What Made The Beatles Great?

Posted in: Music Theory by Bob Craypoe on April 19th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Obviously, if you’ve never heard of the Beatles, you must have been living in a cave or a jungle somewhere with limited exposure to civilization. You might have heard of the Beatles but were not impressed by them, that’s okay, I explain some of the things I think made them great.

Ever since the Beatles released their first hit single “Love Me Do”, they became a part of music history. Now, after decades, they still sell millions of records globally. So what exactly is it that not only made them so popular but still causes them to remain popular to this day? I have a few thoughts on that subject.

Sure, when they first started out, much of their music was quite poppy and to some extent bubblegum. A good portion of it was geared towards the teen demographic. Make no mistake about that. Yet, somewhere along the way, they began to grow and mature as musicians and composers. So many elements came into play as well. Lyrically, musically, vocally, compositionally and production.

Of course it didn’t hurt that the Beatles had one of the best producers in the history of Rock and Roll. George Martin was simply amazing. He basically did all of the orchestral scores on every album the Beatles recorded except for the Let it Be album. Listen to the Magical Mystery tour and Sgt Pepper’s lonely hearts Club Band albums. The orchestration was amazing. Let’s face it, George Martin was the fifth Beatle.

George martin, in many an interview, had stated how the members of the Beatles just absorbed so much of what he had to teach them in the areas of music theory, composition and production. He would often say that he was very fortunate to have met the Beatles. I think it was a pretty good deal for them too though.

Compositionally, John Lennon had a great atonal approach to songwriting that was quite unique. An approach he would continue as a solo artist. He would basically write a song that wouldn’t adhere strictly to a given key. He would use transitional chords that would have an interesting way of linking one chord to another or one key to another. The funny thing is, though, that someone very knowledgeable in music theory can understand what he was doing but John Lennon basically wasn’t motivated by how he could come up with some great new compositional idea heavily rooted in theory but would just come up with the ideas right out of his head without much thought to that at all. It’s a very rare gift for creativity.

Now, take a look at McCartney’s Blackbird. The chromatic ascension in the root tone at the same time the higher note is ascending by thirds. Now that is cool. Also look at George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It starts out in A Minor. Then it uses the E Major chord as a transition into the key of A Major. Very nice.

Also bear in mind all of the instruments each band member played. They all played more than one instrument and they all played more than one instrument well. They all sang as well. Listen to the harmonies on Because. Now that’s some great vocal work there. They also had the ability to scream out a rocking song as well as gently singing a soft melodic ballad. A Lot of vocal diversity.

When bringing up the subject of their recordings, you have to take into account the amazing ground breaking techniques they applied in the studio. The tape splicing. Sometimes recording some tracks, splicing the tape and flipping it over to play those tracks backwards and then play along with them on other tracks, forwards. Sometimes slowing down a recording and playing along with it while adding new tracks. They really experimented a lot with those sort of things. Now, it is so easy to do those sort of things on a computer or with the use of certain rackmount effects processors but in their day it was a real achievement.

I could probably go on forever but you get the basic idea of what I am trying to convey here. The guys were amazing. If you are a musician who never really paid much attention to them, I would suggest that maybe you start. A lot can be learned from them. You would be doing yourself a disservice by not learning from the Beatles. I would suggest you pay more attention to their later works though. From Sgt Pepper on. Especially now, after I just told you what made them so great.

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