The Musicality of the Beatles

We have come to the end of Beatles Month here at Musical U and in this final episode we’re going to recap the major learning points from each of our expert guests and share the major running theme that seemed to be at the center of the Beatles’ phenomenal story – and what you can learn from that. Stay tuned!

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Hi, my name’s Christopher Sutton, I’m the founder and Director of Musical U, and it’s been my absolute pleasure to host this recent series of episodes interviewing some of the world’s top Beatles experts to try to discover:

It’s been my absolute pleasure to host this recent series of episodes interviewing some of the world’s top Beatles experts to try to discover:

  • In what ways did the Beatles’ musicality contribute to their unparalleled success
  • Where did that incredible level of musicality come from?
  • And what can each of us as musicians learn from that for our own musicality journey?

I’m sure you’ll agree there were some fascinating insights from each of our experts, all of whom brought their own particular perspective on the Fab Four.

There was also one big running theme that jumped out at me while I was doing these interviews and we were putting together Beatles Month – which is something we’ll be following up on in our next episodes of the show… more on that in a little bit.

First I wanted to do a quick recap of each of the interviews and what we learned. And if you missed any of these I hope it’ll inspire you to go back and catch up – because I think they were some of the most interesting and potentially impactful interviews we’ve had on the show so far.

First up we spoke with Scott Freiman, of Deconstructing the Beatles. Scott’s particular expertise is in having picked apart some of the original and rare recordings to really understand the process behind creating a Beatles hit song. He credited both the personalities of the band and their well-trained and broadly experienced ears as crucial to their songwriting success, and how their years in Hamburg set them up with the raw potential which George Martin then helped to bring out in the best possible ways.

A major learning point from Scott’s studies was that their amazing musical creations never came out of nowhere, fully formed. Each song was *crafted*, with a combination of experimenting and editing, right from the beginning, trusting their ears to lead them to the “right answers” and doing so in a collaborative way. This skill in songcraft was amplified by their willingness to completely reinvent themselves almost on an album-by-album basis.

Hearing the stories behind the origins and development of some of their classic songs can help to humanise these stars and inspire us that such things could be possible for us too. As a composer himself Scott’s able to dig into the particular techniques they used and he shared the example of how playing around with tension and release in ways that challenged the listener’s expectations in unusual ways was one thing which frequently set the Beatles’ songs apart from others of their time.

From there we continued on the songwriting theme, speaking with Matt Blick of Beatles Songwriting Academy. He talked about how openness to trying new things and a willingness to say yes to things beyond his comfort zone had been key to creating the interesting musical life he’s had himself, and that’s maybe part of why he’s come to admire and connect with the Beatles in the way he did.

We just picked up on a couple of Matt’s interesting lessons from studying the songs of the Beatles and there are plenty more to be enjoyed on his website. We talked about how being prolific and having a songwriting partner are two great ways to more quickly get to a song you’re happy with and avoid writer’s block or perfectionism holding you back.

In terms of the musical techniques used, Matt noted that although the Beatles pushed the boundaries of what was normal at the time they didn’t go fully off the rails. They were often borrowing little distinctive twists from other songs of the time and using them in moderation. By looking at their influences in this way and the way they followed the rules and bent them consciously we can see clearly how their songwriting skill was learned, not an innate gift.

Matt was one of a few of our guests who agreed that although the Beatles hadn’t studied music theory and wouldn’t have known all the correct terminology, they certainly did “know” theory in some instinctive sense, having deeply internalised by ear all the normal conventions of notes, chords and rhythms across a range of genres.

The other big lesson about song writing which Matt shared was that if we wanted to improve in song writing from studying the Beatles, it’s not about adopting some weird, arcane, specific tricks and techniques. In fact, a lot of what makes Beatles songs great are their use of broad, general songwriting principles and ideas – one simple example being repeating a verse again, or having a second refrain as well as the chorus. We shouldn’t turn our nose up at the “easy” or frequently-used principles of song writing – because for a song to be unique and great doesn’t mean it does every single thing differently to the norm! Again: they bent the rules in moderation, and took full advantage of what their ears told them worked in all the music already out there.

Taking a step back from the process of writing songs to think about the listener’s experience of them, we spoke with Scott Kuehn of Clarion University and one of our members here at Musical U. Scott’s an expert in semiotics and applies this to study the messages in the music of the Beatles. He broke down for us how the Beatles came onto the scene at a time when pop music was quite unsophisticated in its lyrics and messages and although when we look back now we might think the Beatles’ early songs are fairly simplistic (especially compared to their later works), at the time they were much more interesting than the status quo.

