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What’s That Sound? Exploring the off-kilter flute in The Beatles song 'Strawberry Fields Forever'

The off-kilter flute introduction to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ sounds as unique today as it did 50 years ago. In a period renowned for the famous four’s experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, the track perfectly captures their psychedelic sound.

The song, which actually began life very simply with John Lennon singing and playing acoustic guitar, soon took another turn. “I was going through a big scene about song writing again,” Lennon once commented on reflection. “It took me a long time to write it. See, I was writing all bits and bits. I wanted the lyrics to be like conversation. It didn’t work.” Often tinkering with his creations, Lennon was unhappy with its skeletal structure and began looking for a new sound to flesh it out—but it was Paul McCartney who came up with the simple but distinctive layered flute melody that gives the song it’s charm, and he did this with a secret tool.

The Mellotron was an instrument way ahead of its time, originally created as a way to replicate the sounds of an orchestra, it works in a similar way to how a sampler does now. It is an intricate instrument which uses a keyboard to trigger pre-recorded tape loops of other instruments such as; flutes, brass and choirs. The Mellotron’s lack of digital synchronising, originally thought of as a disadvantage, is what gives the instrument it’s warbly character with the loops being triggered by hand and often slightly out of phase with each other. McCartney’s use of this, combined with the use of reversed tape loops and George Harrison’s new lap steel guitar, helped make one of the most recognisable songs of all time.

While the creation of the track took some 26 takes in the studio, The Beatles were recruiting assistance from the likes of producers George Martin and Geoff Emerick who helped guide the Fab Four’s sometimes chaotic inspiration. “He’d wanted it as a gentle dreaming song, but he said it had come out too raucous,” Martin once commented on Lennon’s desire for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. “He asked me if I could write him a new line-up with the strings. So I wrote a new score with four trumpets and three cellos.”

Despite the wide range of influences, its McCartney’s addition of the Mellotron which is so widely remembered. The instrument’s difficult maintenance and unpredictability mean working examples of the original models are now very rare, and when they do appear they usually have a five-figure price tag. That said, if you did want to try one out for yourself Mellotron has released an excellent digital recreation of the instruments called the Mellotron M4000D, or alternatively several third party companies have created software versions based on the instrument.

Stream the song and listen to the instrument in action, below.