Wednesday 3 August 2011

The Songwriting Secrets Of The Beatles: Introduction

In Dec 09 I decided that deconstructing all the Beatles songs would be a great way to learn the craft of songwriting. Starting Beatles Songwriting Academy was secondary to that goal. This blog has been helpful to a few others and it's certainly helped me, providing motivation to keep going and the increased understanding that comes from forcing myself to put into words and examples what it is that makes the songs work (or not).

For those exact same reasons I've decided to do a 'blog within a blog' and note my journey through the encyclopedic The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles by Dominic Pedler. (Don't worry! I'll still be making my own way through the songs too!)

[Update. That was a dumb idea. I've finished the book now. It's brilliant. I'll post a review some time]

I've probably read around 20 books on the Beatles so far but I think this one possible comes closest to the heart of what I'm trying to do here.

A few things put me off buying this book. It was based on articles that first appeared in a UK guitar magazine (which made me think 'superficial and thrown together'), it was really expensive which seemed to be down to it's unavailability and lastly the title 'Songwriting Secrets...' has just a hint of 'snake oil' about it. I don't think there are many secrets that are beyond anyone with an instrument 15 CDs and about 3 or 4 years of free time!

Most of the reasons against were blown away when I learned that the book is 791 pages long! But I was still wary. This book looked such a perfect fit for my blog that I was afraid that on reading it I would come to the conclusion I should have just bought this book and never bothered starting Beatles Songwriting Academy.

The sentence that saved BSA

This book is intended as … a companion guide … with appreciation the main goal and any tips that future songwriters might glean just a bonus (p.xx)

Here at Beatles Songwriting Academy we're reversing those goals exactly. Phew!

So diving in, here's random notes, quotes and thoughts from the introduction

No stone is left unturned in Beatles culture except, too often, the only thing that really matters. The music itself. (p. xvii)

Couldn't agree more. That's what put me off studying them initially and what I occasionally trash what I consider to be a bad song. Because you can't venerate and evaluate at the same time.

Pedler talks about a goldmine of musical nuggets lurking in every corner of the catalogue (p.xx) and he does a great job of pulling illustrations from Anthology, early covers and even songs that the Beatles knew and loved. He also goes out of his way to demonstrate where Lennon & McCartney used exactly the same ideas.

The book is very guitar-centric which is more of a strength than a weakness as it keeps in focus that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were guitarists first. That said, it's surprising that 13 out of 17 chapters are concerned entirely with chord progressions and melody and lyrical discussions receive relatively little space. However it seems churlish to complain a book of nearly 800 pages doesn't go into enough depth! I think if you're trying to get into the mind of Lennon & McCartney chord progressions are probably a good starting place.

Apart from Beatles fans this book would serve as an excellent way to learn musical theory for anyone who has at least passing knowledge or tolerance for the Beatles. After all if you buy any book on musical theory the examples are probably going to be from a million different classical pieces. Here the examples are draw from a pretty limited number of CDs/songs and are more easily applicable to modern music than something Verdi did.

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  1. You should review the book "The Beatles As Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology".

  2. Review it? I'll have to buy it first! (and read it). Thanks for the heads up though. It looks good from the write up and I think Pedler quotes from it in places.

    Have you read it? What did you think? Have you read the 'part one' book?

  3. That's a pretty short summary for 800 pages...I like it though. Are you on Twitter yet, Matt?

    Zac Sullivan

  4. That's only the introduction Zac! I'll do one post per chapter and then probably sum it up with a proper review.

    Was on Twitter, deleted my account (not enough time) planning to get back on it in the not too distant future. The Matt Blick on Twitter is NOT me!!!!

  5. I have not read it, just was interested! I'm a big fan of your reviews.

  6. Thanks Phil! - Just for you - I'll try to do some more!

  7. I tried to read 'The Beatles as musicians' years ago, but it was way over my head. You need a firm grasp of music theory (like you have). That's why I'm glad I run into your blog (so you can explain it to laymen like me :-)

  8. Thanks a lot Rob. '...As Musicians' looks significantly more technical than 'Songwriting Secrets..' (Pedler says something to that effect in his book) and also gets into the tech side of recording (what guitar etc) which I've not seen Pedler cover at all.

