expectation and repetition. After singing two short verses and a refrain (followed by an instrumental break), Lennon returns to where he started the song: to the first verse, the second, and the refrain. In contrast to the vast majority of popular songs, in “Not a Second Time” the lyrics do not change when the verses are repeated. Instead, Lennon sings exactly the same lines – indeed, for a second time – conveying the impression of a virtually circular sequence of events. The song closes with a brief coda where Lennon thrice repeats his line “not a second time.” In this coda, the underlying harmonies alternate between G major and E minor while the song slowly fades out, instead of closing the discussion with a cadence. In agreement with the deceptive qualities of the refrain, the music in the coda implies that this is not the end of the story. By contrast, the alternation between the two chords mimics Lennon’s on-again, off-again relationship, fading out into an indefinite conclusion.


In an inspired moment Mann designated the cadence in the refrain as “aeolian,” but a close listen to “Not a Second Time” reveals that we should preferably describe it as “deceptive” – not because that is what such a cadence is conventionally called in musicological jargon, but because the music in this song is deceptive. To his credit, Mann tuned the ears of listeners to the formal features of the Beatles’ music, and as Lennon recognized, his early review did them “a lot of good in that way, cause people – all the middle classes and intellectuals – are going ‘Ooh, aren’t they clever’”. Yet Mann’s analysis distracts us from listening to the interplay with the words.

Simon Frith concludes his seminal essay “Why Do Songs Have Words?” (1986) with the compelling argument that love songs “give people the romantic terms in which to articulate and so experience their emotions.” In popular songs, according to Frith, the interplay between music and words performatively provides the means to experience falling in love. I would add that listening to the Beatles provides the means to fall in love again. When Lennon sings “no, no, no, not a second time,” the music screams “yes, that is exactly what is going to happen!”


<1> For a more modest performance the reader may listen to Dolly Parton’s original rendition of the song from 1973.