How To Write A Song Like The Beatles

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And we’re back with another focused installment of How To Write A Song. After all the raging success and feedback from the Ed Sheeran article, it became apparent that this type of focused article was a community favourite, because it allows you to see what some of your favorite artists/songs actually do that works so very effectively. It also allows to pick elements you like and incorporate them into your own songs.

I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that the Beatles are the best-known band of all time. They’ve certainly sold more albums than any other band or artist in history. And they’re actually an incredibly valuable case study, because for all the crazy variations and different songs everything can be boiled down into a single principle: Normal with a defining quirk.

Most Beatles’ songs, by and large, fall under the category of “normal with a defining quirk”. This might appear on its face to be a confusing concept, but it’s really not. You already understand and believe this concept.

Think Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark.

Marilyn Monroe was the ultimate Hollywood sex symbol of the 1950s, right through the young Beatles’ teenage years. She was purportedly the perfect picture of a woman; her single flaw, the lone freckle or sunspot on her cheek. Because of this, it became a central signifying mark, synonymous with her name. Her only physical flaw, right there on her face, in plain sight. So synonymous with her that we even changed the English language, and now call it a beauty mark.

Most people forget that John Lennon and Thomas Sutcliffe (one of the other original Beatles) both went to an Art College. They were wrapped up in and hugely influenced by the world of Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol, ahead of the entire pop-art movement. Looking at it from that standpoint, you can even see the Beatles’ music as the natural extension of the pop-art movement into the music industry. The pop was the simple, catchy dance music element, and the art was the signifying quirks (the musical beauty marks, if you will) that made their songs so very memorable.

And so, naturally, this article needs to take a slightly different angle than the Ed Sheeran focused one, not only because the Beatles music had 4 main songwriters instead of 1, or because they had so many more albums than Ed has had (so far), but because it’s harder to pinpoint a single convention for each aspect of the song. But let’s go through and see some of the ways in which many of their songs followed this “normal with a defining quirk” theme.

(The term “normal” here is inherently flawed, obviously. What is normal anyway? But I use it specifically as a term covering default Western pop music conventions, many of which are overused nowadays without any signifying quirk whatsoever. For example, it’s normal in contemporary music for songs to be diatonic, or all within the one key, but some bands, including the Beatles, use non-diatonic chords to suggest key changes that aren’t really there, generally to create movement or something unexpected.)

1) Tempo.

This actually surprised me a little, but Beatles songs are actually more consistent in a number of ways than Ed Sheeran songs. While they do range from about 60bpm to 180bpm, if you remove the outer-lying 10%, suddenly we have a range of 105bpm to 150bpm. Take a further 15% and now the remaining 75% (three quarters) of Beatles’ songs are in the 120-140bpm range. That’s a pretty solid window. So that’s probably exactly where you want to aim if writing something with a Beatles vibe.

2) Form.

There’s obviously a lot of sonic evolution that happens with the Beatles. Paul McCartney said in a recent interview with GQ that they were too young and full of energy to just repeat the same exact song formula over and over again; that they would have gotten bored. And that’s exactly what we see with their music. It crossed a broad range of styles and influences over the course of the band’s life, but even in the more similar early albums.

So, for our intents and purposes, it would almost be easier to break up their songs between early Beatles and late Beatles. Their first few albums followed a relatively specific song formula quite common at the time; A A B A, in which each verse (A) follows the exact same pattern (AABA) again, line by line. Each song was around 2 or so minutes’ long, with not a single one over 3 minutes in length. In the latter half of the 60s, their songs began to take a different turn, getting a bit longer in terms of form. Sometimes A A B A B A, sometimes A B A C A B A, sometimes A A B A B C A B B, and of course other such variations.

What I think is perhaps the more interesting part of this discussion on form, however, is the inability for Beatles’ enthusiasts to even agree on which section of many of their songs is the chorus. Just think about it for a second… Is the “all the lonely people, where do they all come from?” section in Eleanor Rigby the chorus or the pre-chorus?

This confusion probably derives from the early A A B A format of their songs. Because the A section is prominent and repeated, it needs naturally to be the most appealing, melodic, or in other words, “catchy” section of the song. Therefore, the A section, which we nowadays would call the verse, is essentially both the verse and the chorus all at once.

As the Beatles’ sound evolved and their format expanded, sometimes the B section would be the chorus, sometimes the C section, and sometimes, we just don’t really know. For instance, Hey Jude, is infamous for the anthem-like “na-na-na” outro that repeats 18 times. It’s easily identifiable as the hook of the song. Does that then make it the chorus?

