The Beatles. They are one of the most beloved musical acts that have ever existed. Even now, well past the 1960s and Beatlemania, their albums resonate with new generations and make fans out of their original followers’ grandchildren. Many people have pondered with all of their well-constructed songs and long-lasting lyrics if the group members could read music.
No, none of The Beatles could either read or write music. This much-posited rumor was confirmed in 2018 by Paul McCartney in an interview with 60 Minutes.
So how exactly is it that this beloved and groundbreaking music group – who famously composed their songs – could not read music, let alone write the sheet music?
The answer is as interesting as it is simple.
Learning Through Doing
Learning music for each member of the group was an individual and significant process. John Lennon began playing the guitar using banjo chords he learned from his mother. It was not until he met Paul McCartney in the days of Quarry Men that he learned the correct guitar chords.
George Harrison learned his guitar skills by taking lessons and practicing hand placement and movements. The learning process for him was long and drawn-out, and one he did without ever learning to read a note.
As the drummer, Ringo Starr certainly never felt the need to learn what the other three didn’t. Yet these four musicians remain some of the most emulated and revered creators that ever graced the rock and roll scene.
The group that was dubbed “The Fab Four” were determined musicians who would not let a little thing like being able to read some script on a sheet of paper stop them in their musical creation.
One of the group’s most popular stories is when the three guitarists (Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney) traveled their native Liverpool searching for more learned players who could show them how to play a B7 chord.
The B7 chord is notorious in the guitar world not because it is a particularly difficult chord to learn but because it involves all four fingers on the same fret – a virtual bar made with your fingers, and the pinky gets tired quickly.
It is also a chord that most beginning guitarists learn within the first or second lesson. The fact that these three were already established musicians searching out someone to show them how to play this chord speaks to not only their inability to read music but their determination to learn through doing.
Practice, Practice, Practice…and George Martin
Once The Beatles came up with their songs, they would practice them again and again. This allowed them to learn the music, lyrics, melodies, and all the other intricacies on a level deeper than merely memorizing them off a page.
When they finished practicing and had the songs down to perfection – they would practice them more.
During many of those practice sessions or when it came time to have a recording session, the group would perform the songs for George Martin (later knighted as Sir George Henry Martin). Martin was not only The Beatles producer but was known as the fifth Beatle for his deep involvement and connection to the group.
Martin was classically trained in music theory and established arranger, audio engineer, composer, and conductor. He was an accomplished musician who would take the music the group performed for him and put it into sheet music for other musicians performing with them.
The Beatles were open about not having the basic ability to read or write music, as well as not one of them having been trained in music theory. They have all been known to say that they feel like their music would have lost something if tied to music theory’s teachings.
Whatever their methods, they did it right.