As a member of one of the most popular and successful rock bands of all time, you’d assume all four members have a working knowledge of music theory- especially main vocalist, Paul McCartney. Generally, most musicians are at least somewhat familiar with the mechanisms of music theory. But you may be surprised to hear the answer to the question- can Paul McCartney actually read music?

Believe it or not, Paul McCartney actually cannot read music. Throughout his entire career, he was unable to read or transcribe sheet music. If you’re interested in hearing more about how McCartney worked his way through the music world without this skill, keep reading this article for everything you need to know about how Paul McCartney never learned how to read music and what he did instead.

To this Day, Paul McCartney Cannot Read Music

Neither Paul McCartney nor any of his former Beatles members can or could read music, and to this day, he nor the surviving members can either. That means they were unable to read or write sheet music, the proper way to record and transcribe music, throughout the entirety of their careers. You can consider it music’s very own unique language. 

Sounds pretty unbelievable, right? Well, you may be surprised to find out that most musicians actually cannot read music let alone write it.

So how exactly did they manage to write down their songs?

The answer to this is probably what most musicians do which is learn some basics and then use their creativity to come up with something that sounds good.

Speaking as a musician myself I think that musical theory has its place but by being a stickler for the rules it can actually harm the creative processes that so many fantastically unique artists have come up with throughout the age of music.

In fact, I would wager that most musicians today who are not a part of a classical music ensemble or avid amateur of a classical instrument cannot read music.

You don’t need to, especially today. Guitar tab in particular has changed things so much that most guitarist who are learning a song for the first time do one of two things:

  1. They either learn the song by ear. This simply involves listening to the music they are copying and working it out on their instrument.
  2. They use TAB. If you haven’t come across TAB before then check out the biggest collection of tabs in the world at which shows you how simple it can be to follow a previously created guitar piece for yourself without having to know any classical music theory.

See our post “Could The Beatles Read Music”

So how did the Beatles know which chords to play if they didn’t have guitar tab?

According to a former arranger of The Beatles publishments Todd Lowry, Paul McCartney and his members simply jot down the lyrics to the appropriate chord to remember their tunes instead. That kind of set-up looks something like this:

Am           G           F          C

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be

C                           G              F     C Dm7 C

Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

As you can see, there’s no sheet music involved. Chords are simply put next to their corresponding lyric, and the tune is remembered that way. You don’t need to read music to know how to play a ‘C’ chord for instance on the guitar, so many people choose this method of writing down and reading music.

It’s a less exact model prone to mistakes in recalling the proper melody, but it works for many musicians who have good memories that never learned how to read or write sheet music. This method doesn’t include guitar riffs or fingerpicking styles- just the chord itself. 

For Paul McCartney and The Beatles, writing their music this way meant that it was all up to the arrangers at publishing companies to transcribe their songs note for note into sheet music properly for record and so that it could be consumed by musical audiences as well. 


Paul McCartney may have been unable to read or write music, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have his ways. Paul McCartney wrote his music down by jotting down the chord with the corresponding lyric, allowing him to roughly remember his tunes which would be transcribed by his publishing company at a later date. Through this, he was able to complete the masterpieces we know today.

The way a musician learns to play a song these days usually is with either by following a previously created tablature of simplified music notation which shows the finger position on a particular string at a fret position.

The people who created this tab usually work the song out by ear and then annotate it in this way.

Did you know?

Not everyone uses guitar tab, in fact most people may only ever learn the chord much in the way the Beatles used to write down their own songs. The tablature will show people exactly the notes to play but a chord will give you the basic overall sound and so this gives rise to intreptations (sometimes wrong) of how a song goes.

This in itself, in my experience, gives rise to many debates between musicians about the correct way to play a song. This in itself can lend itself to new riffs and songs being created.

Many musicians of note have openly claimed that they ripped off riffs in this way which they then used within their own songs, Noel Gallagher of Oasis and High Flying Birds being one of the best known riff rippers of all time.