Study Guide

Stairway to Heaven Technique

  • Music

    Pop songs, to the disdain of classical music enthusiasts, don't typically go anywhere musically. You typically have a verse and a chorus that loop around—with a bridge somewhere in there tying it all together. "Stairway," to its credit, breaks free from that pattern—as just about everybody who's written about the song has called it a journey in some form. Stylistically the song goes through several stylistic transformations that warrant such a claim.

    The Beginning
    The song begins with those familiar acoustic guitar phrases—often repeated and often messed up by guitar students. Writer Richard Walser calls the beginning "reassuringly square" and it's true, the beginning guitar phrases follow a long-established classical music design. There are four phrases that are each four measures long, which are repeated until the electric guitar steps in. The rhythm is also as plain as you can get: simple eighth notes. The music here emulates the style of the baroque period in England (early 17th century). You can hear it in the flourishes that finish the phrases (especially in the measure right before Plant first starts singing), the pastoral timbre of the recorder, and in the contrapuntal melodies of the acoustic guitar. (Contrapuntal, roughly meaning, "point against point," is where two or more melodies are playing distinct from one another in a song.) In the arpeggiated opening lines you can hear the lowest notes descending downward (chromatically from A to F) while the highest notes in each phrase gradually rise (A to B to C).

    From there the song moves away from these acoustic, pastoral tones by incorporating electric guitar and, later, drums. As the song moves on, it is interesting to think of music as moving stylistically through time in a kind of search… bringing us to the climax of the song, the guitar solo.

    Solo
    The solo is prefaced by what is called a fanfare. A fanfare is a short piece on horns to introduce royalty, to begin a military ceremony—or even to begin a news program (the horns at the beginning of The Daily Show, anyone?). The bright tonal quality of Page's guitar emulates this trumpeting, and the quick triplet chords that he plays further suggest that Page is imitating a fanfare. It's as if the wandering musical styles of the first half of the song have found some kind of hero — a guitar hero.

    If the beginning of "Stairway to Heaven" embodies the folk, classical, and mystical influences on Led Zeppelin, Page's guitar solo represents all the contemporary influences on the band's rock sound. It is a melding of the emotional improvisation of blues tradition with the more psychedelic influence of Jimi Hendrix and contemporary British acts.

    Jimi Hendrix gets a lot of the credit for the modern rock guitar sound, but perhaps just as important were The Kinks, whose song "You Really Got Me" featured one of the first successful usages of heavy guitar distortion. We can hear echoes of both in the sound of Page's guitar.

    Like Hendrix and most rock guitarists today, Page never (intentionally) used complicated music theory or techniques in writing his songs. It is unlikely that Page cared that the final note of the first solo phrase is the sixth from the root—or that the solo is almost entirely in the pentatonic scale, a mainstay for rock guitar. But Page has always said that his guitar style has nothing to do with technique—he "deals in emotions." It makes sense then that his guitar solo in "Stairway" is an improvised one. Sound engineer Andy Johns recalled, "Jimmy had a little bit of trouble with the solo ... [he] hadn't completely figured it out. I remember sitting in the control room with Jimmy, he's standing there next to me and he'd done quite a few passes and it wasn't going anywhere. Then bang! On the next take or two he ripped it out."

    "Dealing in emotions" as Page did with the solo harkens back to the improvisational blues influences on the group. Though Led Zeppelin played an important role in developing the heavy metal sound, over a third of their songs are acoustic and many of their hits were more blues than metal.

    End
    The song's hard-rock ending section builds upon the solo. Robert Plant's trademark screeching vocals join the fray while Page continues to throw in licks. This last verse section continues to use the A minor-G-F chord progression—something else that thousands of familiar songs use, this section ending on the F chord. Typically musical pieces end on the tonic—the root note of the key. "Stairway to Heaven" is in the key of A minor, so it should end with an A note. But the rock section doesn't. Instead the song finds its tonal resolution by coming full circle and ending with a single, simpler melody line: Plant singing, a cappella, "And she's buying her stairway to heaven."
  • Songwriting

    Robert Plant has a lot going on in his lyrics. Curiously, few of the verses rhyme. Plant uses assonance—rhyming of vowel sounds—and a bit of true rhyme, first rarely but then with increasing frequency as he reaches the big finale of the song. A good example of assonance appears in the first stanza: "When she gets there she knows / If the stores are all closed," where both "knows" and "closed" have long "o" sounds. Coming to the third stanza without making any other use of assonance or rhyme, Plant gives us:

    And it's whispered that soon
    If we all call the tune
    Then the piper will lead us to reason
    And a new day will dawn
    For those who stand long


    Here "soon" and "tune" obviously rhyme, and "long" is pronounced as "lawn" to rhyme with "dawn." The use of rhyme here mirrors the kind of voice that Plant is putting on. It's more assertive and the poetry of using rhyme makes these lines seem absolute or truthful.

    In Plant's final verse, following Jimmy Page's majestic guitar solo, everything is made to rhyme or have assonance. The ends of the first lines—"road" and "souls"—get their final consonants slurred to emphasize the assonant vowels, and the same happens to "gold" when it is rhymed with "show" and "know." You might think the next lines, "And if you listen very hard / The tune will come to you at last" can't possibly rhyme or have assonance, but Plant pronounces "last" with a weaker "a" as in the British pronunciation of "class" and "pass" in order to create assonance. And finally Plant wails out the ending consonance of "When all is one and one is all / To be a rock and not to roll." Live, Plant sometimes makes "all" and "roll" rhyme completely. Again, the increased use of rhyme and assonance swell with the song as it reaches this point of prophetic rock n' roll truth and emotion.

    Another thing worth noting: "Stairway to Heaven" is full of Romantic figures of nature, enchanting beings, and big philosophical ideas like "reason" and "the west." These features, found in every verse, evoking the pastoral and mystical, are vague enough to be universally evocative and they're wrapped in a semblance of narrative (the narrative of the lady trying to buy a stairway to heaven) just enough to be engaging. There is never a clear picture of what exactly is going on, but Plant's lyrics bring together enough "metaphysical" material to appear to have deeper meaning while still resisting absolute interpretation. This parallels the band and cover art of Led Zeppelin IV; Led Zeppelin was notoriously camera-shy, for being the biggest band in the world, and IV's cover—an over-papered wall with picture of a hermit with sticks on his back—was utterly impenetrable in terms of meaning. This creates an occultist, mystical fascination for those who want it. Even if the words have no absolute meaning; they allow for endless debate and wonder.