Even though I am an expert on Beatles music, I have to divulge that I never knew the Beatles…not even close. I’m an independent musician who was born years after the Beatles had their first number one single. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the Beatles broke up, though. I was about 14 years old, and I was sitting in the back of an older friend’s car. The DJ on the radio came on after playing a song off of Abbey Road and said something about the Beatles breaking up. I was devastated, having discovered them a few years prior. I asked, “The Beatles broke up?” The driver said, “Oh yeah, they broke up a few years ago…” So yes, I remember where I was when the Beatles broke up, it was just a few years after the fact!
I cannot state I possess any personal information about how the Beatles used sheet music in the studio–I, of course, was not there. Instead, my knowledge is based on the countless books I’ve read and on what I have been able to discern from analyzing the Beatles songs. I’m a Beatles addict. I’ve read reams of Beatles books, listened to mostly all single interview I could obtain, and have typically immersed myself in everything I could get my hands on. Moreover, as a musician and songwriter, I have some unique insight into how the Beatles approached their songwriting and recording sessions. In fact, that’s exactly what I pay attention to when I’m reading a book or interview about the Beatles. Today, I’m going to answer a question that pops up frequently from Beatles fans and from musicians: did the Beatles read sheet music?
Handwritten Beatles Lyrics
Believe it or not, the Beatles could not read sheet music. What’s more, they actually dismissed the need to learn. In the early years, the Beatles would come in with a new song and play it live for their producer. In these early years, George may make an arrangement tip and the group would make alterations of their very own, but as the arrangements were finalized, the music was not notated. From Revolver onwards, the Beatles began to use outside (hired) musicians on their records. Even then, however, they often did not even have the parts transcribed. Alternatively, the Beatles tended to provide the musician some imprecise idea of what they wanted, prompting the performer to use his or her inventiveness to generate the part. If, on the other hand, the Beatles required some sheet music for a hired session player to perform from (e.g. The string quartet on the song Eleanor Rigby or the horn section on Good Day Sunshine), the Beatles (particularly Paul) may sit down with George Martin and team up to work out the score. Even though George Martin did the transcription task, he always did this to record the part which was being created by a Beatle. More frequently, however, the Beatles supplied some overall idea of what they hoped for the part to sound like, pushing the performer to provide their creative imagination to create the basis for the part. The Beatles and George Martin may then help produce and develop the musical part into what they needed for the record. While George Martin did generate the piano parts that he performed on some of the early singles and he did integrate non-traditional composition ideas into their tunes, he was frequently quick to explain that he worked under the Beatles direction, supplying them the majority of the artistic credit.
I’ve seen the actual handwritten lyrics to about 15 or 20 of the Beatles songs, none of them even have chord changes written down above the words. I have heard from other people who have seen lyric sheets with a few of the basic chord changes written down, but quite simply the Beatles did not notate their music. There was no need to. As a recording artist myself, I can tell you with some confidence that music notation was not much use to them. It is pretty easy to work without music notation if you teach yourself how to play and compose. In all the recording session photos I’ve seen, frequently there is no page of a sort in front of a Beatle as he is recording. When there is, there’s only a single page of paper–presumably the handwritten lyric sheet…ostensibly the kind of handwritten lyric sheet that you can find photographs of when you do a Google image search. As self-taught songwriters and performers, the Beatles did not need to read or write sheet music. They saw it as a distraction…not as an integral part of their composing or recording process.