PDA

View Full Version : How did The Beatles write their songs?


dead of night
09-02-2011, 10:35 AM
Hi. I am listening to my remastered series of Beatles albums and marveling at the seeming simplicity and beauty of both their rock and pop songs. I am reading in conjunction with this Alan Pollack's "Notes On" series. However, although Pollack analyzes and describes what The Beatles are doing, he doesn't speculate about their songwriting process. In other words, how did they write this great music? What was their method?

Here are some of the things I would love to find out:

1. Did McCartney and Lennon first try to come up with an interesting chord progression, then write the melody above it?

2. Did they first hum or sing a good melody and then decide on a chord progression to harmonize the melody?

3. Did the Beatles first hear in their head the music they wanted to write and play and then find it on their instruments, or did they mostly use their instruments to find and write the chords and melody?

4. Basically this all boils down to: Did The Beatles lead by ear or instrument? In other words, did they hear the melody in their heads and then write, or did they write chord progressions first and then sing along?

Floyd Eye
09-02-2011, 10:38 AM
For the most part ( and with Mac almost exclusively) they came up with the melody first. Their competitive nature with each other with regards to writing new songs fueled their prolific output.

Shiny McShine
09-02-2011, 10:46 AM
Get the documentary, The Making of Sgt Peppers and you'll get it straight from the horse's mouth. It was most informative.

NRr37NxL5qc

pgnTLMMn0XM

JonR
09-02-2011, 11:34 AM
Hi. I am listening to my remastered series of Beatles albums and marveling at the seeming simplicity and beauty of both their rock and pop songs. I am reading in conjunction with this Alan Pollack's "Notes On" series. However, although Pollack analyzes and describes what The Beatles are doing, he doesn't speculate about their songwriting process. In other words, how did they write this great music? What was their method?

Here are some of the things I would love to find out;

1. Did McCartney and Lennon first try to come up with an interesting chord progression, then write the melody beneath it?I suspect most of the time melody was first. But there might well have been occasions where they found an interesting or unusual chord change, and then tried to incorporate it into something.
What they didn't do was what a lot of latter-day rock bands do, which is gather in a studio and just jam until something comes out. Each had ideas individually, and then developed them individually as far as he could - and then tested it with the other, who might come up with an idea for a bridge or chorus.
Some Beatles songs - even in the early days - were (almost) wholly Lennon or McCartney compositions. The other would have very little (if any) input. In others, one would write one section while the other would contribute another section (verse/chorus/bridge etc). I don't think they often collaborated on the same part of a song.
Of course, later in their career, collaboration was even less common. More songs in the last half of their career are identifiably either Lennon or McCartney, despite still being credited to both.

2. Did they first hum or sing a good melody and then decide on a chord progression to harmonize the melodyIMO, yes, except that the two go together quite easily. You can strum one chord and make up a melody, which might then suggest a suitable chord to change to after a bar or two.
You wouldn't have to have an entire melody before you start looking for chords. And it would be equally odd (at least for the Beatles and other writers of that period) to make up an entire chord sequence without having any idea for melody along the way.

3. Did the Beatles first hear in their head the music they wanted to write and play and then find it on their instruments, or did they mostly use their instruments to find and write the chords and melody?A mixture of both, I suspect.

4. Basically this all boils down to: Did The Beatles lead by ear or instrument? In other words, did they hear the melody in their heads and then write, or did they write chord progressions first and then sing along?They would have sung first, almost certainly, or at least imagined melodic phrases of some kind.

You may have heard the famous story of Paul McCartney and "Yesterday". He woke up one morning with the tune in his head, and thought he must have heard it somewhere. He kept playing it to people and asking what it was. Eventually he realised it was original, but had no words. So he made up nonsense, just to keep the tune in his head while he worked on it. It started off as "scrambled eggs, oh baby how I love your legs", or "fish and chips, oh baby how I love your hips". (Clearly poetry didn't come as easily to him as tunes...:rolleyes:)

However, that writing process wasn't typical of them AFAIK.

