Did Lennon or McCartney Write the Beatles 1965 Song “In My Life”? A Math Professor, Using Statistics, Solves the Decades-Old Mystery

In 2009, gui­tarist Randy Bach­man of the Guess Who and Bach­man-Turn­er Over­drive had the rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to hear the indi­vid­ual tracks that make up that myth­ic open­ing chord in the Bea­t­les’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” an enig­ma that has baf­fled musi­cians for decades. Bach­man found that it’s actu­al­ly made up of a com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent chords played all at once by George, John, and Paul. The dis­cov­ery made for a great sto­ry, and Bach­man told it the fol­low­ing year on his CBC radio show. Unbe­knownst to him, it seems, anoth­er Cana­di­an Bea­t­les lover, Dal­housie Uni­ver­si­ty math pro­fes­sor Jason Brown, claimed he had cracked the code the pre­vi­ous year, with­out set­ting foot in Abbey Road.

Instead, Brown used what is called a Fouri­er Analy­sis, based on work done in the 1820s by French sci­en­tist Joseph Fouri­er, which reduces sounds into their “con­stituent sine or cosine waves.” The prob­lem with Bachman’s expla­na­tion, as Eliot Van Buskirk notes at Wired, is that the chord “con­tains a note that would be impos­si­ble for the Bea­t­les’ two gui­tarists and bassist to play in one take.” Since there was no over­dub­bing involved, some­thing else must have been hap­pen­ing. Through his math­e­mat­i­cal analy­sis, Brown deter­mined that some­thing else to have been five notes played on the piano, appar­ent­ly by George Mar­tin, “who is known to have dou­bled on piano George Harrison’s solo on the track.”

After ten years of work, Brown has returned with the solu­tion to anoth­er long­time Bea­t­les mys­tery, this time with a lit­tle help from his col­leagues, Har­vard math­e­mati­cians Mark Glick­man and Ryan Song. The prob­lem: who wrote the melody for “In My Life,” Rub­ber Soul’s nos­tal­gic bal­lad? The song is cred­it­ed to the crack team of Lennon-McCart­ney, but while the two agreed that Lennon penned the lyrics, both sep­a­rate­ly claimed in inter­views to have writ­ten the music. Brown and his col­lab­o­ra­tors used sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods to deter­mine that it was, in fact, Lennon who wrote the whole song.

They present their research in a paper titled “Assess­ing Author­ship of Bea­t­les Songs from Musi­cal Con­tent: Bayesian Clas­si­fi­ca­tion Mod­el­ing from Bags-Of-Words Rep­re­sen­ta­tions.” In the NPR Week­end Edi­tion inter­view above, you can hear Stan­ford math­e­mati­cian Kei­th Devlin break down the terms of their project, includ­ing that odd phrase “bags-of-words rep­re­sen­ta­tions,” which “actu­al­ly goes back to the 1950s,” he says. “Bags-of-words”—like the word clouds we now see on websites—take text, “ignore the gram­mar” and word order and pro­duce a col­lec­tion of words. The method was used to gen­er­ate the first spam fil­ters. Rather than use words, how­ev­er, the math­e­mati­cians decon­tex­tu­al­ized snip­pets of sound.

In an analy­sis of “about 70 songs from Lennon and McCart­ney… they found there were 149 very dis­tinct tran­si­tions between notes and chords.” These are unique to one or the oth­er song­writ­ers. “When you do the math,” Devlin says, it turns out “the prob­a­bil­i­ty that McCart­ney wrote it was .o18—that’s essen­tial­ly zero.” Why might Paul have mis­re­mem­bered this—even say­ing specif­i­cal­ly in a 1984 Play­boy inter­view that he recalled “going off for half an hour and sit­ting with a Mel­lotron… writ­ing the tune”? Who knows. Mash­able has reached out to McCartney’s pub­li­cist for com­ment. But in the final analy­sis, says Devlin, “I would go with math­e­mat­ics” over faulty human mem­o­ry.

via NPR

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gui­tarist Randy Bach­man Demys­ti­fies the Open­ing Chord of The Bea­t­les’ “A Hard Day’s Night”

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Pro­gram Tries to Write a Bea­t­les Song: Lis­ten to “Daddy’s Car”

The Bea­t­les “While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps” Gets a Dreamy New Music Video from Cirque du Soleil

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • brad bell says:

    Did McCart­ney not also famous­ly dis­be­lieve that he wrote a song? That is, he woke up and wrote a melody, but assumed it was some­thing he heard else­where. After try­ing to find out what the song was, he even­tu­al­ly accept­ed it as an orig­i­nal melody.

    (Sor­ry, can’t find a link. I saw it in a video about copy­right. Oth­er exam­ples includ­ed George Har­rison’s unwit­ting­ly writ­ing an exis­tent song and the brain sci­ence behind why he may not have been con­scious­ly aware of it)

  • Mark S. says:

    I believe you’re think­ing of “Yes­ter­day”.

  • Jay Francis says:

    It is real­ly much less com­pli­cat­ed. If one remem­bers that, whomev­er sang the lead on the song was the per­son who wrote it. This is cor­rect for over 90% of the Bea­t­les songs. Who wrote it, sang it. So John wrote this one.

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