Notes On "We Can Work It Out" (WCWIO)

Copyright 1989 Alan W. Pollack
All Rights Reserved

We Can Work it Out is a deceptively simple example of how innovative the Boys could be within the framework of what on the surface is a 2:10 single with alternating verse and refrain. Some observations from the ol' perfessor.


Alternation of verse and refrain is as follows:

A1 -> A2 -> B -> A1 -> B -> A1 -> brief ending.

What's slightly unusual is that there is no intro, no break, no fade out. The verse is repeated only the first time; in many other songs, the A section would be repeated in the middle as well with the repetition in the form of a guitar break.

The slight asymmetry works very well. If you imagine the A section repeated at any point of the song other than the first time I believe it would drag; If you ommit the first repeat you feel rushed into the refrain.

Harmonic Organization

The choice of keys and chord progressions here is straightforward compared to other songs; no tricky chromatic progressions (e.g., "Help!" intro) or remote modulations (e.g., You're Gonna Lose that Girl mid-section). The verses are in D major, the refrain is in B minor, the "relative minor" of D; pretty standard.

Two details worth noting --

- the use of the modal chord progression in the opening phrase to establish the key (D-C-D) instead of the "V" (A major) chord which doesn't make an appearance until the very end of the verse section.

- The verse and refrain have different harmonic shapes. The verse is open ended in that it procedes from the tonic eventually to the dominant chord which ultimately wants resolution: I-VII(!)-I-IV-V; it therefore flows into the refrain even though the B-minor (VI) chord which follows isn't exactly what would be most expected. It's this hanging dominant chord, by the way which requires the brief ending to tie things up neatly. The refrain, by contrast is closed in shape: I-VI-V-I. This closed-ness is part of why the return to the original key seems somewhat abrupt; of course the rhythm (see next) plays a part in that too.

Rhythm and Phrasing

Here's where things really get interesting! Compared to other songs (e.g. Can't Buy Me Love) where phrases are all 4-measures long and come in 16 measure verses and refrains of 4-times-4, this song does some fancy things.

The verses are indeed 16 measures long but are divided into three phrases in a 6+6+4 pattern. This lends them a bit of a free-verse quality in spite of the underlying steady 4/4 rhythm.

The refrain indeed contains only 4 measure phrases but these are organized into a 12 measure section of 3-times-4 which is repeated. The asymmetry of the this three line refrain is effectively underscored by the shift to the "3/4 oom-pah-pah" rhythm in the third phrase. This rhythmic shift is interesting in that it is done without changing the tempo. The length of a measure remains the same except it is suddenly filled for one phrase with 3 beats instead of four; a sort of time warp. When the verse returns after this it sounds faster but isn't really!

Melodic Motif

The melody and the accompaniment of the song is "appoggiatura" intensive; (i.e. this is a technical term defined as follows: "a 'leaning note', normally one step above the main note. It usually creates a dissonance in the harmony and resolves by step on to the main note on the following weak beat." Grove Dictionary, quoted without permission.) A couple of highlighted lyric fragments to show where these babys are:

Think of what I'm *SAY_ING

*WE CAN* work it out.

*WE CAN* work it *OU-UT.*

... and there's no *ti-i-i-i--ime*

fussing and *FIGHT-ING* my friend

The instrumental part also exhibits this tendency. In Take 1 you can hear a lot of leaning tones in top line of the rhythm guitar. It even carries through to the final melodic riff of the ending.

Perhaps the best example (and also one of *the highlights of the entire song*) is in the refrain where the harmonium sustains the note B-natural through a change of chord from B-minor, to G major (where it belongs) and continues to hold it through the shift down to F#major before letting it fall finally to A#. Again, the take 2 we're privileged to have with the forward mixed harmonium really underscores it.

A-a-a-nyway, there's still more one could say but I think I've overdone it here plenty for one day; is there anyone I haven't alienated :-). WARNING: this *could* become part of a series if you don't watch out.

Alan (

"They tried to fob you off on this musical charlatan,
 but *I* gave him the test."
Click here to return.

Click here to return to AWP's index.