Friday, 14 May 2021

Which classical composers influenced The Beatles?

None of The Beatles had a background in classical music. Paul McCartney says that his (jazz musician) father would turn the radio off if a classical record came on. The one exception he cites was a Bach 'party piece' learned on guitar by George - this would ultimately to one of McCartney's best loved compositions - see here.

Not listening closely to classical music did not mean that The Beatles were not influenced by its techniques or individual pieces. There are numerous examples - especially from 1965 onwards - where the instrumentation and/or arrangement draw on the classical tradition.


The Beatles grew up listening to skiffle, rock and roll and British comedy records. Ringo also enjoyed country music while Paul and John shared a secret love of the American songbook. Liking classical music was something associated with being upper-class. That was fine for someone like Brian Epstein but impossibly grand for themselves.

Classically trained George Martin was unimpressed by the raw musicianship The Beatles displayed at their audition. Once he began working with them he realised that this masked an intuitive grasp of key concepts. They were also very fast learners.  

The early singles used the instrumentation associated with pop music. Martin saw that this could be expanded, particularly for Paul's ballads. McCartney was initially suspicious ("no vibrato, George! We don't want to sound like Mantovani") but he allowed Martin to write a string arrangement. 

Turning Point

As Ian MacDonald suggests, Yesterday marks a key moment in the musical evolution of The Beatles, revealing a 'hitherto unsuspected world of classical instrumental' colour'. A year later this would be taken a stage further with Eleanor Rigby.

With increasing boldness, Beatles records began plucking elements from the classical world George Martin's piano solo on In My Life, for example, is clearly modelled on Bach. Piccolo trumpet appears Penny Lane after McCartney saw it being used (by the same musician) in a TV broadcast of the Brandenburg Concerto. 

Nor did they confine their plundering to the established canon. The influence of  experimental composers like Cage and Berio looms large in a A Day in the Life, while samples of Schumann, Beethoven and the Sibelius Seventh are stuffed into Revolution 9.

A good influence?

More recently, McCartney has also suggested that being unschooled in musical theory had a positive creative impact.

Put simply, they broke the established rules because they were unaware of them. Occasionally this could lead dangerously close to cacophony - Revolution 9, for example is not for everyone. But it was Leonard Bernstein was already observing in 1966, crude musicianship proved no barrier to astonishing creativity.

The Beatles Story (teaching resources)

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