Paul McCartney reveals the origins of 154 of his most important and enduring songs in his new book, “The Lyrics.”
Although the origins of each song are unique, the collection is a phenomenal resource for those hoping to better understand both McCartney’s own creative process, and more broadly, the human creative process.
As a behavioral scientist, I have tried to do this in my own research into creativity. That work has led me to conclude that Pragmatic or “Eureka!” The moment is largely a myth – a completely nave and fictionalized account of innovation.
Simplicity actually stems from a far less mysterious combination of historical, circumstantial and incidental influences.
A Long and Winding Road to ‘Eleanor Rigby’
In a book excerpt published in the October 18, 2021 issue of The New Yorker, McCartney describes, in rich and in-depth detail, the fascinating origins of “Eleanor Rigby”—a track that some critics consider to be one of the Beatles’ greatest songs. see as. Songs.
McCartney shrugged off the lie in the stale rumor that this 1966 song was the result of some kind of fully formed vision that had come to him out of the blue. Instead, he underscores the unwritten and disorganized nature of his songwriting process. You could even say that “a long and winding road”—to use the name of another Beatles track—led to “Eleanor Rigby”.
Pieces of memory that inspired him along the way – jars of Nivea cold cream near his mother’s bedside and odd jobs for an elderly woman; a purely coincidental role, such as the name “Rigby” on a tombstone or on a shop sign in Bristol; And some alternatives have practical consequences, such as replacing “Hawkins” with “Rigby” and “McCartney” with “Mackenzie”, as confusing associations are added to possible surnames.
These different strands converge to catalyze a sad song, perhaps the Beatles’ most notable departure from the rhythmic pop sound found on upbeat tracks such as “Love Me Do”.
a complex web of cause and effect
Without knowing the full story, people often assume that the creative things we create and do stem from premeditation – by design.
I propose a dramatically different account in my new book, “As If By Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve.”
In the book, I point to the origins and development of a variety of innovations, such as the butterfly stroke, high-five, Heimlich maneuver, moonwalk, and the Iowa caucus.
Because of their striking suitability to the situation, all seem to have already been ingeniously designed. But, more often than not, these creative works have actually arisen thanks to a complex web of cause, effect and phenomenon.
Consider the butterfly stroke. The technique was not invented immediately by a swimmer who one day decided to create an entirely new and faster stroke.
Instead, three major factors helped lead to the butterfly stroke.
First, the context: In the 1930s, University of Iowa swim coach David Armbruster was working tirelessly with his swimmers to improve their breaststroke speed.
Then, there was the seriousness: Armbuster notices one of his swimmers, Jack Sieg, was using a sideways dolphin kick underwater to produce great speed.
As a result, Armbuster and Sieg experimented with combined windmill arm strokes and belly-down dolphin kicks to achieve unmatched speed.
Creating a new swimming stroke was never on the agenda. Indeed, these changes to the breaststroke were never approved. Only decades later was the so-called “butterfly stroke” approved as a separate Olympic event.
sweat leads to inspiration
When it comes to the creative process, there is no one right way or approach, and what works for Paul McCartney might not work for any other talented songwriter.
Consider Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s “Simple Song #3,” which he wrote for “Youth,” Paolo Sorrentino’s first English-language feature film.
Because of the film’s intimacy and sentimentality, Lang wanted to write songs that would make a lover whisper. So he took a very unusual approach: type “when you name my name I…” in a Google search to see what happened.
“I found thousands of obscene things and horrible things and things that were so conspicuous I couldn’t really use them,” he told The Atlantic in 2016. But I found a general list of what people say to their loved ones that they don’t. ‘I don’t want anyone else to listen.’
From this list, Lang chose the few that best matched his tune and produced a desirable result.
Lang had no idea what the final song would be before he began. Their process can be thought of as a behavioral analog of the evolutionary law of natural selection in biology.
Next is Academy Award-, Tony Award- and Grammy Award-winning composer Stephen Sondheim, who actually wrote a song for the songwriting process in his 1992 song “Putting It Together.”
The gossipy songs are not a tribute to inspiration, but a tribute to sweat.
Sondheim writes how composing a song is no easy matter; It demands a lot of time, hard work and perseverance. You should start with a strong foundation. Then, step by step, piece by piece, you must build on it, respecting the pieces along the way, so that each brick symbolizes a real improvement.
Sweating out all the details in the process of “putting it together” doesn’t guarantee a payoff—the hit you want may be a miss. But for Sondheim, any successful song requires such painstaking effort.
Of course, the creative process plays a role not only in the arts, but also in sports, politics, science, and medicine. Sadly, most people believe that talent, inspiration, insight and foresight are the key forces driving game-changing innovations.
That’s why authoritative accounts like Paul McCartney, David Lang and Stephen Sondheim are so valuable. They are objective explanations that stand better for scientific inquiry and avoid knee-jerk reactions to evoking essential tropes, such as insight and genius, that don’t really explain anything.
[Over 115,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]