    On that score has anyone read Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four's Instruments from Stage to Studio
    by Andy Babiuk or Recording The Beatles - latter has been highly recommended to me.

  9. Read? I bought this book a few years ago for a few euros at a second-hand book store. It provides photos of every instrument they used from 1957 until 1970. If you like to stare at large colour pictures of guitars then this is definitely your book. It also shows every type of organ, drum kit, amplifier etc.. With 253 large pages it was a real find for a fan like me. I merely looked at the pictures though, I never came round to actually read the text.

  10. Oh OK - I didn't know it was mainly a picture book!

  11. No, no, there is a lot of text! It's very detailed, it is certainly not a picture book. Its primary focus is the equipment, I just never took the time to dive into it.

  12. What a great book. I keep it next to my bed and I read it every night and hope it sinks in overnight! This process has paid off sometimes as I've written many song now that change keys up a minor third, which is something that is mentioned in this book. Great stuff.

    I was also honored that the author got my album and did a musical analysis of one of my songs. That was certainly a trip.

    Keep up the great work.


  13. Thanks Ron, still trying to read it, not cos it's to heavy but other stuff and books keep getting in the way...when I do finish I will do a review but I've already read enough to know it's a great book

  14. My theory as to why the Beatles' music was so utterly great is the simple observation about the personalities and lives of John Lennon & Paul McCartney, and how this has flowed into their music. Lennon had a sadder upbringing than McCartney. His father was mostly absent as a Seaman and his mother Julia could not cope with being a mother to him. John was torn between his father and his mother. His parent's marriage did not last. John then loses his mother whom he loves very much to a car accident when he was seventeen. This loss and his family background profoundly affected him. There is no doubt about that. John had a lot to put up with as both a child and a teenager. It was so sad!

    Paul was lucky enough to have had a very happy family upbringing apart from losing his mother to an embolism that occurred after she had an operation to better control the spread of her cancer when he was fourteen years old. Despite this tragedy Paul's outlook in life is one of ever joyous optimism and happiness, while John's was one of greater pessimism, aggressiveness and sadness. Of course this summary would be far more complicated than their actual lives, but as a quick observation I believe it isn't far off the mark.

    What made the music of the Beatles so incredibly great was a unique, beautiful and melodic combination of sadness and happiness. I believe that you can hear and feel this combination of happiness and sadness in most of their music. Of course this is a simple observation and I don't claim it to be the end of the matter or that it explains the overwhelming phenomenon of Beatlemania, or that there is not much more to consider regarding their incredibly wonderful and original music.

    1. Thanks for your comment John!
      I don't doubt there's a lot of truth in what you say (though I might be tempted to substitute 'stable' for 'happy' regarding Paul's upbringing as I think he was just as devastated by his Mother's death).

      However the purpose of this blog is songwriting lessons that anyone can take away from the Beatles and apply themselves, so naturally I am going to go into a little more into the nuts and bolts of writing. After all - "find a songwriting partner with the opposite family background to you" might be a little hard to apply!

      That said their counter-balancing outlooks were one of the key differences in their writing styles and it's one I'm going to explore in the next podcast - details in the post above!

  15. Thanks for your reply. Can you point me towards the next podcast as I am still finding my way around your blog?

    1. Click the link on the bottom of the review post above to sign up - you'll get the most recent episode and then you'll get a link to all future episodes as they become available

  16. I own the book. It's not lite reading. I have spent hours reading and re-reading various chapters. I even went to taking notes on the various concepts. You DO need some level of music theory to understand the concepts. It's great on chord concepts and how to use them. It's a little light on melody concepts, However if you take the "rules" from the book and then play Beatles songs on a keyboard, you begin to see the book concepts in action. IE: I had no idea how often the Beatles used a chromatic downward walking bass line over a static chord - It's a great book. It just takes time to read and understand.

    1. Thanks Al - I totally agree - it's so hard for an author to know where to 'pitch' a music book in terms of assuming knowledge of theory. But I think for someone that does want to increase in theoretical knowledge this book ladened with Beatles examples may be more accessible than extracts from Mozart and Bach...

  17. Replies
    1. I sure there are better books - but I can't think of any of the top of my head!