Roll up, roll up for the magical mystery maths that proves John Lennon was the writer of 'In My Life'...

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on August 13, 2018

Both of the Beatles principal songwriters, John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney, have claimed authorship of the evergreen song, but statisticians have undertaken a detailed study and concluded there is only a .018 chance that the work is McCartney’s.

The study drew on a field of statistics called Stylometry, which studies recurring patterns in writing to identify authorship. The approach has previously been used to prove the identity of the Unabomber and to show Christopher Marlowe contributed to the writing of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays.

The work was undertaken by Mark Glickman, Senior Lecturer in statistics at Harvard, and Jason Brown, Professor of Mathematics at Dalhousie University, with assistance from Harvard statistics student Ryan Song. Glickman and Brown met at a conference and discovered a shared passion for The Beatles.

This led them to wonder if Stylometry could be used to provide a definitive answer to the intriguing puzzle of who wrote ‘In My Life’.

Following an agreement made when the pair were teenagers, all songs written by either Lennon and McCartney have the famous ‘Lennon-McCartney’ writing credit but the pair almost exclusively wrote songs individually.

Different stories on who wrote ‘In My Life’

Lennon was originally associated with the song and talked about it as a turning point in his maturity as a songwriter. ‘In My Life’ was, I think, my first real, major piece of work,” he said. “Up until then, it had all been glib and throwaway.”

Paul McCartney later cast doubt over Lennon’s authorship, writing in his 1976 memoir Paul McCartney: In His Own Words: “I liked ‘In My Life’. Those were words that John wrote, and I wrote the tune to it. That was a great one.”

In a 1980 interview, Lennon offered another version of events, saying he had written the lyrics and melody and McCartney was responsible for the song’s harmony and masterful middle-eight.

Adding to the confusion over who wrote the song is a much earlier version of the lyrics penned by Lennon as a straightforward remembrance of his childhood in Liverpool. The original handwritten lyrics are now part of the collection of the British Library, though it was the rewritten lyrics that added the wistfulness now associated with the song.

The general (if unscientific) consensus among fans was that the song fitted more neatly into Lennon’s body of work.

‘In My Life’ appeared on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album in 1965 and represents possibly the high water mark of the group’s pop sophistication and George Martin’s production wizardry.

Long considered a work of genius even among the embarrassment of riches that is The Beatles’ back catalogue, its stocks have risen in recent years to the point it was adjudged the best song of all time in authoritative UK music publication Mojo.

Speaking on NPR, broadcaster Scott Simon said the study was convincing. “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,” he said.

Stats to the rescue: how statisticians determined Lennon was the song’s real author

The study deconstructed 70 Beatles songs to identify 149 musical features within a song that are the result of choices made by the song’s author. It then utilised an oft-used probability tool called the “Bayes rules” to determine a model for the probability that either Lennon or McCartney wrote a specific song given the occurrence of the 149 musical features drawing on the extensive body of work where the author was known. Finally, the results of this model were applied to songs, or sections of songs, which resulted in probability predictions for the authorship of the work.

Before running the study, Glickman thought the theory of joint authorship had merit. “The middle eight sounds like something McCartney would write,” he said.

“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.”

The study, however, concluded that Lennon was extremely likely to be the sole author of the song.

The methodology also opens up the intriguing possibility of tracking the influence of different songwriters by analysing the musical features of later songs for stylistic similarities.

“This technology can be extended,” Glickman said. “We can look at pop history and chart the flow of stylistic influence.”

Through a spokesperson, Paul McCartney has declined to comment on the study.