From the Music Genome Project: The Beatles – Lennon vs. McCartney

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.

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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…

Vocal performance

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.”

Lyrics

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.”

Melody

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.

Rhythm

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.”

Instrumentation

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.

Steve Hogan

Music Analyst

11 thoughts on “From the Music Genome Project: The Beatles – Lennon vs. McCartney

  1. I think the genius of the Beatles was that these four men came together, worked together, and created together. I don’t think any of them created untouched by the influence of the others — which, being the people they became, I also think lead to their breakup. The constant rubbing up against each other, pushing and pulling and meshing, friction and harmony, is what made their music what it is, no matter who was the composer of a particular song.

  2. Hi! What a great topic! I am a music educator, and we study the Beatles as a unit in my 7th grade classes. Personally, I think of the Beatles as a single entity. No one member having more to do with it than another. Part of their unique characteristic is the diverse songwriting and musicianship of all four members as a whole. So many bases get covered, between instrumentation, rhythm, melody, harmony, lyrics and form. There is so much to discover within their music as an entirety. And so much of it is worthy of being called classic. The Lennon vs. McCartney debate is silly. It’s all good!

    • Can you imagine if the Beatles made just 2 more albums? All of that rich material from Ram, Imagine, All Things Must Pass, etc. would have made for some great Beatle tunes.

  3. It is interesting to see how the various Beatles were were different, musically speaking. I just was looking for a bunch of Beatles songs today, so I created a Beatles station. I was astonished, however at the songs played on it. An occasional Beatles song, but there was Simon & Garfunkel, Richard Thompson and Credence Clearwater Revival. I like Thompson and Simon & Garfunkel, and used to like Creedence until they were overplayed on the radio, at weddings, etc., etc. But how do they at all resemble the Beatles musically? It would make more sense to put the Beatles together with the Rollilng Stones, despite their very different sounds, than with Simon and Garfunkel and Creedence. At least they harken from the same era. I guess you had trouble finding any other band that was a great as the Beatles (although Paul Simon is pretty great in his own right, as his Richard Thompson) and sounded like them.

  4. They complement each other,like a married couple,they were the foundation of one the greatest bands of our time.

  5. Steve,
    when you talk about the melodic differences between Lennon and McCartney, you say that Paul’s melodies are more compositionally intricate. Does the Music Genome project tell you in what way they are more intricate?

  6. I agree with SMNYSTORIAK and ENRIQUE V; the Beatles were a unit, and they each brought something to the table that made the band great. Leave out anyone of the four members, and they never would have achieved the success that they did.

    It is when one starts to think that he contributes more than the others in any kind of a group, musical or otherwise, that things begin to break down, and eventually the group fades away.

  7. The Beatles were of course a unit, each member contributed to each other songs (in most cases). The interesting thing is that John and Paul are pretty in balance when it comes to their contribution to the group. John was more dominant in the early years while Paul was the initiator of most of the group projects during the later years. John and Paul also covered each others weak spots so well. So, the Beatles were blessed with two great frontmen. Though too bad for George, who proved to be also pretty good!

  8. John and Paul pushed each other. Their competitiveness with each other made them try harder. They also provided a sounding board for the other and help finishing or improving songs. The Beatles together were better than the members solo.

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