What the music of The Beatles tells us about storytelling

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to see Paul McCartney live at the O2 in London. It was a spectacular show – 38 songs (mainly from his Beatles’ and Wings’ back catalogue) in three hours.

To top it off, Ringo Starr and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood joined McCartney on stage to perform The Beatles’ classic ‘Get Back’ – much to the delight of the 20,000-strong audience who couldn’t quite believe that half of the world’s most famous pop group were performing in front of their eyes.

I’ve been to hundreds of music gigs in my life but few inspire quite the same reaction as Paul McCartney. His music seems to connect with people in such a unique way.

What’s so great about The Beatles?

So, what makes the music of The Beatles so special? What is it that Lennon and McCartney did to make them the world’s most commercially successful pop band ever? Was it the melodies, the lyrics or something else entirely?

Oddly enough, The Beatles’ music completely passed me by during my childhood years. My parents were both jazz fans and rarely listened to pop music, so it was a real revelation when I bought my very first compilation of The Beatles on cassette (?!?!?!) in 1989. Like millions of others around the world, I was entranced by the beauty of the melodies and the breath-taking lyrics.

The art of good writing is, of course, to tap into your audience/reader’s emotions and connect with them, as Andy Maslen describes in his fantastic book, Persuasive Copywriting. The Beatles do this in spades in their songwriting.

Tapping into your emotions

In the early days, their songs followed a typical narrative pattern – using involving a boy and girl meeting and falling in love. The songs often follow dialogues between the young lovers – as in ‘P.S. I love you’:

As I write this letter

Send my love to you

Remember that I’ll always

Be in love with you

Treasure these few words ’till we’re together

Keep all my love forever

P.S., I love you.

The song underlines one of the key strengths of the Lennon/McCartney music – it appeals to the listener directly. The use of personal pronouns (such as ‘I’ and ‘you’), which are a regular feature in the band’s songs, play an important role in this process.

Connecting with your audience

It’s the directness of the lyrics that connects so strongly with us, as the listeners. And this is exactly what all good copywriting does.

There is also the repetitious element of The Beatles’ songs at this time – think of ‘She Loves You’, ‘Love me Do’ or ‘Help’. The human mind is hardwired to search out patterns – which are more memorable because they suggest order[1].

Exploring complex emotions

As the years passed, Lennon and McCartney’s song writing moved from beyond the simple boy meets girl dynamic to explore more complex themes of jealousy, fear and frustration, as in the 1965 song ‘We can work it out’:

Try to see it my way,

Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?

While you see it your way,

Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.

We can work it out, We can work it out.

Life is very short, and there’s no time

For fussing and fighting, my friend…

The lyrics are direct and to the point; there is no waffle or jargon in the words of The Beatles – another key element of all good writing. The words convey the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings in clear and concise language.

The art of great storytelling

Of course, as the Sixties progressed, Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting grew increasingly sophisticated. The lyrics became heavily symbolic and more complex in structure and theme – reflecting the spiritualism and psychedelia of the age.

McCartney, in particular, used storytelling to great effect in many of the songs he wrote for Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Look at the lyrics in the song ‘She’s Leaving Home’. McCartney describes in painstaking detail the scene in a suburban house where a girl is about to run away from home – producing empathy and sympathy in equal measure:

Wednesday morning at five o’clock

As the day begins

Silently closing her bedroom door

Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes downstairs to the kitchen

Clutching her handkerchief

Quietly turning the back door key

Stepping outside she is free…

The Beatles’ songs are peppered with figures like the girl from ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘Lady Madonna’ and ‘Sexy Sadie’ who are brought to life using great storytelling and character depiction – much like the very best copywriting.

Another great example is Eleanor Rigby, which tells the story of a woman reflecting on her loneliness:

Ah look at all the lonely people

Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice In the church where a wedding has been

Lives in a dream

Waits at the window, wearing the face

That she keeps in a jar by the door

Who is it for

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from? All the lonely people Where do they all belong?

McCartney’s lyrics use verbal imagery to tap into our innermost thoughts, desires and fears. This is what gives the songs such a timeless quality and why McCartney is still selling out stadiums 60 years since The Beatles played their first gig.

And that’s something we can all draw inspiration from as copywriters.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also be interested in reading my blog, ‘Even famous songwriters need an edit button’.


[1] Andy Maslen, Persuasive Copywriting

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