Researchers use math, statistics to solve mystery of who wrote Beatles song

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HALIFAX — Researchers from Canada and the U.S. have used math to unravel one of the greatest musical mysteries of the modern era: Who wrote “In My Life,” a nostalgic rock ballad on the Beatles’ 1965 album “Rubber Soul.”

It’s a song both John Lennon and Paul McCartney have taken credit for, sparking an enduring debate on the authorship of the melody and chords.

But a new statistical model developed by researchers at Dalhousie and Harvard universities has been used to analyze multiple Lennon-McCartney songs, concluding Lennon likely penned “In My Life.”

“There is a chance that Paul wrote it, but from our model we come down on the side that it was John who likely wrote it,” said Jason Brown, a mathematics professor at Dalhousie in Halifax.

At issue is a claim by McCartney that Lennon wrote the lyrics, while he wrote all the music. Lennon, however, claimed he wrote the lyrics and music and McCartney may have helped with the “middle eight” or the song’s bridge.

Brown, Harvard statistician Mark Glickman and student Ryan Song analyzed roughly 70 songs on albums from “Please Please Me” to “Revolver” using five main categories: Melody notes, sequences of two notes, chords, sequences of two chords and melodic contour.

Each category was then further broken down, resulting in 149 categories for data collection.

The model, which is 80 per cent accurate, found a 98 per cent probability that Lennon wrote “In My Life,” Brown said.

While it’s not a guarantee, he said the data-collecting process used by the researchers identifies patterns in songs rather than subjectively “cherry picking” what to look for.

The researchers also applied the model to other songs of contested authorship such as “The Word” and “Misery,” finding it likely McCartney wrote the former and Lennon the latter.

“There are other songs as well and parts of songs where the recollection may be a little bit foggy,” Brown said.

Despite the rigour applied to the research, Brown expects the feedback will be mixed.

“I have found over the years doing projects on mathematics and the Beatles that talking about the Beatles is sort of a theology for a lot of people,” he said. “They have very strong beliefs and feelings about the Beatles individually and collectively.”

Glickman presented the data at a statistics conference in Vancouver last month, and the researchers are in the process of submitting their findings to an academic journal.

Using mathematics and statistics to solve musical mysteries may seem unusual, but Brown said they are alike in many ways.

“They’re similar in the sense that they both focus on patterns,” he said. “What we appreciate a lot in music are patterns and how patterns are transformed through the composing process and how we experience those patterns, and mathematics is often called the science of patterns. It gives us the tools to analytically look at patterns.

“I think it’s this love of patterns that is a commonality between mathematics and music.”

Brown said the model could be applied to other music to help address the bigger issue of music authentication, where the composer is unknown or in dispute.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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