George Harrison and his bandmates in The Beatles couldn’t read or write music. That might surprise some, considering the group is famous for musical masterpieces like “A Day In The Life” and “Something.” However, they just didn’t learn how to play their instruments by reading and writing notes. John Lennon, whose first instrument was the banjo, didn’t even know that a guitar had six strings when he first met George.
George didn’t think he needed to know music composition. When a tune popped into his head, he had to record it quickly, and he didn’t mind that process.
Paul McCartney on why The Beatles didn’t know how to read or write music
During a 2018 interview on 60 Minutes (per Global News), Paul McCartney explained that he didn’t know how to read or write music.
“I don’t see music as dots on a page,” Paul said. “It’s something in my head that goes on. None of us did in the Beatles. We did some good stuff though. But none of it was written down by us. It’s basically notation. That’s the bit I can’t do.”
The Beatles only had to worry about their lyrics. They wrote a song anywhere, any time. Then they brought their songs into the studio, where the band was ready to put some music behind the lyrics. So, it makes sense that George, Paul, John, and Ringo didn’t need to know how to write or read music.
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George Harrison said he had to keep music in his head because he couldn’t write it down
George had a simple songwriting process. If he came up with a melody or lyrics for a song, he stored it all in his head until he got to a recording studio.
During a 1971 interview on The Dick Cavett Show (per George Harrison on George Harrison: Interviews and Encounters), Dick Cavett asked George if he could read and write music. He said he didn’t.
The host asked, “Then, when you say write, if you have a tune that hits you how do you get it down?” George replied, “Just keep it in your head, you know. Just work it out on the piano or on the guitar.”
Cavett asked, “But then do you tape it, or what preserves it?” George explained, “Sometimes, sometimes put it on tape but usually you can remember it in your head, if you don’t. I wrote the words down and remember the tune in my head.”
George was OK with waiting until he could record or play something on an instrument.
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George didn’t wish he’d studied music composition
For George, reading and writing music wasn’t necessary. Cavett asked the “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” singer, “Do you wish you had studied composition?” He replied, “No.”
Then, he admitted it might be cheaper. “Well, maybe, maybe it would help somewhere,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have to pay a copyist.” Cavett asked if George missed it. He replied no again.
“Because it’s not really sort of music you know,” George explained. “It’s like, uh—I mean, there’s a difference between people who write music, and classical things, and big arrangements, to the sort of thing I do. It’s just really, it’s very simple.”
Whatever George’s process was, we still got hit after hit.
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