The Beatles’ Yesterday and the Nature of Belief

by ttucker23 on January 10, 2008

As a non-religious person, I’ve always struggled with the concept of ‘faith’. It’s not that I disagree with it or oppose it, it’s just that I’ve never been able to fully understand it. Whenever religious people talk of their ‘belief’ and their ‘faith’, they seem to mean it in a different sense to the way that I usually understand these words.

Recently, however, I had a breakthrough. It was while listening to the Beatles’ classic song Yesterday, from which the line ‘I believe in yesterday’ stands out.

What does it mean to ‘believe in yesterday’?

The song Yesterday basically describes the contrast between a previous time, when the singer’s ‘troubles seemed so far away’, and his current state, in which his troubles are back, possibly here to stay, and he needs ‘a place to hide away’. This in itself is an unremarkable sentiment, and one that’s been described in many songs about heartbreak and the loss of a loved one. What lifts the song to a higher level is the singer’s statement that he still ‘believes’ in yesterday. If we reflect on the context of this belief, there can be no basis for it. There’s nothing in the song that suggests he will get his lover back, or that he has the prospect of new love in sight. The belief declared is an affirmation – a statement to the effect that ‘I will continue to put my faith in love, even though this love has ended.’

It seems to me that here the word ‘believe’ is being used in the same way as the religious mean it with regards to their faith. In fact the song Yesterday has a spiritual tone. The loss of the loved one is not mentioned until the bridge, almost in passing, as if to imply that this may not even be the source of the troubles, and that something darker is responsible for the ‘shadow falling over me’. The lyrics predominantly talk of disintegration, fragmentation, disruption:

Suddenly,
I’m not half the man I used to be,
There’s a shadow hanging over me,
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.

Here the symbol ‘yesterday’ is transformed. In the previous verse it had stood for the state of stability, radiance, love and carefree times (‘yesterday, love was such an easy game to play’). It now appears that it stands for the disruption itself, which ‘came suddenly’. This ambiguity and transformation is crucial to the spiritual rupturing that the song describes, and suggests that the ‘belief in yesterday’ is more complex than a naive faith in sunnier times.

Disruptions of melody, harmony and form in the Beatles’ Yesterday

The form, melody and harmonies also demonstrate profound ambiguities and disruptions. The melodic movement on the word ‘yes-terday’ that starts the song is an appoggiatura on the 9th degree of the scale, which then leads down to the tonic (G to F over an F chord). This is an uncomfortably dissonant start to a melody, and is a melodic movement one would normally expect to end a phrase, not begin it. Conversely, the melodic cadence on the word ‘yesterday’ that closes the verse rises by an optimistic major 3rd (F to A over an F chord), just as the lyric asserts its faith in ‘yesterday’.

There is further complexity expressed through the song’s persistent chromaticism; #5ths, 13ths over minor 7th chords, added 9ths, all shade and darken the melodic and harmonic movement. The melody note A over the Em7 chord on the word ‘why’ in the phrase ‘why she had to go’ is particularly discomforting (the Beatles used this unusual harmonisation in two other songs: Help! and I’ll Be Back, and both times at a point of personal crisis in the lyric).

The verse also takes an unusual 7-bar form, rather than the more common 8-bar song form, which disorientates us further. It’s as if the song constantly refuses to stabilise or rationalise: ‘why she had to go, I don’t know she wouldn’t say’. The singer is alienated; he did ‘something wrong’, but exactly what is unclear, even to himself.

The overall impression is that the love break-up is a metaphor for something more fundamental, a breakdown in the protagonist’s psyche, a darkness encroaching on a previously sunny or stable disposition.

Belief and Faith

It seems to me that there are two meanings of the word ‘believe’ that can get confused.

  1. To regard as true – eg ‘I believe the earth goes round the sun’.
  2. To have confidence or faith in someone or something.

It’s clear that in the song Yesterday, and in religious thinking (whether consciously or not), the word is being used in the second sense. The concept of faith here is not one that can be rationally explained. It’s not as if we could disprove Paul McCartney’s belief in ‘yesterday’, or demonstrate that ‘today’ is more worthy of his belief. Trying to persuade the singer of the song Yesterday to give up his faith in love would be pointless and entirely negative. Opponents of religious faith fail to grasp this; ‘belief’ in a spiritual sense isn’t meant in the same way that they understand it. This is why a rationalist approach can never dissuade believers. Here’s C.G. Jung in his essay ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ (October 1939):

If our critical reason tells us that in certain respects we are irrational and infantile, or that all religious beliefs are illusions, what are we to do about our irrationality, what are we to put in place of our exploded illusions? Our naive childishness has in it the seeds of creativity, and illusion is a natural component of life, and neither of them can ever be suppressed or replaced by the rationalities and practicalities of convention.

These insights haven’t changed my fundamental outlook – I’m not persuaded into a religious belief or attitude because of them. But it does lead me to a greater understanding of the religious ‘position’. After all, there are times when we all need to put our faith in something or someone.


Paul McCartney performs Yesterday with the Beatles.

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