The No Peeping Rule: The Beatles, Creativity, Quantum Mechanics and Mood-ulation

Some questions have a permanent power to fascinate. For Beatles fans, two key examples are: 1) What allowed the Beatles to be so creative? And 2) What caused the Beatles to break up? There may be a connection between these two, if you look at the analogy of quantum mechanics.

Quantum particles are capable of mysterious behavior as long as you don’t observe this behavior directly. So, for example, a photon of light can somehow take two paths, pass through two slits, as if it were a wave, and yet whenever you observe it, it’s not a wave, it’s a particle. So if you try to observe it happening, it doesn’t happen – it just passes through one slit. How do we know it happens?

Well, in this example, as the individual photons hit a screen beyond the slits, over time a pattern of stripes builds up out of the positions where they land, with the pattern being that of waves of interference – which could only happen if on some level they took both paths at once.

Somehow each particles has gone through both slits, interfered with the version of itself that went down the other path, and then this “wave function” collapsed at the moment of measurement/visibility, i.e. where it hit the screen. Our inability to see this happening is known colloquially as the no peeping rule.

The analogy with creativity is extremely strong. In a part of the mind that is shielded from the direct observation of the reasoning cerebral cortex, creative leaps of lateral thought can be made which make connections by means of a mysterious process that transcends solid logic. Connections are made between frames of reference that were previously separate, just as if thought was able to take more than one path at once, pass through more than one slit, as it were, then come together again.

What has this got to do with the Beatles breaking up? Well, the World was fascinated by the first question – the secret of the Beatles’ creativity, and they wanted to take a peep. During the Let It be recording sessions, film cameras were brought into the studio to film them in action… being creative. It was at precisely this time that things started falling apart. Creative differences came to the fore. They stopped jelling as a team. George found John too sloppy and lackadaisical and conversely found Paul too perfectionist – the two becoming polarised in this regard, the one making up for the other. Here’s my suggestion: the tensions arose because the no peeping rule was being flouted. It became more stressful to maintain the creativity that was their hallmark. Yes, they were still creative but it became increasingly difficult to do.

Does that mean that we should just listen to the songs, and not allow ourselves to probe into the underlying creativity? Not at all. The no peeping rule is about not exposing the current creative moment to the glare of rational observation while it’s happening, because if you do, it won’t happen. There is no rule about not looking retrospectively at creativity that’s already happened. This is simply the equivalent of looking at the bands on the screen and noticing the interference pattern that has built up. There is wonder in it, but not because it allows you to extract a logical formula that you can then use without creative leaps. You might be able to identify what makes a particular song effective, but this cannot be taken as a simple set of rules to be followed without feeling or vision to produce a similar result. Why bother looking then? Well it’s still fascinating in its own right, and it could expand your general palette of possibilities, a palette that might later be drawn upon in a moment of genuine creativity.

Yesterday is an interesting case. Here we have the most covered song of all time. There’s no doubt that there is something about it which is arresting and beautiful, and it has struck millions over the years as being a startlingly good song. When you look into it, it’s not that hard to pick out some of its key characteristics, the things that set it apart from basic types of melody-with-words-and-chords.

Yesterday features an overall mood, but also fleeting sub-moods that play off each other. The overall mood is melancholic, and this corresponds to the overall mode – the natural minor key. But the first phrase has a certain brightness that fits the words: “all my troubles seemed so far away”. To put the melancholy in perspective, it’s contrasted with what has been lost – a happy time when troubles seemed far away. And fitting this, the song starts on the chord of the relative major, the III chord of A minor, i.e. C major. It very quickly becomes apparent that this is part of a run-down via B to A minor, but there is still some brightness, fitting these words, for it is a rising melody in A minor melodic.

The melodic minor key has the diminished third but, like the major key, has a raised sixth and seventh, giving a sense of brightness. However, the other foot must fall. It’s not yesterday now, and now the troubles look as though they’re here to stay. Nothing bright about that. So you get a descending melody line and the key modulates from the melodic minor to the natural minor: the sixth and seventh are lowered, a much sadder feel. Then there is a partial brightening again as the progression ends back on C major – back to the relative major, as if you’re trying unsuccessfully to make out the whole thing was in C major in the first place. “I believe in yesterday”. This gives it a kind of dramatic irony in both music and words, as you know the run back down to the A minor (the melancholy present) will follow, just as you know that living in the past is a delusion.

We might also notice the use of appoggiaturas. “Far away”. “Used to be”. The root chord is reached but the melody line lingers for a moment a tone above it, as if reticent to accept its fate. Appoggiaturas have been recognised as working to create a sense of whimsical longing.

These appoggiaturas occur at a musical start point, but not at the start of a line of words. This is because the lines are largely lead ins. This is another way the melody is more subtle than the most simple types of vocal line. Once in royal David’s city. Just as when you read a line of poetry you tend to make the first stress the primary one, in this Christmas hymn “once” has the strongest stress. If you look at the lyrics of Yesterday, you can pick out some pentameters:

All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay

If this was a lyrics-first song, the composer might have assumed the first stress of the lines of words should match up with the starting points of sections of chord progression. But beautiful melodies often don’t start by placing a foundation at the beginning of the bar and then build up from that primary stress; instead they lead in with a sense of anticipation towards a primary stress, which actually comes at the end of the line. So “all my troubles seemed so” is all lead in. Likewise “now it looks as though they’re.” These, respectively, lead into the primary stresses of “far away” and “here to stay.”

Taken all together, the degree of match-up between words and music strikes the listener as almost impossibly brilliant. One asks “how did he do it?” in the same way as one asks how Einstein came up with his theory of relativity.

Paul has actually told us the sequence of events. This was a tune-first-and-words-later-song, and the melody came to him in a dream. He woke up with the tune in his head, and the tune had chosen the right person because this is where it was important that the receiver of the idea was someone very musical, someone with great musical talent. After Paul woke up he went straight over to his piano, and while most of us would probably have tried to play it all in one mode or another, say, making it fit to the white notes of A natural minor / C major, Paul could hear/feel that this wasn’t the case. He was musical enough to play the melody just as he’d heard it in his dream – complete with the raised and then diminished notes. This wasn’t the end of the creative process however, because the beauty of it is also about how well the words match the melody, and he didn’t yet have the words.

Paul tells us he next put in some holding text. The first line of holding text was “Scrambled eggs, oh baby how I used to love your legs.” Some weeks later he was being driven in a car, daydreaming, mulling it over, his head jolting up and down over the bumps when he came up with “yesterday”. We can make an observation here. Most of us when writing a song might start by asking “How do I feel?”, but Paul had this lovely tune, and instead he asked the question “How does the music feel?” Of course, in a round-about way this is still about his own feelings, because it is really “How does the music make me feel?” So rather than starting with a line of words and saying “this should modulate to the melodic minor and ascend to match the mood of the words”, instead he had an ascending music line in the melodic minor and asked himself what that felt like, and then wrote a line of words to fit with this feeling.

So while the songwriter might want to extract simple answers, a simple formula and procedure, what we learn is about approach as much as technique, and it also requires talent. Yes, it pays to know that you don’t have to stay in one mode and can rather modulate as fits the mood of particular lyrics, and yes you can use appoggiaturas for a sense of longing, rising melodic lines for raised mood and descending ones for sadder tones, and let your lines lead up to primary stresses rather than build from them, and so on, but you also need to do some other key things if you’re going to have brilliant results, things that allow creativity to occur in a no-peeping-zone, such as dream states and listening to feelings, and you might need to be prepared to mull things over for several weeks before you get the result you’re after.