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Statistics Offer Answer to Decades-Long Dispute Over Authorship of Beatles Hit

Researchers say there is less than a one in 50 chance that Paul McCartney composed the melody of “In My Life”

McCartney has long claimed that he wrote the melody to "In My Life," but Lennon stated that his songwriting partner had only contributed to the middle section of the tune. This study suggests they were both wrong (Flickr / Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Given the long-standing debate over the authorship of “In My Life”—a 1965 Beatles hit ranked 23rd on Rolling Stone’s “definitive” list of the 500 greatest songs of all time—it’s ironic that the track begins with a wistful tribute to infallible human memory: “There are places I’ll remember / All my life though some have changed.” John Lennon is the undisputed lyricist behind these lines, but the origins of the song’s melody have long been unclear, with both Lennon and Paul McCartney taking credit for its soulful sound.

Now, Sarah Knapton reports for the Telegraph, statisticians claim they have unraveled the musical mystery: According to research presented this week at an American Statistical Association conference, there is less than a one in 50 chance that McCartney wrote the song’s tune.

“The probability that 'In My Life' was written by McCartney is .018,” Mark Glickman, a statistics professor at Harvard University, said in a statement. “Which basically means it's pretty convincingly a Lennon song. McCartney misremembers.”

According to a press release, Glickman, former Harvard statistics student Ryan Song and Dalhousie University mathematics professor Jason Brown used a technique called stylometry, or the identification of recurring patterns to ascertain authorship, to analyze 70 Beatles songs released between 1962 and 1966. By “decomposing” known Lennon- and McCartney-authored tracks into five categories determined by the frequency of certain musical features, the researchers were able to build profiles of both Beatles.

The first category broke down tunes based on frequencies of commonly played chords, as well as aggregations of uncommon chords. Next, the statisticians measured melodic notes, or those sung by the lead singer, and chord transitions before moving on to consecutive melodic note pairs and, finally, four-note melodic “contours,” or patterns of increasing, decreasing or stable pitch changes. Altogether, the team identified 149 musical components that, when combined, presented statistically solid author profiles.

Debate over Lennon versus McCartney’s contributions to “In My Life” has endured for decades: During the 1970s, McCartney told music writer and broadcaster Paul Gambaccini that “those were the words John wrote, and I wrote the tune to it. That was a great one.” In 1980, Lennon countered this claim, saying, “The whole lyrics were written already before Paul even heard it. In ‘In My Life,’ his contribution was the harmony and the middle eight itself.”

Brown and Glickman decided to test the veracity of both Beatles’ claims by running their model twice: once on the middle eight section of “In My Life”—which Inverse’s Emma Betuel notes is “famously…the more bluesy part of the song”—and another time on the entirety of the song.

“The middle eight sounds like something McCartney would write. There’s a particular motif in the middle eight,” Glickman tells Betuel. “He has this musical pattern where he suspends notes across major beats of a measure. So when the middle eight goes, ‘So I know I’ll never lose affection,’ the note changes aren’t on the beat, they’re off the beat. So they’re syncopated. And McCartney does that quite a bit.”

Interestingly, the data contradicted both Glickman and Lennon. In both the smaller section and the wider tune, Lennon’s musical footprint trumped McCartney’s, suggesting that both esteemed musicians misremembered the writing process (although Lennon’s account was closer to the mark than McCartney’s).

According to the Telegraph’s Knapton, the analysis further revealed that McCartney’s songs tend to include “complex and varied” pitch, while Lennon’s remain largely the same. For example, “Help!,” the eponymous lead track of the band’s 1965 album, only changes pitch in short steps. Comparatively, Glickman says, the soulful, McCartney-authored 1965 love song “Michelle” is “all over the place.”

Inverse’s Betuel reports that the team is confident in its analysis, with Glickman noting that the model correctly predicts authorship of known McCartney or Lennon songs 80 percent of the time. He acknowledges, however, that the model may not capture all of the tunes’ complexity. Moving forward, Glickman hopes to build versions “that capture longer strings of chords and notes.”

For now, it’s up to die-hard Beatles fans to accept or reject the new findings. As Knapton notes, McCartney, the sole survivor of the songwriting duo, has declined to comment on the study. To which we say, “Oh-Blah-Di Oh-Blah-Da.”

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