8 - Analyzing Beatle Music

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8 - Analyzing Beatle Music



Many scholars and academics have analyzed – some would say over-analyzed – Beatle songs to determine the true meaning of the lyrics. The problem is the inherent biases of those performing the analyses, i.e., conclusions based on pre-conceived notions of what they wanted to find. As Beatles scholarship progresses, there is interest in not only what the lyrics may say or mean, but in how each songwriter differed in outlook and presentation of their thoughts in their lyrics.


To this end, a multinational team of researchers have completed a computerized linguistic analysis of Beatle songs.


The scientists from the University of Auckland, New Zealand; the University of Texas; and the University of Bergen, Norway were interested in three primary issues: how the songwriting changed over time; how their writing styles changed over time; and how the writing styles overlapped.


A total of 185 songs were used in the study.


The early years of The Beatles were characterized by songs full of positive emotions and about joys of forming new romantic relationships. From 1965 the songs became more emotionally distant and about looking back on happier times.


This trend was indicated by the degree to which self referencing in their songs dropped, alongside a decrease in social referent.”


Professor James Pennebaker of the University of Texas says in their later songs they also started using big words and news items more frequently, which are indicative of intellectualization: using excessive reasoning to cope with emotional distress.


The emotional content of songs after this period was more psychologically distant and melancholic, and less positive. Many songs looked back on happier times. In later years The Beatles’ writing had become less situated in the present and future than their early songs.


Along with the emotional changes, over time their lyrics became more complex and intellectual. While early songs were related to personal experiences and feelings, later ones were more often written about other people.


How McCartney and Lennon differed in style


The computer analyses showed that Lennon and McCartney used different lyrical approaches. Lennon was more interested in reflecting and trying to understand his own negative experiences in life, while McCartney’s work was more intellectually and lyrically complex. It covered a broader range of themes, and much more frequently took the viewpoint of others.


Their findings contrast with some of the popular stereotypes of The Beatles’ songwriting, such as the commonly held view of Lennon as the more intellectual songwriter and McCartney as the sentimental tunesmith.


Professor Pennebaker disagrees and says that, in fact, the linguistic evidence shows that McCartney lyrics have fewer negatively emotional words. McCartney’s songs are more intellectually complex and cover a far wider range of perspectives and themes. Lennon’s songs tend to be more self-focused and higher in levels of negative emotion.


The research study found that McCartney’s style is often characterized as “optimistic, wistful, and harmonious,” while Lennon is often thought to be the more “intellectual, political, and cynical.”


Lennon’s writing is viewed as more creative and thoughtful whereas McCartney often wrote about everyday situations. Lennon had a more global or even cosmic perspective in his songs.


The researchers wanted to determine if there was a shift in emotional tone and cognitive analysis over the lifetime of the group.


For example, to what degree did they become more negative and complex? They also wanted to know how the Lennon-McCartney songs, which were jointly written, differ from those written by Lennon or McCartney individually. To what degree are the differences among the writers’ lyrics a function of their content or their linguistic styles?


How they differed in word choice


Lennon and McCartney had distinctive differences in their word usage. When writing together they produced lyrics with a highly positive emotional tone that were set predominately in the present. While the lyrics seem simpler, as evidenced by the number of words with fewer than six letters, the collaborative songs are more concerned with social processes and feature a larger number of sexual words when compared with songs that were written separately.


Songs penned by Lennon are typically higher in negative emotion than McCartney’s compositions. Lennon’s lyrics are also higher in cognitive mechanism words with the author reflecting on or trying to make sense of events. McCartney lyrics are less concerned with living in the moment and are characterized by a much greater focus on a collective orientation, as reflected in a significantly greater use of words such as “us” and “we.”


The number of words with greater than six letters is higher in McCartney compositions, indicating that although the songs may be less intellectual, they’re more lyrically complex and varied than Lennon’s songs. As the text analyses suggest, Lennon and McCartney had distinctive lyrical approaches. Lennon, perhaps because his music relied on a more typical blues structure, used more negative emotion in his lyrics and the data reveal that he was more focused on his own personal distress.

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