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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Led Zeppelin "Stairway To Heaven" Song Analysis

I thought I'd analyze Led Zeppelin's iconic "Stairway To Heaven" in honor of the anniversary of the band's Led Zeppelin 4 album, which was released 40 years ago this week. The song was voted #3 in 2000 by VH1 on their list of the "100 Greatest Rock Songs." It was the most requested song on FM radio stations in the United States in the 1970s, despite never having been released as a single. This apparently was a decision made by the band's manager, Peter Grant, so fans would buy the album instead of the single. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Stairway To Heaven" is one of the most interesting songs ever in terms of song form. Everything about it breaks the rules of what we consider "pop song" form, but that's what makes it so cool. Here's what the form looks like:

Intro (8 bars of guitar), Intro (16 bars with Mellotron), Verse (20 bars), Interlude (8 bars), B section (8 bars), Verse (8 bars), Interlude (1 bar), B section (16 bars), Verse (16 bars), Interlude (1 bar), B section (16 bars), Verse (16 bars), Interlude (1 bar)

That's just the first part of the song! As you can see, every section is somewhat different length-wise. Now comes the C section up-tempo outro:

Intro (2 bars of 7/8), Guitar Solo (36 bars), Vocal (36 bars), Outro (16 bars), Ending

There are a couple of interesting things here. First of all the C section intro is in 7, which is highly unusual for a rock song, then both the solo and vocal are 36 bars each, or 9 times through the pattern instead of 8. Once again, this is so much different than what you'd expect, yet it works.

The Arrangement
The arrangement for "Stairway" is brilliant in that there are only 7 instruments, yet it sounds much bigger.

The beginning of the song is mostly acoustic guitar and mellotron flutes, and a Fender Rhodes electric piano holds down the bass from the 1st B section onwards to the C section. On the 4rth verse, the drums and bass enter, along with a 12 string electric. A Telecaster then doubles the riff during the interludes. Take notice that the electric piano continues to play even after the bass enters, with the bass mostly (but not always) doubling it.

The C section outro is built around the 12 string electric, bass and drums, and the solo Telecaster (in one of Pagey's best solos). On the 7th time through the pattern, a slide guitar enters with a line that answers the solo electric guitar. When the vocal enters it's back to the bass, drums and 12 string, with the Telecaster playing an answer line on the 3rd time through the pattern. On the 8th time through, the chords are accented, but continue through for a 9th time (really unusual!). The song then ends with a solo vocal, which is, once again, unusual.

The Sound
"Stairway" was recorded on 16 track at Island Studios in London as well as on location at Headley Grange using the Rolling Stones mobile studio. The acoustic guitar on the intro is interesting in that it's panned to the left with a somewhat long plate reverb that you hear more on the right side. Later in the song, the 12 string is pretty much bathed in this reverb.

The drums are heavily compressed, and are actually recorded in stereo. This, in fact, might have been one of the earliest examples of stereo drums, but it's a pretty mild version, with just a little of the crash cymbal and floor tom slightly panned to the left.

The vocal has a very short delayed plate reverb to put it in an environment, but it's still pretty much in the forefront of the band.

The Production
Jimmy Page considers this his masterpiece and I think so to, although you have to give props to bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones for his arrangement skills for the keyboards. The mellotron parts could have been boring if they were repeated with every section, but each section is different, which keeps it interesting.

The song starts quietly, builds to a crescendo, and ends almost in silence, in an excellent example of tension and release. Listen how the instruments weave in and out of the track, even though the instrumentation and tracks are limited. Remember that the song is 8:03 and you want to listen to the whole thing all the way through. That truly is the sign of a masterpiece.

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Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Bobby.

Listening with a critical ear (which is hard due to its over-familiarality) there are a bunch of minor mistakes on the guitar that would have absolutely been taken out and re-done in today's studio culture. They do, however add a tremendous amount of both character and tension to the whole affair.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, the intro is actual recorders, not Mellotron flute. I believe they might have used Tron to reproduce it live.

Gian Nicola Beraldo said...

Remember that the song is 8:03 and you want to listen to the whole thing all the way through. That truly is the sign of a masterpiece.


Bobby Owsinski said...

You may be right about the recorders. I'll look into it and try to find out for sure.

Jeff Tolbert said...

Great post, Bobby! Thanks. You got me all excited about Stairway and I ended up doing a more in-depth analysis of the theory behind it at Thought your readers might be interested as well. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

InformativŠµ article, exactly what I needed.


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