In an apparent dig at his former Beatle bandmate Paul McCartney, John Lennon sang: “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday’… the sound you make is muzak to my ears,” that was in his 1971 song “How Do You Sleep.” It’s no secret that tension was running high between John and Paul in the years leading to The Beatles breakup in 1970. Tension continued in the years following the breakup. In the early 70s, the band endured a four-year legal battle that dissolved their contractual partnership. John and Paul never recorded together again.
Who was the musical genius behind The Beatles, John or Paul? Anyone familiar with the Beatle’s catalog will offer an opinion. I’m going to stay out of that debate but in the following entry I’ll show you what the Music Genome Project can tell us about John and Paul’s singing and songwriting styles. Let’s take a look…
For starters, Paul possesses the wider vocal range. His song “Helter Skelter” is a great place to hear him pushing the limits of his upper register. “Helter Skelter” has a hard rock approach, which is a bit of a departure for Paul because he usually sings with a smoother tone.
John tends to employ a gritty and slightly nasal vocal tone. You can hear John’s grit on the opening lines of the Lennon song “Don’t Let Me Down.” John was also more likely to alter his vocals with use of special effects like reverb and delay. You can hear these special effects on some of the psychedelic tunes like “I Am The Walrus” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”
Lyrically we can see some clear differences. John’s lyrics tend more towards the whimsical and abstract like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” while Paul’s show more of a propensity towards the sentimental love song, examples being “And I Love Her” and “Here, There and Everywhere.”
While Lennon and McCartney certainly both have a knack for melody, the Music Genome indicates that, on average, Paul’s melodies were a little more compositionally intricate. Paul’s song “Martha My Dear” is a great example of what we call a “through composed” melody, one that is built from a series of unique phrases, without repetition.
The Genome shows that John liked to use triple meters a bit more than Paul – rhythms grouped in threes. “Norwegian Wood” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” are both Lennon songs in triple meter. Paul gravitates towards swinging eighth note rhythms, which you can hear on his songs “Michelle” and “Got To Get You Into My Life.”
We can see that John’s songs favor a rock aesthetic, featuring more electric guitar, more guitar riffs, and guitar distortion. John’s songs, on average, also feature more aggressive drumming. Paul more often uses acoustic orchestration: piano, acoustic guitar, horns and strings, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Martha My Dear” are two great examples.
So, what do you think? We’d love to hear where you fall in the great McCartney/Lennon debate!
Genomic differences aside, there’s no question that John and Paul were two of the most influential pop music songwriters ever. It’s truly mind boggling to consider that Lennon and McCartney were only ½ of The Beatles, a band that was blessed with yet another super talented songwriter, George Harrison… but that’s a topic for another day.