He pointed to the two types of desires fuelled by the lyrics and music: the listener’s desire for the singer, and the singer’s own desire to be satisfied, and in both cases this comes through both in the words of the songs and the way particular musical techniques such as additional vocal harmonies, dynamics, or instrumental embellishments are used to emphasise particular words or moments.

As well as these musical techniques they used stage techniques such as flicking their hair back at just the right moments in the songs to encourage the kind of over-the-top fan reactions that defined Beatlemania in the 60s.

Scott said it’s clear the use of these techniques was conscious and intentional, something the band figured out for themselves along the way and adapted to suit their new musical styles over the years, becoming more subtle and sophisticated as their songs did.

I loved this interview as a completely different angle on the same idea: that what appears magical and beyond explanation, i.e. the Beatlemania phenomenon, can actually be broken down into some clear building blocks and a process of learning, experimentation, and improvement. And though the Beatles may have done it better than anyone else, it’s a peak case of a learnable skill rather than an other-worldly miracle.

We dove back into the interesting musical details of what makes Beatles songs tick with Aaron Krerowicz who found that studying theory and ear training equipped him to appreciate and understand the music of the Beatles in a whole new way.

Aaron talked about how the Beatles assembled their toolkit of things that sounded good to their ears over their years in Hamburg and that positioned them to write the kind of simple-yet-sophisticated songs that would stand out and last. He shared the memorable statistic that the Beatles were more than halfway through their lifespan when they had the pivotal Ed Sullivan show appearance which many think of as their starting point. So there was a lot of legwork that went into becoming even the earliest version of the Beatles that we remember today!

It was the balancing of accessible with surprisingly complex which he points to as setting the Beatles apart from other groups and songwriters: when you dig into the music there can be some really intricate and unusual things going on, but their well-tuned ears let them employ all that towards a result that struck the listener as natural and easy to listen to.

Aaron also gave examples of what we might discover by paying attention to the role played by each member of the band on each song, such as the relationship between the music and the lyrics in each case and the contribution Ringo made, both as a drummer and just as a personality within the group.

We think of them as the Fab Four, but you may well have heard the phrase “The Fifth Beatle” over the years as I did, and so we couldn’t neglect talking about George Martin, the music producer who had such a crucial part to play in both the musical development and commercial success of the band. Kenneth Womack, author of the two-volume biography of George Martin, told his story and how he came to work with the Beatles.

We learned that he shared a lot in common with the four members of the band, from his working class background, to his strong work ethic, to his slight “outsider’s view” of the industry, to his blend of creative and commercial ambition. Even with all that in common, the first meeting was almost a disaster, and Ken’s description of it highlighted two important points: that the Beatles were still in a sense a bundle of raw untapped potential when they met George – and that they came to him with a teachable mindset. We might remember Lennon and McCartney as willful personalities with no shortage of faith in their own abilities – but clearly they were not too arrogant to accept George’s input back then and that coachable mindset served them greatly in the years to come. It’s perhaps an extension of what we heard about in their Hamburg years, that they were like sponges, soaking up all the musical learning available rather than starting off on day one with a crystal clear vision and bank of magical “talent” to rely on.

Ken noted that the band’s breakdown can be seen, at least in part, in terms of the members’ egos growing beyond what allowed their collaboration to work – that willingness to work together and be open to new learning began to fade as maybe they began to believe a bit too much in their own gifts.

As somebody who grew up with all the Beatles albums available to me at the same time, it was really interesting in these conversations to gain a new appreciation of all that can be learned by paying attention to the actual sequence and trajectory of the band, musically. And I loved Ken’s observations about how the more sophisticated arranging skills and encouragement to explore instruments beyond the standard guitar/bass/drums of pop and rock were perhaps the crux of how the Beatles went from a pop act that might have had its moment with a teen fanbase and then been forgotten into a group that broadened its audience to include basically the whole world, spanning the course of decades.

That longevity is reflected in the ongoing success of Hard Day’s Night, one of the top Beatles tribute bands, and it was really fascinating to hear all the attention to detail that’s at the core of that success.

I think it’s easy as listeners to take a ton for granted as we listen to the Beatles. Like what I said before about not really appreciating the progression of musical development through the albums until you stop and think about it, talking to the members of Hard Day’s Night really painted a vivid picture of how varied and rich the music of the Fab Four is. The sheer range of instruments, styles, costumes, mood and pretty much every aspect of performing as the Beatles would be hard to find comparable examples of, and while that could make playing in a Beatles act an intimidating prospect, it’s clear that these four gentlemen love it and thrive on the challenge.