So what can we learn from this in terms of form if we’re trying to write a Beatles’ song? Well, the Babushka doll AABA format will definitely give a Beatles’ feel. So, I would really start there. But, more importantly, what I think we can all take from them as songwriters is the importance of having every section of the song be equally-weighted. There’s a tendency in the industry at times to give free passes to sloppy verses or useless bridges because the chorus is so catchy. Don’t. If your song is only 2 minutes long, it’s only 2 minutes long. Don’t stretch it out unless you’re actually adding something substantive, making it better by doing so.

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3) Key.

Just like almost everything else so far, over such a vast career of diverse albums, with all four of them writing their own songs or collaborating in different ways, it’s pretty hard to peg down a single favorite key used by the Beatles. But here’s a list of their top five most commonly used keys (in the order that they appear on the circle of 5ths).

C- 32 songs, G- 45-46 songs, D- 30 songs, A- 41 songs, E- 38 songs.

Or, in order of prevalence: G, A, E, C, D. (It’s also worth noting that these are all popular guitar-based keys, with G being most common, and also signify CAGED-chord system and five pentatonic scales. According to Spotify, songs that begin in G make up a full 10.7% of what is being listened to at any given time.)

What’s more interesting, though, with the Beatles in particular, is that because of their roots in rock’n’roll and skiffle-rock, both of which are heavily rooted in the blues, and therefore the mixolydian and dorian modes, Beatles’ song have a significantly greater propensity for non-diatonic chords in their music, with over half of their 213 songs modulating in places, if only temporarily. This is all the more impressive because none of the Beatles were formally trained in musical theory, and were drawing on comparatively advanced harmonic concepts by ear.

So, if you’re writing a modern Beatles’-style song, you’re going to want to pick one of those keys, but also use chords that aren’t in that key at all.

4) Harmonic progression.

This is where things get, if possible, even more complicated. As the majority of their songs were non-diatonic, they went through about as many possibilities as you can, deriving influences from various cultural musics around the world, classical music, folk music, musical theatre, etc. And because I would need an entire doctoral dissertation do go through every single one of their songs for formula, this is certainly not the forum to do it in. What I will do, however, is go through a number of key tricks that seem to be used and re-used regularly in their chord progressions.

Firstly, the bVII or Major Flat-Seventh. This derives quite obviously from the early rock’n’roll blues/mixolydian influence in their music. It generally follows the tonic chord and forms a church (plagal) cadence with the V-chord. You can see this in action in the aforementioned outro from Hey Jude.

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The C-natural in the third bar has led some to assert that the Beatles have in fact modulated here to G-major, but that completely ignores the sequence as a whole. Not only does the prior 4 minutes of the song keeps us firmly in D-major, but outlining of the tonic chord in the first bar above and reiteration of that chord in the fourth bar (with the A-note in the melody ready to revert to D also) actually reorients the listener back firmly into the key of D. So we actually see an ingenious 4-bar turn around in which we step back and forth between these two neighboring keys. And the fade-out further indicates that the song never really ends or reaches a point of resolution between the two; it just keeps oscillating back and forth forever.

Secondly, and also seen in the example above, is the IV-I or church/plagal cadence. This was one of McCartney’s favorites in particular, and can be found in a number of his more popular songs: Yesterday, Day Tripper, Let It Be, Norwegian Wood, Hey Jude, etc. Of course, he’s not the only one of them who used it; it became infused in their style, and a lot of their songs were co-written between Lennon and McCartney. Even George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun also made use of this trick.

Thirdly, the II or Major Second in a major key OR IV/Major Fourth in a minor key. They might seem on their face like very different things, but they are exactly the chord function when modal borrowing, they just borrow from different modes based on whether we’re in a major or minor key. You might need some examples to make sense of this.

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Not only do you see the church/plagal cadence in there, but the A-major chord in the key of G borrows from the Lydian mode. It also might be seen as a secondary dominant chord in a vi-II-V-I in which the V has been substituted with IV. In some respect, both are true. The A-chord does indicate a significant hope for strong resolute. However, the sudden revert to the C-chord here does make it far more modal, defeating the strong hoped-for resolution and bringing in a further touch of melancholy without going full-minor.

