Sheet Music

Did the Beatles know how to read music?


Posted to June 14, 1996; updated March 21, 2004


In article <4of547$>, says...


>I heard somewhere that for awhile the Beatles couldn't read music very

>well. Is this true? If it is, I guess it kind of supports the claims that

>the Beatles were true geniuses, especially since they didn't have any

>formal training either.

The extent to which the Beatles couldn't read music has probably been magnified over time - both by their (original) working-class image and their very own, very real, do-it-yerself-mate pride. The Beatles - back then and even today - never wanted to feel like lah-de-dah "musicians." They wanted to be regular guys who made rockin' sound. But in spite of this, I believe (from various sources) that they all have, and had by the mid-Sixties, a basic grasp of what standard music notation was all about.

It helps to be specific by what we mean when we say, "Couldn't read music." When you play guitar, there's actually three different kinds of "reading music" you can do - standard notation, tablature notation, and chord charts. Tablature notation (or 'tab') wasn't popular back then, so we can count that out. But standard notation and chord charts are another matter.

According to several biographies (most notably Hunter Davies) Paul and George (and later John) understood chord charts perfectly well - because they taught themselves many of their first songs from them (just as many aspiring guitarists still do today). Chord charts are simple diagrams which show you where to put your fingers on a guitar, together with the name. They look something like this:

Chord charts are simple, though, compared to standard musical notation (i.e., piano music). Which looks like this:

sheet music

So most guitarists end up learning the former, but rarely the latter. And the Beatles, to begin with, were almost certainly the same way. Maybe my own experience gives a little insight. When I was a kid and mad about the Beatles I decided, in 1965 or so, that I was going to take guitar lessons and ascend to stardom in my own rock band; but to my horror, it was the ambition of the teacher to teach me how to play classical music (i.e. Bach, Beethoven) from actual sheet music using standard notation (the way, say, Segovia does it). This wasn't what I had in mind at all; and I failed utterly. It wasn't until years later that somebody showed me how chord charts worked; and then I picked up the guitar again and learned it in a matter of months.

Playing Beethoven on an acoustic guitar from a piece of sheet music thrust in front of you is a fairly difficult skill. And I think when the Beatles said they couldn't read music, they meant THAT kind of music. But even if they couldn't rattle off Mozart note-for-note from paper, I still don't think this rules out a more basic, gradual absorption of what sheet music was, or how it worked.

For one thing, Paul played the trumpet for a little while as a teenager; and there was a piano in the McCartney living room where his father, Jim, regularly led Paul and Mike through family sing-songs. It would have been very like Jim McCartney to try to teach his son what music notation meant. Thus, Paul, at the very least, probably had some rudimentary grasp of what a treble clef meant, and what the lines and spaces stood for, at a fairly early age. He just wasn't fluent in it.

And if the others knew even less - it doesn't mean they stayed that way. That would be an insult to their intelligence - not to mention an overstatement of how difficult standard musical notation really is. Standard notation has been around for centuries for one good reason: it's good. It makes sense. To a musician, standard notation is one of those things where, when you're first taught what it means, you go: "That's GREAT." Because it's so versatile and useful. So - in the Beatles' case - IMHO - with all their tremendous natural talent and curiosity I don't believe they could have been in a place like Abbey Road, around a guy like George Martin, using orchestras and cellos and all that other whatnot, and wanting control over it all, for years and years, without at some point or other absorbing the BASICS of music notation. However, I again emphasize "the basics" - I'm not saying they could sit down and write sonatas from head-to-hand the way Mozart could. But the basics: you know - this is the melody line, this is a middle 'c', this is a quarter note, this is a bar. Terms they already knew in their hearts. Just on paper.

Again, I think the real reasons for the protestations that they "couldn't read music" was to emphasize that they were simple guys, making music from their hearts - not trained dandies. But with time this has grown into the myth that they didn't understand sheet music at all.