Generalizing any aspect of a songwriter’s output is straying into dangerous territory. That’s particularly true of the music of Lennon and McCartney. They were arguably the most versatile writers of pop song of their generation, and probably even now. As soon as they wrote a hit, it was back to the drawing board to come up with something completely different.
It’s a fun and harmless pastime to try to pinpoint some of the main differences between the melody-writing styles of these two masters of songwriting. What makes a McCartney melody sound different from a Lennon one?
The only way to answer this question with any measure of accuracy is, in fact, to generalize, so here we go:
1. McCartney tended to use a larger tone set than Lennon.
McCartney’s melodies, on average, use a larger spread between the lowest and highest notes. McCartney’s “Penny Lane” is a typical example of how McCartney would explore the upper and lower ranges, and do it fairly early in a song.
Other McCartney tunes that explored the fuller range of the voice: “Here, There and Everywhere”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, “I’m Looking Through You”, etc.
Some Lennon songs would use a wide range (“Instant Karma”), but he’d typically take his time exploring that range. It was more typical of Lennon to use a smaller range for each section: a smallish range for the verse, then move upward for a pre-chorus (if the song had one), then even higher for the chorus, and “Instant Karma” shows this clearly.
2. Lennon’s melodies were usually riff-based repeated ideas; McCartney preferred longer-form tunes.
“Penny Lane” and “Instant Karma” demonstrate this trait. “Penny Lane” does have a nice hooky bit at the start of the chorus, but the main feature we become aware of right away is the long descending — almost scale-like — melody that starts the song.
Other McCartney songs show longer melodic ideas, as opposed to a shorter riff: “Hey Jude”, “I Will”, “Live and Let Die”, etc.
“Instant Karma” shows Lennon’s preference for taking a short vocal riff and repeating it over a changing chord progression. Other Lennon songs that demonstrate this preference: “Dear Prudence”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Good Morning Good Morning”, etc.
3. Lennon’s melodies tend to spend time sitting in and around the tonic note.
The tonic note tends to feature prominently in a Lennon melody; Lennon would start melodies on the tonic note more, and use it more, than McCartney would: “Across the Universe”, and “Dear Prudence”. And even if he didn’t start exactly on the tonic note, it would often feature that note as being structurally important, like in the chorus of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Come Together.”
As mentioned earlier, McCartney would explore a fuller range of notes, even in his harder rockers (“Helter Skelter”). And even the songs that started on the tonic (“You Won’t See Me”, “Blackbird”, “The End”) would quickly move away from that note so that other notes rivalled the tonic in importance.
4. McCartney melodies had a fluid sense of vocal rhythm; Lennon preferred more driving rhythms/pulse.
This observation applies more accurately to the moderate and faster tempo songs. The faster tempo Lennon melodies tended to lock in to rhythmic ideas that were more intense, more energetic and more repetitious, like “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey”, “All You Need Is Love” and others.
McCartney would come closer to allow the natural pulse of the words dictate the specific rhythms of the vocal melody. If you say the words to “Golden Slumbers” without trying to sing it, you’ll see what I mean. There’s a natural flow to the rhythm of the words that gets translated directly into the vocal line.
You’ll hear that characteristic also in the rhythmic choices made in “Penny Lane” and “Getting Better.” In “Got To Get You Into My Life”, you can hear how the very quick rhythms of the start of each line of the verses adds a sense of breathless excitement to the text.
5. McCartney melodies borrowed stylistic ideas from many genres; Lennon paid more homage to rock & roll.
Don’t get me wrong, McCartney loved rock & roll, and can write a real rocker any time he wants. But his melodic and instrumental approach was also highly influenced by other genres: music hall (“Martha My Dear”, “Honey Pie”), Parisian ballad (“Michelle”), classical (“She’s Leaving Home”, “Eleanor Rigby”), ragtime “Rocky Raccoon”, and others.
Lennon was more a student of rock & roll, and even though he allowed treatments of his songs that pulled them into other genres (“Strawberry Fields Forever” as psychedelic pop, for example), I think it’s fair to say that he loved good ol’ rock & roll, and loved playing through a song with just raw emotion and a simple instrumentation. Probably “Don’t Let Me Down” demonstrates this the best.
Differences in Approach to Writing Lyrics
In their early writing, Lennon and McCartney both knew what the job of a songwriter was, and so “Do You Want to Know a Secret”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “No Reply” and even “The Word” are pretty straightforward and easy to understand.
As their careers continued from Rubber Soul onward, that’s where we start to see a difference in how they both would tackle a lyric.
Lennon was a writer of a kind of impressionism: you have to take in the entire lyric, and your job as the listener is to get an impression — from the lyric in its entirety — of what is being addressed.
So if you go line-by-line through “Come Together”, you get what Lennon himself described as “gobbledygook.” But if you take the entire lyric and consider it all together, you get a sense of meaning — an impression.
So if you’re looking for exact “meaning” in the traditional sense, you won’t find it in any specific line of “I Am the Walrus”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, or “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Even many of the lines in “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, the verses of which were composed by Lennon, are hard to define in any traditional way.
McCartney rarely did it that way. If the lyric wasn’t straightforward, like we get in “Getting Better”, for example, he’d give you short, clear vignettes, all meant to blend together to give you his own kind of impression. But it was an impression made up of fairly clear images, not in Lennon’s more abstract style.
The best example of a McCartney lyric that shows this kind of difference is “Penny Lane.” It’s a series of short, almost unrelated vignettes that all blend together to tell you what life on Penny Lane was like.
On a curious related note, the music and lyric of “With a Little Help From My Friends” was composed mostly by McCartney, and the way the melody and words interact sound like it was written by McCartney. But the one line that Lennon wrote “What do you see when you turn out the light?/ I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine” has little to do with any other line. But in true Lennon style, he’s offering an impression, nothing else.
The differences that exist between the writing styles of Lennon and McCartney are a great topic for any serious songwriter to study. The Beatles owe their success in part to the extent to which these two songwriters differed in their musical approach.
The only thing that might have made them an even better group (if that were possible) would be to have included more Harrison songs, particularly on the later albums. Harrison’s own songwriting prowess leapt forward enormously in the final years of The Beatles. His four contributions to the White Album were four of the best songs on that record, as were his two songs on Abbey Road.
Because Lennon and McCartney were so prolific and so competitive, comparing and contrasting their styles is an activity that every songwriter should take time to do.
I’d be very interested in your own thoughts on this, and so please do leave a comment below.
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