A Guide To Help You Have More Fun At Your Piano
History and overview:
“Across The Universe” is one of the greatest songs John Lennon ever composed, and that’s saying a lot. Lennon himself considered the lyric to be perfect and able to stand on its own, without music.
Lennon wrote “Across The Universe” in 1968, and its lyrics were influenced by The Tibetan Book Of The Dead as well as The Beatles’ time spent meditating in India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The originally released version (on the Let It Be album) featured a full choral and orchestral orchestration by producer Phil Spector, but the later-released “Naked” version restored the song to the more pure version that The Beatles themselves preferred. The Indian musical influence can be heard more clearly in this version as well.
Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)
The Beatles: Let It Be
The Beatles: Naked version (Remastered 2013)
Listen for the Indian musical influence, especially at the 1:55 mark.
David Bowie: Young Americans
With John Lennon on guitar.
Musical ideas and piano improv practice tips:
“Across The Universe” features a beautiful chord progression. In the verse, Lennon moves freely between different chords in the key of D major including the iii chord, F#m, which brings a lightness to the song. Further, the use of Gm, which is the minor iv chord in the major key, adds a poignant sound to the song at key places. Songwriters of an earlier generation such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter used this chord all the time, but it’s not as common in the rock era. Musicians of Lennon’s generation, however, did hear the older songs during their youth and could call upon the harmonic effect when desired.
Also notice how Lennon puts in a 2/4 measure now and again. He does this in several of his great songs, and it seems to have come from his conception of the lyrics as he was writing them. He varied the phrase lengths according to the length sentence, and adjusted the musical meter accordingly.
Our piano interpretations of “Across The Universe” can go in many directions. Lennon used a folksy strumming pattern on his recording, but it’s worth noting that he played this way on his demos of songs that ended up sounding radically different after fully arranged in the recording studio. The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Watching The Wheels” from Lennon’s solo album Double Fantasy show this very clearly.
One pianistic approach to the song is to take inspiration from the Indian-influenced lyrics. Traditional Indian music is largely based on scalar improvisations over drones (pedal tones in the bass), and this approach sounds great on “Across The Universe.” Feel free to stay on the tonic D major chord as long as you like and really get into it before moving through the chord progression. This will relate your improvisation to the techniques used in Indian music in a way that serves the song well. Incidentally, it’s amazing how many classic rockers list “Indian Music” as part of their Spotify playlists, including Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, and Mick Jagger. There’s a direct relationship between Indian music and classic rock that goes way beyond the use of sitar on a few 1960s-era songs.
Folksy, guitar fingerstyle textures sound great on “Across The Universe” too. I love playing this style on piano and it brings out the song’s beauty and lightness. Try out a few different approaches and see which you prefer.
Here’s how some of these ideas sound when applied to the song:
Across The Universe: Complete Beatles Piano #1
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
Across The Universe: Wikipedia
John Lennon interview
A candid and extensive interview in which Lennon discusses many of his famous songs, including Across The Universe.
Flowing Water ebook: Play piano with more joy and less stress
Improvising The Beatles: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists
Introduction Table of Contents