When we listen to Eleanor Rigby, we hear a classic story-song, sung by composer Paul McCartney while accompanied by George Martin's Mozart-like string orchestration. So we may be surprised to discover that the song lends itself to piano improv really well. I've heard a few versions of it played on piano over the years, but it wasn't until I sat down with it for my Complete Beatles Piano YouTube series that I realized how rich and varied the possibilities really are.
Here are 5 things I discovered while practicing the song that you can use when improvising:
1. Modal Improvisation
Melodically, Eleanor Rigby can be seen as an exercise in alternating between 2 modes, or versions of the minor scale. McCartney uses both the E Dorian mode (E F# G A B C# D) and the E Natural Minor scale, also known as the Aeolean mode (E F# G A B C D). Notice how the two scales are identical except for the 6th scale degree, which can be either C or C#. If its C, you're playing in Natural Minor. If it's C#, you're using Dorian. This seemingly slight difference actually makes a big difference in the sound and emotional feel of the scales, and McCartney uses it to his advantage in the song's melody. When you're improvising, play around with both modes and experiment.
2. The D - C# - C - B Inner Voice line
McCartney stays on an E minor chord under the lyrics "All the lonely people...." but uses this chromatically descending inner voice to give each measure an entirely different sound. In a song with as few chord changes as Eleanor Rigby, this subtle touch provides huge harmonic contrast in this section. Use this in your piano improv. And, since this chromatic line is also characteristic of Latin music, you could add some Latin rhythms to your rendition if you choose.
3. The steady quarter-note "chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk" accompaniment rhythm
George Martin's string arrangement makes great use of the steady quarter-note "chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk" rhythms that figure so prominently in McCartney's piano and keyboard playing. Play this rhythm with your left hand as you improvise contrasting rhythms with your right hand.
4. Put in a few jazzy chords
Although I'm generally not a fan of "jazzing" up pop songs just because I also like to play jazz, I've found that chordal extensions can bring an additional harmonic richness to some Beatles songs in a good way. Rather than bringing in George Shearing's harmonic concepts to this music, do things like playing the Em chord with an A instead of a G (E A B) and hear how it colors the arrangement. It's just a small shift, and will influence your melodic lines as well. Remember that you don't have to do it for the whole song, either. See when you need a little contrast, and change up the chords a little. As always, use your own good taste.
5. Try different rhythmic genres
Sometimes it's fun to take a song out of its original stylistic genre and bring it someplace else. While yes, it may work to play Eleanor Rigby as a samba, I usually prefer to magnify some of the musical implications that are already in the original, but perhaps a little below the surface. For instance, Eleanor Rigby is modal, as I've mentioned in #1 above. And the Beatles are English and were strongly connected to the folk music tradition of the British Isles. If you've ever been to a Medieval or Renaissance fair, you've heard dance music from those times that is modal and improvisatory. With this connection in mind, you can bring a touch of Medieval dance rhythms and styles into Eleanor Rigby without straying too far from the Beatles "vibe." It's in their tradition, and the musical elements are already their in the song itself.
You can hear most of these possibilities in the video:
Good luck, and I hope this inspires you to try out these techniques and discover more for yourself!