Exercises in Style & Tone: Lennon v. McCartney

The music of The Beatles has more to do with a course about British literature than you might think. Besides the obvious geographical similarities, John Lennon and Paul McCartney followed in the footsteps of both Shakespeare and Chaucer by relying largely upon existing traditions or works and simply adding their own personal twist. The Beatles (who were a rock n’ roll cover band for several years before hitting it big) based much of their early work on the works and styles of American R & B, blues, and rock n’ roll artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and various Motown artists.

As Lennon & McCartney grew as songwriters, they each started to develop their own individual, unique songwriting style. Even though some later Beatles songs were written entirely by one or the other, the boys were contractually obligated to credit all their songs to “Lennon/McCartney” (George and Ringo escaped this fate by not writing many songs until much later in the band’s career). This obligation even applied to solo songs released while the band was still intact (John’s “Give Peace a Chance” is credited to the duo).

AP and college-level studies of literature will frequently require you to analyze an author’s style – what elements of structure or content make the work uniquely his or hers. Some elements to consider when analyzing style are a work’s tone or mood, voice, perspective, and diction, among others.

Today's Exercise

  • Your group will listen to songs that were written predominantly by either John Lennon or Paul McCartney
  • Analyze the musical and lyrical qualities of these songs from both the Beatles years and solo careers.
  • Identify specific elements of style evident in the music and lyrics. Consider content, tone, voice, imagery, style, and any other musical or literary devices with which you are familiar.
  • Record your findings in your notebooks (including textual examples) and be prepared to share your findings with the class

Stylistic Elements of Lennon's Songwriting

  • First-person statements
  • Direct 1-1 communication (lots of I-you)
  • Evocative - attack/confrontation
  • "In your face" message
  • Cultural topics (religion/politics)
  • Iconoclastic
  • Unrealistic
  • Psychedelic, surreal imagery
  • Portrays his own feelings
  • Not much symbolic meaning

Stylistic Elements of McCartney's Songwriting

  • Consistent beat - no changes/hooks
  • Repetitive lyrics - "I love you", "Hey Jude"
  • Rhymes & "sorta-rhymes" across songs
  • Light, catchy melodies - very pop
  • Upbeat, encouraging, optimistic
  • Writes about ordinary people in ordinary language
  • Telling stories about characters
  • Not much symbolic meaning