IMO, the best insights into their writing process come from knowing their influences. They just wanted to be a rock'n'roll band. John Lennon's hero was Jerry Lee Lewis. Paul's was Little Richard. But they listened to all kinds of music: not just rock'n'roll, but doo-wop, skiffle, motown, jazz, blues, folk, vaudeville, country, show tunes, etc etc. It all went in - and then it all came out when they sat down to write their own songs. Once you think in those terms, you can hear it all in their songs. Their "originality" simply consisted of a uniquely broad mix of influences. In their early songs, you can hear the Everly Bros rubbing shoulders with Little Richard, or Smokey Robinson stirred in with Roy Orbison; or Arthur Alexander backed by the Shadows.
They knew all the formulas, so once they had an initial idea (say "she loves you", or "I want to hold your hand", common little phrases that become the germ of a song) it wasn't hard to work out what ought to happen next.
At the same time, because they weren't wedded to one genre, they had no inhibitions about throwing in a chord change from some show tune or old jazz song.
And they had a kind of chemistry between them. Very different characters, but they shared the lack of a mother (a possibly subconscious psychological bond), and a mutual respect for each other's talents. They challenged each other, as much as collaborating; and each of them knew that if they couldn't finish a tune, the other would come up with something.

The last element in the puzzle was the punishing schedules in the Hamburg clubs. They had to entertain, and had to do it for long periods at a time. So they quickly got used to - if not improvising exactly - making do, maybe segueing one number into another, or extending a song. They discovered that thinks like falsetto backing vocals excited people. But mainly they had to learn songs from anywhere they could, cover everything they could get their hands on, just to fill a set list. And also to keep different audiences entertained, of course. Not everyone wanted rock'n'roll; some crowds would want a smoochy ballad, or something jazzy. They didn't have the luxury of later bands, who could indulge themselves developing individualistic repertoires. They had to be jacks-of-all-trades.

So it was inevitable that when commercial success beckoned, they not only had the balls to demand they recorded their own songs, not some tin pan alley product - they had the extensive knowledge to be able to produce material at least the equal of a tin pan alley pro.

Two books I'd recommend for further info:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Revolution-Head-Beatles-Records-Sixties/dp/1844138283
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Songwriting-Secrets-%2522Beatles%2522-Dominic-Pedler/dp/0711981671/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1314980284&sr=1-1

The former covers every individual song, in chronological order. It doesn't go into great detail on most of them (probably less than a page on most), and doesn't contain a lot of interest to songwriters (very little music theory detail) - it has more on the way the tracks were recorded, and the circumstances of their origins. But well written and fascinating none the less.

The latter is a work of a true obsessive. He spends a whole chapter (yes a chapter), on the opening chord of "A Hard Days Night", canvassing as many opinions as he can find on exactly what it is - because the controversy is endless. He eventually talks to George Harrison, who tells him it was just an Fadd9 played on a 12-string. However (as we can all hear) it's rather more than that. There seems to be a D bass from Paul, and supposedly George Martin added a piano chord to it - though we apparently don't know what that was.

Anyway, much more in this book (than in the other) of interest to the musician. But really you want both!

guitarjazz
09-02-2011, 11:56 AM
They often borrowed a chord progression from one of the many cover songs they performed in their early years.

Shiny McShine
09-02-2011, 12:13 PM
My opinion is that they wrote from the melody first because the chords on many of the songs would not be the obvious stock ones. I can tell that when I try to play Something and it doesn't just fall under my fingers.

She's So Heavy sounds like it was written from the instrument first though huh?

vivaoaxaca
09-02-2011, 01:31 PM
IMO, the best insights into their writing process come from knowing their influences.

This is the closest you'll get to the correct answer. I've always felt that a lot of the early original Lennon/McCartney songs were written by first hearing a song and then saying "I want to write a song like that."

There are many stories relating that Please Please Me was written by Lennon as a Roy Orbison-style bluesy ballad and that it only received the full pop-song treatment after George Martin suggested trying it at a faster tempo.

I think most of the writing was done with instruments, but maybe more with a piano than with guitars.

