The Beatles FAQ
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The Beatles FAQ

Why did The Beatles never learn how to read music?

Paul McCartney on receiving an Honorary Fellowship to the Royal College of Music, 2017

This is kind of amazing for someone who doesn’t read a note of music

None of The Beatles could either read or write conventional musical notation — what Paul McCartney sometimes refers to as ‘dots on a page’. This was largely through choice and was not unusual in guitar based pop music.

They were what Hollywood composers called ‘hummers’ — as in ‘you hum the tune and I’ll play it.’ Doing this effectively relies on a very good ‘ear’ ( the ability to identify and reproduce the pitch) and on musical memory.

These qualities were central to the Lennon and McCartney songwriting method. From the beginning they applied a ‘catchiness’ test on every new song. Could they remember the tune at their next session? If not, they abandoned work on it. Only memorable melodies would survive the ruthless jukebox jury of teenage radio listening.

How much did they understand of music theory?

The Beatles started with a pragmatic musical ambition. They wanted to learn how to play the songs they liked. Unable to read sheet music — which was in not available for many of their favourites in any case— they relied on careful listening. This enabled them to work out the words, the basic chord progression and the melody. Vocal harmonies always came naturally to them — and this was an area that Paul’s father had provided informal tuition.

Aspiring pop musicians also shared details of chords, words, rhythms, melodies and strumming patterns with their peers. Most of the first meeting between John and Paul was taken up with this. Later George and Paul helped John transpose the banjo chords his mother had taught him to the guitar.

Without recourse to textbooks — or YouTube tutorials — many musical discoveries were made by chance observation. It was a Slim Whitman concert poster that taught Paul that he could restring his guitar to play left-handed.

Chord progressions

A central feature of the music they enjoyed was the use of familiar chord progressions. Put simply, a chord progression is a series of guitar chords played in a set sequence on a scale. Three or four chords can provide the tools to playing hundreds of songs.

In their songwriting, Lennon and McCartney relied heavily on some of the most common chord progressions. I–V–vi–IV. LET IT BE (in the key of C) is a typical example(C, C–G–Am–F).

Sometime they reverse-engineered songs they admired, modifying melodies and chord sequences. PLEASE PLEASE ME started life as John Lennon’s attempt to write in the style of Roy Orbison. A change in tempo suggested by Brian Epstein disguised these origins.

Within this framework, The Beatles developed a distinctive approach. They were innovative in their variations of the standard chord progressions — swapping major and minor chords (as in NOWHERE MAN for example). Until the mid Sixties, however, they largely stuck to the conventions of the standard popular song.

Keeping Time

A clue to the musical DNA of The Beatles was contained in the name — they were all about the (back)beat. Generally this was 4/4 or common time. Some musicians criticized the relentless repetition but Leonard Bernstein noted that they introduced ‘exciting’ variations — the switch to a three beat bar in GOOD DAY SUNSHINE, for example.

Bernstein describes songs in abstract technical terms — the mixolydian mode, counterpoint etc. Typically, The Beatles were focused on the musical practicalities. About the middle eight of WE CAN WORK IT OUT, Paul has said, ‘It was George Harrison’s idea to put the middle into waltz time, like a German waltz.’

Reliance on application rather than theory was also shown intheir approach to more complex time signatures. Ringo was initially baffled by George Harrison’s instruction to play 7/4 in the ‘sun, sun, sun, here it comes’ section of HERE COMES THE SUN

‘He might as well have talked to me in Arabic. I had to find some way to physically do it {taps out the rhythm on his knees}. I had know way of going 1 234567 — that’s not my brain

In his excellent video, David Bennett demonstrates The Beatles practical use of counting beats and bars. Paul counts in All My Loving 1-2-3-4-1 for example, because the song begins on the third beat of the first bar.

How did they advance to writing more musically complex songs?

In 1962 George Martin was underwhelmed by potential of his new signing. Their musicianship was crude and their original songs ‘crap’: plodding variations on overworked on over-familiar themes. His first task was to help bring them up to an acceptable commercial standard.

For PLEASE PLEASE ME, he advised Lennon to speed up the tempo. With SHE LOVES YOU, he moved Ringo’s drum fill to create an explosive start, while opening CANT BUY ME LOVE with chorus has the same effect.

Over the next three years Martin facilitated a dizzying advance in the scale of their musical ambition. Standard chord progressions had been replace by complex sound experiments (TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS) sophisticated orchestral arrangements (YESTERDAY, ELEANOR RIGBY) and compositions from a radically different musical tradition (LOVE YOU TOO).

Perhaps the key event in this advance was the recording of YESTERDAY. This was the first song they recorded without their standard line-up — only McCartney performs alongside the string players. Even radical was:

‘George Martin’s disclosure to them of a hitherto unsuspected world of classical music colour.’ Ian MacDonald The Revolution in the Head

Did not reading music hamper The Beatles musical development?

Sales of close to two billion records would suggest not.

The piecemeal nature of The Beatles musical education appeared inefficient but it encouraged resourcefulness and innovation. They developed an effective methodology, based on an implicit understanding of essential concepts like keys, scales, chord progressions and time signatures.

The theoretical foundations were there there, though they often did not use the standard technical terms to describe them. Nor were they bound by the ‘rules’ that inhibited experimentation. Swapping to 3/4 in ‘the middle’ of WE CAN WORK IT OUT was not orthodox but George Harrison sensed it would work. And George was right.

Following The Beatles, an elitism crept into the some quarters of the rock world. Some, like Ginger Baker, scoffed at their self-confessed ‘primitive’ musicianship. Others took the Bernstein view that they were as good as they needed to be for what they wanted to do.

Paul couldn’t read the music but imagined the melody it might represent

The writing of GOLDEN SLUMBERS is an instructive case in point. The inspiration for it came from Paul McCartney seeing his stepsister’s piano music — an arrangement of the folk song CRADLE SONG laid out for a lesson. Paul looked at the unintelligible sea of black dots on the page. He then imagined the tune they might represent.

They don’t teach that in composition class.

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