Lennon or McCartney? Scientists Use Artificial Intelligence to Figure Out Who Wrote Iconic Beatles Songs

Do you ago­nize over the fact that you don’t know for cer­tain who wrote what per­cent­age of your favorite Bea­t­les songs? Do you need to know if a line or phrase is Lennon or McCartney’s before you can enjoy “A Hard Day’s Night,” “In My Life,” and oth­er time­less tunes? Have you lost sleep over the dis­put­ed author­ship of “Do You Want to Know a Secret”?

I hope not. As Lennon/McCartney them­selves wrote, in the end, the songs we love are equal to the love we give the songs…. or some­thing like that. How much we can say with cer­tain­ty who penned which lyric or melody or played which riff or rhythm part doesn’t add to our emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence. But that knowl­edge does add more to our appre­ci­a­tion than fod­der for forum wars or law­suits.

Pulling these icon­ic songs into their con­stituent parts helps con­firm our under­stand­ing of how those parts con­tributed dif­fer­ent­ly to mak­ing the whole evolve; how Lennon’s direct­ness and sim­plic­i­ty com­ple­ment­ed and con­trast­ed with McCartney’s use of “more non-stan­dard musi­cal motifs” and a high­er degree of com­plex­i­ty. Or, at least, that’s what an AI found when it ana­lyzed hun­dreds of Bea­t­les hits in an effort to “build a ‘musi­cal fin­ger­print’ for each song­writer,” reports Alex Matthews-King at the Inde­pen­dent.

After putting the machine learn­ing algo­rithm through an ini­tial train­ing phase of “lis­ten­ing” to a com­plete works, researchers at Har­vard “asked” the pro­gram to assess “icon­ic songs, or musi­cal frag­ments, record­ed between 1962 and 1966, where debate rages over who was the major influ­ence.” Much of that debate has been fueled by the song­writ­ers them­selves, whose mem­o­ries in inter­views con­flict, but who are gen­er­al­ly thought to have writ­ten most songs indi­vid­u­al­ly under their joint song­writ­ing part­ner­ship.

The sci­en­tists from Har­vard and Dal­housie Uni­ver­si­ty in Cana­da were able to gauge with some­where around 76 per­cent accu­ra­cy whether songs or parts of songs were writ­ten by Lennon or McCart­ney. (Spoil­er alert: The AI “was able to iden­ti­fy some, includ­ing ‘Ask Me Why’, ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’ and the bridge to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, as belong­ing to John Lennon with up to 90 per cent cer­tain­ty,” writes The Dai­ly Mail.) Senior lec­tur­er in sta­tis­tics at Har­vard and paper author Mark Glick­man explains the larg­er pur­pose of the project to the Finan­cial Times: “Our work is essen­tial­ly a blue­print for those want­i­ng to fol­low changes in music over time. Using our machine learn­ing mod­el, you could poten­tial­ly home in on all the dif­fer­ent influ­ences of a giv­en musi­cian.”

If you’re using their work to win argu­ments, be pre­pared to explain how the study obtained its results and why they are any more reli­able than decades of detec­tive work and expert lis­ten­ing by humans. As a non-sta­tis­tics per­son, I’ll leave that expla­na­tion to more qual­i­fied indi­vid­u­als. I’m sat­is­fied: whether McCart­ney wrote all of the music for “In My Life” or just the bridge, as Lennon claimed, won’t change the way it moves me one bit.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Every Place Ref­er­enced in The Bea­t­les’ Lyrics: In 12 Min­utes, Trav­el 25,000 Miles Across Eng­land, France, Rus­sia, India & the US

Watch The Bea­t­les Per­form Their Famous Rooftop Con­cert: It Hap­pened 50 Years Ago Today (Jan­u­ary 30, 1969)

A Brief His­to­ry of Sam­pling: From the Bea­t­les to the Beast­ie Boys

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

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.