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Counting The Beatles I Want To Hold Your Hand
By Dr Lou Abbott

This article explores an early song Beatles’ canon that required the group to understand the "math." We will address the opening rhythm of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by providing spoken accompaniment over musical examples. There are also notated references to follow as you listen. The alternate interpretations of this opening are interesting and just may be the way you have always heard the song.

We start at the beginning of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" because the rhythm of the first few notes are confusing. These early notes are called pickup notes because they appear before the steady pattern of beats begins. The question is: are there two or three pickup notes at the start?

Example 1: Intro to "I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Is it two notes?


Or three notes?


The answer is three notes and the rhythm starts between beats 3 and 4.


The Beatles’ Version

The Beatle’s intro to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" starts the beat after the first three pickup notes. Here are some suggestions for hearing this correctly. First, let’s listen to the end of each middle-8 section, the "I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide" lyric because both sections utilize the same rhythmic figure.

Example 2: End of middle-8 section.

Now refer to the sections of the song that put words to this rhythm: "I can’t hide…" First, add a syllable by substituting the formal "I can not hide."


Next, leave out the word "hide."


Now put in the actual words that accompany this rhythm: "I can’t hide":


Notice also that there are two beats between each "I can’t hide" (I say "2, 3.") and 8 beats leading back to the verse:

Example 3: 2-3 count.


Audio and Video

Listen to Paul count in the group on the outtakes of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Macca counts the song in with "1, 2, 3." You don’t hear this on the released recording and that is perhaps the reason this intro can sound like a rhythmic illusion. There are also some interesting group discussions about dynamics, attack and tempo in this outtake. Macca is noticeably in charge of the arrangement and defends his demands with musical terms that he probably absorbed from his father’s musical background. Lennon thinks it should go slower and start louder; Ringo is not focused and Macca calls for a "clean" start with a strong "attack."

Flip the single over and compare this intro to the start of "I Saw Her Standing There," which includes Paul’s "one, two, three, FOUR!" count-in. This leaves no room for interpretation, while the lack of a count for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" creates a variety of interpretations, as you will hear in the upcoming discussion.

Listening Example 4: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" outtakes.

Watch McCartney and the band emphasize the second beat on the February 9, 1964 Ed Sullivan Show appearance for a visual representation. You can see that Macca and the group are very demonstrative in marking this because all the guitars come down on the second beat: Ed Sullivan show


Perhaps there were some errors in previous live starts and the Beatles agreed to clearly synchronize the beginning of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in live performance. The group seemingly distained choreography that did not serve a musical purpose; this group movement is significant to me because it seems to reinforce the rhythmic illusion of the recording.

The Final Analysis

Now that we have a complete analysis, test your counting on a slowed version with the lyric omitted:

Example 5: "I Want to Hold your Hand," with count (slowed 85%).

Let’s try the whole intro with a count-in added. I will say "1, 2, 3, 4" before the song begins and include the lyrics only as a reference.

Listening Example 6: Beatles version with count-in.


The Supremes’ Version

Let’s examine some alternative interpretations. Check out the Supremes’ cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (released in Fall 1964) to hear a two-note pickup instead of three notes. The band starts with the two-note pickup. The singers, after entering correctly on beats 3 and 4, fix the take by waiting for the band to catch up in the verse. This version at least preserves the beat—it just adds one more! Listen for my count of beat "5" in the following example:


Example 7: "I Want to Hold your Hand," The Supremes version with count.

Did they get it wrong every time? The answer is no. After the intro, the Supremes and the band end each middle-8 like the Beatles’ version. Perhaps they were in too much of a hurry to realize that the parts were supposed to be the same?

An Academic Interpretation

For a second example of an alternative interpretation using two pickup notes, check out this complex counting experience described by musicologist Walter Everett:

"It is very difficult, even with the advantage of repeated listenings, not to hear an opening anacrusis [group of pickup notes] of two eighths followed by three full measures of 4/4 and a fourth inscrutable bar of 9/8."
Copyright © Walter Everett: The Beatles as Musicians, Volume 1, 203.

Example 8: "I Want to Hold Your Hand," Everett interpretation slowed 85%.


As talented and precise as Ringo Starr was in 1964, it is very improbable that he would be capable or interested in counting this cluster of notes. "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and Progressive Rock are still a few years away!

The "Too Late" Version

Another alternative interpretation is to start with the two-beat pickup and, instead of the 9 counts clustered together, continue to count 4 beats. This puts the opening line of "Oh, Yeah I’ll…" and the rest of the verse in the wrong place—between each beat. I refer to this as the "too late" version because by this point, everyone on the bandstand will be forced to make a correction. Take my word for it—you don’t want to be up there if this interpretation happens.

Example 9: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" too-late version:


Conclusion: Some Things I Learned That Night

The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show changed many lives, including my own. The first Ed Sullivan appearance is planted in my memory and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was the first Beatles’ song that I heard on the radio. Today, studying the Sullivan footage reveals much of the template for Classic Rock drumming. This performance of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is particularly significant because the camera flies over the group to a birds-eye view of Ringo. The sound level of the drums increases as the camera draws closer and lingers on Starr and his kit—an electric moment for drummers everywhere.

The tuning of Starr’s drums and the cymbal timbres complement the group sound, particularly the 15-inch snare drum and 16-inch hihat cymbals. The closing of the hihat at the start of each middle-8 ("and when I touch you…) was my first lesson in shading and the gradual re-opening (leading to the previously analyzed "I can’t hide" moment) revived the tension and power of the song. Ringo’s note choices and patterns highlight the drama and slope of the narrative and his strategically placed fills are deceptively difficult to execute, particularly if you take a right-handed approach. Once again, Ringo plays the song.

Some notable examples of Ringo contributing musical moments in "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are the two-hand fills that Tim Riley aptly describes in Tell Me Why: "The harmonized landing point of "hand" [where McCartney’s vocal leaps up an octave] is supported by drum fills gliding beneath the vocalists" [page 86]. Add to this Starr’s big sound on the drums and visually swinging style and I can understand why so many future drummers (including myself) decided their careers on January 9, 1964.

Ringo Starr, at age 22, possessed a solid, polished style accompanied by a big smile and lots of movement. I would like to recommend one technical aspect for the non-drummer to observe at the beginning and later at the camera fly-over: his snare and hihat approach. The half-open hihat is executed in a fanning motion while the snare drum is played vertically. This open, roaring sound, played consistently either on a cymbal or the half-open hihat, is the atmospheric difference between Liverpool Beat music and almost all the pop music that preceded it. If you compare many of the Beatles’ cover records to the original recordings (such as Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven" or "You Really Got a Hold on Me") it is obvious that this roaring cymbal atmosphere is one of the ingredients added by The Beatles and other Beat groups.

The solid, consistent execution of this hand dance technique suggests that Starr had logged many hours in this position - a place that I refer to as "home." Paul McCartney states in the Anthology: "When Ringo joins us we get a bit more kick, a few more imaginative breaks, and the band settles." This is perhaps the most concise definition of a drummer’s role available and it originates from perhaps the most accomplished musician and composer of the 20th century. Ringo Starr on The Ed Sullivan Show, smiling and rocking "at home" was, and still is, a thrilling drumming moment.


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