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Math Solves A Beatles Mystery

Math Solves A Beatles Mystery

math and numbers

The history of work is full of great duos: Banting and Best, Reiner and Brooks, Fay and Poehler. But, as a music fan, my favourite team would have to be Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney!
 
Like any genius creative pair, John and Paul had evenly matched, but complementary, working styles. Their legal songwriting credit, Lennon/McCartney, was testament to how closely knit their identities were. But, one or the other often contributed more to individual songs. While a many of those are well documented (“Can’t Buy Me Love” is Paul all over; “Ticket to Ride” is totally John), actual authorship of others is disputed — sometimes by Lennon and McCartney themselves.
 
Enter science and math! Mathematicians (and Beatles fans) Mark Glickman of Harvard and Jason Brown of Dalhousie have developed a method of gleaning statistics from Lennon/McCartney songs of clear authorship and applying them to a particularly murky case. “In My Life”, off 1965’s Rubber Soul, was remembered by both Lennon and McCartney as chiefly their own song, with minimal contribution from the other. Both can’t be right.
 
So Glickman and Brown “decomposed” all original Beatles songs from 1962-1966 into 149 individual components that occur frequently. Using their math skills they then organized those components into five categories with a focus on how the melodies behave. Melody is a key marker in the Beatles’ case, as McCartney wrote with more variation than Lennon.
 
“‘Consider the Lennon song, “Help!”’ says Glickman. ‘It basically goes, “When I was younger, so much younger than today,” where the pitch doesn’t change very much. It stays at the same note repeatedly, and only changes in short steps. Whereas with Paul McCartney, you take a song like “Michelle,” and it goes, “Michelle, ma belle. Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.” In terms of pitch, it’s all over the place.’”
 
Using the extraordinary amount of data they pulled, Glickman and Brown determined the probability of McCartney having written “In My Life” is 0.18 — meaning Lennon’ story checks out. So, a new working duo has solved a mystery about one of history’s greatest… A testament to the enduring power of the pair!