As far as melody vs. harmony as the basis for the songs: I'm convinced that the melodies came first almost all of the time. But that doesn't surprise anyone, does it? :D

Bozrahindrid
09-02-2011, 04:09 PM
Hmm..thats probably my problem writing songs all along. I guess it is better to come up with the melody and instrumentation first then write the lyrics.

cruisemates
09-03-2011, 05:58 PM
I am not so sure the process of how they wrote their songs is as important as what they hoped to accomplished while they were writing a song.

I think their idea was to always come up with something new (Hey, they have an album called that). But what I mean is that they constantly want to create new (for them) melodic, chordal and harmonic ideas. The were NOT a repetitious songwriting duo.

In the beginning their songs were very I IV V oriented, in major keys (love me do, Please Please Me, Twist & Shout, etc).

Then at some point they started using more bVII chords (Norwegian Wood, Im a Loser, etc). They went from Phil Spector-inspired ballads to more rock 'n roll (from Mr. Moonlight to Another Girl). And I am still inthe early stuff.

Later on, of course they got far more complex, adding extra bars of 3/4 (All You Need is Love), and more complex harmonies. They also got far blusier (Yer Blues, Helter Skelter).

They listened to other kinds of music a lot - everything; rock, pop, Motown, Everly Brothers, later; the Byrds, Dylan, Moody Blues, etc. and they just wrote. They had a knack for knowing when they had found something catchy and how too use it in just the right spot.

I have a book called "The Beatles as Musicians" that thoroughly opens up their songwriting to musical theory, and it shows that they introduced new ideas all the time, and reused many of the things they discovered in more unusual ways.

By the time they did Abbey Road side 2 they were masters at "the recurring theme" in music where they could tie songs together with memes.

BUt back to the original question. I think they used their voices first, but with guitars/pianos simultaneously, to write songs. They looked for musical phrases that were pleasing to the ear. I think they thought of harmony parts very early on usually (but not always) because they are often so central to the song.

dead of night
09-04-2011, 06:43 AM
One thing that strikes me is how good, how profoundly good, the Beatles were with melodies. For example, think of the first lyrical line, that melodic riff, that begins Revolution. That is delightful.

rob2001
09-04-2011, 07:24 AM
I agree with JonR's idea of them being a jack of all trades genre wise and that leads me to think they didn't have a set style of writing.

They probably used recurring methods that were familiar to them but I doubt they ever thought there was only one way to do it.

angus99
09-04-2011, 08:12 AM
None of these are correct. They wrote most of their catalog on their intergalactic journey to conquer earth and make girls pee themselves.

JonR
09-04-2011, 03:56 PM
This is the closest you'll get to the correct answer. I've always felt that a lot of the early original Lennon/McCartney songs were written by first hearing a song and then saying "I want to write a song like that."Exactly.
Once you've covered enough songs (especially of the relatively simple kinds they were listening to) you get to know how they're put together.

Of course they had an ear for the unusual change too - that was one of the things that made them stand out. A lesser composer in their position - wanting to write their own pop songs to fill out their repertoire - might go for pastiches: "OK, let's write a Chuck Berry-style 12-bar", or "let's write a doo-wop ballad". They had the alert ears to spot things like minor IV chords (which they used a lot) or major bVIs. So if they did have an idea about writing something like a doo-wop ballad, they'd want to make it a bit different somehow.
Eg, you can imagine that the C chord in "I saw her standing there" (following A in key of E), came from Carl perkins "Honey Don't", which alternated E and C major chords (key of E), and which they later covered of course. C doesn't belong in key of E; but doesn't it sound cool! ;) (The other possible source of that chord would be Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue", using F in key of A. You just know that kind of thing made their ears prick up.)


I think most of the writing was done with instruments, but maybe more with a piano than with guitars.
It was guitars to start with, but both certainly worked with piano later in their career (McCartney first, AFAIK). The advantage of that, of course, is that it's an unfamiliar instrument, so you don't get stuck in your guitarist's habits.

Their constant desire to break new ground was another important characteristic of course, no doubt springing from the atmosphere of feverish challenge they got used to in Hamburg, and also from each other - and then later from hearing contemporaries like Dylan and Brian Wilson, who they'd be tempted to try and outdo. Every record then had to break new ground in some way, to stay ahead of the game - even when they could easily have rested on their laurels, milked the early winning formulas.