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Now, harmonically speaking, these two progressions seem at first glance to be almost identical. And yes, they basically are. They are performing the same function, and they have the same underlying descending chromatic sequence, and are both examples of modal borrowing. Because Eleanor Rigby is in a minor key, however, they borrow from the dorian mode, not the lydian. The dorian and lydian modes are used extensively in Celtic music as the go-to major and minor keys, and therefore reveal the some of McCartney’s scottish roots.Fourthly, in almost opposite fashion to raised minor chords we’ve seen above, we have the iv or Minor Fourth chord. It typically always resolves to the tonic, and sometimes, but not always, it follows a IV chord, creating another descending chromatic sequence inside of a plagal cadence, just using a different note sequence. This can be found in In My Life, You Won’t See Me, Nowhere Man, etc. to name a few.

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In Nowhere Man in particular, the IV-chord is substituted for its relative minor, the ii-chord. However, as the F-sharp minor chord and A-major chord share the A and C-sharp notes, we still have a C#-C-B descending chromatic sequence.

Finally, the descending chromatic sequence. Hopefully, you already understand it, but I wanted to give just one more example of how it works (at the beginning of a sequence as opposed to the end cadence), as found in the intro of Strawberry Fields Forever.

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We see the E-note descend to a D-sharp, descend to a D, descend to a C-sharp, descend to a B and then resolve on A, with a few other chromatic falling notes between chords changes in there. And yes, for those of you paying attention, that is yet another church/plagal cadence at the end there.

So, in short, when you’re writing your Beatles-inspired chord progressions, making use major and minor substitutions that borrow from related modes, descending chromatic sequences and church/plagal cadences are some pretty definitive ways to capture that sound.

5) Rhythm.

To boil it down again to a few simple principles, the Beatles at the funkiest still maintain straight quarter-note and eighth-note rhythms throughout almost all of their songs. McCartney and Lennon were very much about the melody and chords when they wrote songs. The lyrics were important, yes, but I would argue less-so. And the rhythm was almost always inevitably straight fourths. Even when it was straight eighth-notes, you still get this solid four-beat emphasis happening in the bar. If you need an example of this, look back at the examples above.

The other main rhythmic feature that they tended to use was anticipating the chord-change with an offset beat before the bar or half-bar. We see this in Ticket To Ride, Eight Days A Week, Day Tripper, even Lennon’s Imagine, where the coming chord “anticipates” the down-beat by coming in half a beat early.

6) Melody.

Beatles’ melodies are generally pretty simple in some respect. Like we said, they aren’t as rhythmically complicated as a lot of modern music. But they do tend to be far more melodic. This is not only because the Beatles, following the finely-tuned ears, used mostly arpeggio notes for their melodies (for more info see here ), but they also tend to sculpt their melodies to create a listening journey. They don’t bounce back and forth between the same four or five notes for the whole song. They rise and fall, they jump and leap, they infer a motif without repeating it directly. More specifically, they tend to use to use thirds almost as much as they use steps.

7) Harmonies.

Looking at the Beatles harmonies, as a musician who actually understands the theory behind what they were doing, only gives me more and more respect for their talents. As they didn’t know any of the music theory, they were pulling 3-part harmonies out of the air in the studio, rooted in their appreciation for some of their precursors: the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, etc. But what’s more, they were instinctively able to mimic each other’s tone, creating incredibly tight harmonies that shifted in as harmonically complicated a fashion as their chord progressions. This is only the product of having a really good ear for music.

Call-and-response is another vocal backing technique the Beatles employed to great effect in songs like Please Please Me, Help, With A Little Help From My Friends, etc.

8) Lyrics.

Again, cataloguing 213 Beatles songs for trends is a much bigger ordeal than we need right now, but you’re welcome to deep dive them on your own time if you really wish. I personally don’t think either Lennon or McCartney were genius lyricists. Don’t get me wrong, they were both great, but it’s obvious they considered themselves musicians, not poets. Their focus, first and foremost, was upon the music, not the lyrics.

The lyrics in their songs ranged from simple and memorable to figurative and poignant to nonsense words and innuendo, so all are applicable techniques in effectively mimicking their style, depending upon what era Beatles’ song you’re going for. Even with the really poignant ballads about friendship, heartbreak, life and death, love, etc. there’s still an inherent simplicity in their words.

So, in short, you can have fun and be a little repetitive around a single point, or paint this picture of some poor lonely soul, but don’t overcomplicate it. Be to the point. Don’t be afraid to use the expected rhyme as long as the melody is interesting. Aim for succinct. Beatle on.

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