Monday, 23 March 2015

Yesterday And The Myth Of Inspiration

Songwriting is the closest thing to magic there is. No one understands it – even the people who do it. If you want to get theological, singing a song is the closest humans get to the divine act of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Forget cleanliness, songwriting is next to godliness.

But if songwriting is a deep impenetrable mystery, what have I been doing here at Beatles Songwriting Academy for the last 5 years? If songs are things that just happen to songwriters why does anyone try to analyse it?

People who push the 'songwriting as alchemy' line usually wheel out this fact

Paul McCartney wrote Yesterday in a dream!

In a dream. In fact 'wrote' is often replaced by 'it came to him...'

Yesterday 'came to' Paul McCartney in a dream!

It might have 'come to' John Lennon or Keith Richards or Peter Asher or Mary Quant or Michael Caine or my Dad. But it came to Paul McCartney.

A message from the gods? A kiss from his muse? A belch from his subconscious? Who knows?

No one, that's who.

And if it came to him while he was snoring in the attic of Jane Asher's family how could Paul (or anyone else) make it happen again? It's magic. We might as well give up.

But I don't believe songwriting is magic. Inspiration is magic. Songwriting is a craft. Everyone, EVERYONE, gets inspired. But only a special kind of person can turn inspiration into a thing that can be shared with others. They're called artists. An artist who knows how to turn inspiration into a song is called a songwriter. The story of Yesterday proves it.

Because Paul McCartney didn't write Yesterday in a dream.

He wrote the melody in a dream. In fact he wrote the verse melody in a dream.

7 bars. 29 notes.

Dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum dum dum
Dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum dum dum
Dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum
Dum dum dum dum

that's all.

What Really Happened

Rolling out of his bed he went to the piano and figured out the tune, and no doubt began harmonising it. But inspiration was already beginning to be replaced by perspiration. Though music theory remains a mystery to Macca he was bringing to bear a vast amount of practical experience in harmonisation.

Paul, unable to believe he hadn't subconsciously ripped off an old standard, played it to the Ashers, George Martin and anyone else who would listen asking if they recognised it.

Then came the dummy lyrics (the equally legendary “scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs”) and the bridge.

The bridge was pure craft – hammered away on piano during every break in the filming of Help! to the point of driving director Richard Lester nuts.

But still no lyrics. All McCartney knew was he wanted the opening phrase to have three syllable words. He started mulling them over driving to Portugal with Jane Asher. Staying at the villa of Shadows' guitarist Bruce Welch he fleshed out the lyrics. He didn't have a piano at his disposal - he didn't even have a left handed guitar - so playing a 'righty' upside down and Yesterday became a guitar tune. Rather than playing the song in F he detuned the guitar a tone and played it in G.

Back in London the song was ready to be presented to the band. But no one could think of anything to do on it, so it became the first Beatles 'solo number'. On the same day the band cut I’ve Just Seen A Face and I’m Down (14 June 1965) McCartney did two live takes and it seemed like the song was done, until George Martin suggested adding strings. Paul (thinking Mantovani) wasn't convinced but George (thinking Bach) won the day.

So here's a list of what 'came to' Paul in a dream

  • The verse melody
  • Some version of the verse chords

Here's what was the result of craft

  • The full verse chords
  • The bridge melody
  • The bridge chords
  • All the lyrics
  • The guitar arrangement
  • The string arrangement

The most recorded song in the world would never have been finished without craft.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. If songwriting were magic, we'd have world full of random people suddenly writing hits. I may have heard an unfamilliar tune in a dream at some point, but since songwriting isn't my craft (feel free to demand to know what on earth I'm doing reading this blog! *looks sheepish*), they've been forgotten and come to nothing. On the other hand, if I dreamt of a dress design, or some such thing that can be handcrafted, we might be in business...

  3. "If songwriting were magic, we'd have world full of random people suddenly writing hits". Exactly. Good point.

  4. I've heard Paul say many times you can't teach songwriting. I think writers who say this might be directly, or indirectly implying they have a gift unavailable to us mere mortals. Why say everyone can do it and lower your market value. Presently, I'm teaching several young students the craft of songwriting. There's nothing more gratifying than taking the mystery out of it. Moreover, when teaching, I always work with songs in the current top 10 (of the student's choice). They're amazed how I usually know the entire structure of a song I've never heard before after the first 60 seconds. More often than not, I can compare contemporary structures and relate them back to The Beatles. True I come from a songwriting family, but I really learned the trade through studying songs that I liked. As Jason Blume says: there are no rules, just tools. Your post on McCartney's dream of 'Yesterday' speaks volumes. You really hit the nail on the head. Bravo.

    1. Thanks Snoopster! - Glad you liked it. FWIW I think people like McCartney who have got 'it' are afraid to take it apart, or think about it too much for fear of losing 'it'. There is some superstition around concerning inspiration...