After Years Of Debate About “In My Life,” A Math Professor Proved Who Really Wrote The Beatles Song

The Beatles are undeniably one of the most important bands in the history of music. Unsurprisingly, then, the four piece can lay claim to having created some brilliant tracks. And a tune entitled “In My Life” among this collection of musical masterpieces. Taken from Rubber Soul, “In My Life” is often hailed as one of The Beatles’ greatest ever songs. But ever since the track’s release in 1965, confusion has reigned over which of the Fab Four was responsible for its composition. However, two particularly academic fans have now put the debate to rest; and they did so using nothing but pure math. Here’s a look at their discovery.

Initially inspired by the early sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, The Beatles formed in 1960 in their hometown of Liverpool, England. The band then cut their teeth playing the Hamburg and Merseyside circuits. And by 1962, the core line-up had been settled. The final ensemble, of course, consisted of frontmen Paul McCartney and John Lennon, guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr. Success was to follow shortly thereafter, too. Indeed, guided by manager Brian Epstein, the band scored their first hit that same year with “Love Me Do.”

And within twelve months Beatlemania had begun to sweep the rest of the world. But the group soon began to shake off their teenybopper reputation with a series of groundbreaking albums including Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road. By the time they split in 1970, The Beatles had firmly established themselves as one of the most important and most successful musical act of all time.

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Indeed, as of 2018, estimates put The Beatles’ total worldwide sales in excess of 800 million. The four piece achieved more UK chart-topping albums and US number one singles than any other artist, too. And the Fab Four even picked up seven Grammys, an Oscar and 15 Ivor Novello Awards as well. What’s more, both the group and its individual members have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

All four members went on to achieve solo success following The Beatles’ split, too. Tragically, though, John Lennon’s life and career was cut short in 1980 when he was murdered in front of his New York home. George Harrison then passed away 21 years later after losing his fight with lung cancer. Both Starr and McCartney continue to record and perform, however.

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Alongside all their hundreds of significant achievements, The Beatles’ unusual songwriting agreement is also a source of their renown. As teens, the group’s two frontmen decided that any material penned by them would be credited as Lennon-McCartney – this was despite the fact that the pair very rarely wrote any songs together.

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As a result, speculation over exactly who was responsible for each Beatles classic has continued to mount. And “In My Life” is one of the most hotly-debated tracks. The standout track from 1965’s Rubber Soul, “In My Life” was hailed as the greatest song of all time by Mojo magazine at the turn of the century. The tune has placed highly in similar polls by CBC and Rolling Stone, too.

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What’s more, several other artists have attempted to put their own spin on the track over the past half-century. Bette Midler took the song into the Billboard Adult Contemporary top 20 in 1992 when she recorded it as part of the For the Boys soundtrack. Johnny Cash, Ozzy Osbourne and the cast of Glee are just a few of the eclectic names, meanwhile, who have also covered the tune.

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Lennon penned the lyrics to “In My Life” as a response Kenneth Allsop, a British writer and journalist. You see, Allsop had advised Lennon that he should use his childhood as songwriting inspiration. And the music icon subsequently wrote a song based on a scenic bus route he used to enjoy in his hometown. However, Lennon scrapped the initial version of the lyrics in favor of something more generalized. “In My Life” also features a reference to the late one-time Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe.

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Shortly before he died Lennon described “In My Life” as his “first real major piece of work” – this due to the song’s autobiographical nature. “Up until then, it had all been glib and throwaway,” he remarked about his previous efforts. But although there’s no dispute over who wrote the song’s lyrics, there is a mystery over who was responsible for its musical accompaniment.

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You see, Lennon claimed in 1980 that he’d penned the song’s melody, too, but did credit McCartney with creating its harmonies and middle-eight. However, four years prior to Lennon’s statement, McCartney had claimed that his contribution was more significant. In his memoir, In His Own Words, McCartney wrote, “I liked ‘In My Life’. Those were words that John wrote, and I wrote the tune to it. That was a great one.”

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And McCartney even gave some context to his contribution in 1997 biography, Many Years From Now. The Beatle alleges he told Lennon “just go and have a cup of tea or something,” so he could concentrate on writing the song’s melody. He added, “And it actually does sound very like me, if you analyze it. I was obviously working to lyrics. The melody’s structure is very me.”

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Now, more than 50 years after the track was released, a group of academics decided to try and work out just who did what exactly. Mark Glickman, a statistics lecturer at Harvard University, and Jason Brown, a Dalhousie University mathematics professor, led the project. And the project was a labor of love for the duo. You see, when the pair attended the conference where they first met, they found that they both had a love of the Fab Four.

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The duo subsequently embarked on their Beatles-based quest. And to help them with their inquiry, the pair turned to Stylometry – a field of statistics used to determine authorship by monitoring recurring patterns. It’s an approach which has been adopted to unmask the Unabomber’s true identity and to prove that Shakespeare’s Henry IV featured input from Christopher Marlowe.

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Joined by Ryan Song, a statistics student at Harvard, Glickman and Brown decided to dissect 70 different Fab Four songs to try and identify nearly 150 different musical patterns. And using a probability tool known as the Bayes rules, the researchers were then able to apply their findings to a particular song or song section. This, then, meant that an accurate prediction could subsequent be made over the authorship of any given snippet.

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The whole process took an arduous three months. You see, the pair meticulously worked on every song that The Beatles recorded – from their debut up to their 1966 seventh LP, Revolver. And chord progressions, phrase shapes and gaps between notes were all monitored in the study. But after the duo’s hard work, their findings proved to have an accuracy rate of 80 per cent – something which even surprised the duo themselves.

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Before undertaking to study, Glickman initially believed that Lennon’s version of events was the true one. He told The CEO magazine, “The middle eight sounds like something McCartney would write. 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.”

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According to Glickman and Brown, though, Lennon was actually being generous to his songwriting partner. Yes, the duo discovered that the late Beatle was highly likely to have written every aspect of the song. In fact, the pair found that the chances of McCartney providing any musical input was an incredibly slim 0.018.

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NPR broadcaster Scott Simon gave the duo’s findings instant credibility, too. He told The CEO Magazine, “In situations like this, you’d better believe the math because it’s much more reliable than people’s recollections, especially given (it was written in) the ’60s with an incredibly altered mental state due to all the stuff they were ingesting.”

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And Glickman went on to reveal that their approach can also help establish which songwriters have influenced others. “This technology can be extended,” he told The CEO magazine. “We can look at pop history and chart the flow of stylistic influence.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, a spokesman for Paul McCartney refused to comment on the findings when approached. But the legendary songwriter is still churning out the tunes. Indeed, the rocker released his 17th solo studio effort – entitled Egypt Station – in September 2018. And while there is no debate around who created those tracks, the “In My Life” authorship conversation may well still rumble on.

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