I love that the band’s approach to learning Beatles songs mirrors the Beatles’ own method of writing them, i.e. it’s very heavily ear-based. Not relying on theory or knowledge of how things “should be done” but instead going straight to the music and trusting their ears for what sounds good and right.

When I asked them what makes the Beatles so special, Pat pointed to the extensive catalogue which has something for everybody – we all have Beatles songs that resonate with us, and that goes across generations and probably will continue to for decades to come.

So. Clearly I’m biased – I went into Beatles Month hoping we’d learn some inspiring and encouraging lessons about musicality. But I did have a doubting voice at the back of my head worrying that one or more of these Beatles experts would come out and say basically “The Beatles were truly amazing. And we can tell you *what* they did, but nobody really understands *how* they did it.”

Fortunately, that didn’t happen! And even when discussing one of the groups most frequently and widely considered “gifted” or “talented”, these interviews underscored what we’ve heard so many times on this show before: That all the apparently magical skills of musical are learnable, and even if some people find things come easier to begin with, behind every incredible story, artist or band, there is a tale of hard work and perseverance to learn everything they can do.

So I hope you enjoyed this month as much as I did. As I said at the start, I’m sure whatever level of Beatles fan you considered yourself you’ve been able to learn lots of interesting and actionable things along the way – especially if you were inspired to check out our guests further material on their websites – and hopefully we’ve also nudged that Beatles fan meter up a notch or two!

It’s been great to hear from you along the way with comments on the episodes and messages to say how much you’re enjoying the Beatles focus. I’ve particularly enjoyed the discussion we’ve had going on inside Musical U – a shout out to Scott Kuehn, one of our featured experts who’s been sharing even more interesting insights in there, and Stewart our Community Conductor who’s been theming all his weekly updates around the Fab Four.

Although there were tons of fascinating facts, insights and angles across our interviews, ultimately for me there was one clear message that came through loud and clear.

The story I had always assumed growing up was not true. If there was one big secret to the Beatles success it was *not* their talent.

It was their ears.

They had the ultimate “musician’s ears” – developed in Hamburg and refined over their years collaborating and experimenting together.

They didn’t study theory, they weren’t the most technically proficient instrumentalists or studied composers – they just knew music inside-out as avid *listeners* themselves.

This enabled them to create music, perform it, and continually innovate to a level never before seen – and rarely matched since.

I think this is inspiring for us all – whether you aspire to that level yourself or not – because it shows that those kinds of ears can be *developed* – and will pay off in myriad ways.

I made reference in my introduction episode to the process of “Active Listening” and in a way that can be seen as a more intentional and efficient way to develop the “musician’s ear”, just like the Beatles did the slow and painstaking way over their years in Hamburg and beyond.

Active listening lets you hear more depth, detail and richness in all the music you listen to, and can quickly get you to a level of musical understanding and awareness that would take years or even decades of simple “passive listening”.

In the introduction I set you the homework task of choosing one or more favourite Beatles songs, taking a listen, and writing down everything you can describe about the track.

Now is the time to go back and take another listen. I’ve just recapped some of the big learning points from our interviews but of course there were many more specific things too and I’m sure you had a few of your own “aha” moments along the way.

As you listen again, pay attention to how your new knowledge of what went into the song writing and recording brings new details to light. Although your ears are functioning the same biologically speaking, you will literally be able to hear more in the same music as your brain tunes in to new details.

You may or may not know the right words to put on everything you hear – but don’t worry too much about that for now.

If you discovered that you could hear the song in a new, more appreciative and sophisticated way – then congratulations, you’ve just had your first taste of Active Listening and how bringing new knowledge and ideas to focused listening can reveal exciting new depths and richness – even to music you though you already knew inside out!

If you’re keen to continue this exploration of Active Listening and what it can do for you then you won’t want to miss our next two episodes where I’ll be sitting down with Andrew from the Musical U team to dive into this topic in more detail and show you exactly how it all works.

We’ll be answering key questions that might be on your mind like:

  • How is “active listening” different to “ear training”?
  • What are the practical benefits of active listening for your musical life?
  • And: how exactly do you actually do it?

Thanks for joining me for Beatles month and for all the lovely and interesting messages we’ve received from you along the way. A big thank you again to our expert guests: Scott Freiman, Matt Blick, Scott Kuehn, Aaron Krerowicz, Kenneth Womack, and the four members of Hard Day’s Night, Mike Muratore, Frank Muratore, John Auker and Patrick Gannon.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of episodes. Don’t forget to check out our guests’ websites for a lot more Beatles goodness – and I’ll see you on the next one where we’ll be picking up on this powerful theme of active listening and what it can do for you.

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