How Paul McCartney surprised Stephen Sondheim with his songwriting process

Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney / Harry Durrant/GettyImages

Paul McCartney has written many great hits throughout his decades-long career, in and out of The Beatles. How does the 80-year-old singer-songwriter do it? Well, that's the mystery. Paul has often alluded to his process, but unless you're Paul McCartney himself, you'll unlikely understand completely. Even classical composer Stephen Sondheim was puzzled by the former Beatle's method.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon used to strum their guitars at each other until one of them hit the right chord

In 1957, Paul met John Lennon, and everything changed. Before that, Paul said no one was interested in his songs. He was initially a bit nervous to show them to John, but once he did, he realized he had nothing to fear. Suddenly, the pair became songwriting partners.

Paul and John used to strum their guitars at each other until one of them hit the right chord. Eventually, they found that they could finish each other's songs. In his book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, Paul wrote that he and John were good at noticing things and grabbing them. They also had a knack for suggesting the way out of "the maze" to each other. They didn't know how to read or write music, but they worked around that efficiently.

Paul has continued to write his songs similarly all these years later. He told NME that he hasn't changed his songwriting method since he created it with John in the late 1950s. Whenever he sits down to write, he either gets his guitar or sits at the piano looking for melodies, chord shapes, musical phrases, words, or a thought to get started with. Then, he works it all out as if he's "writing an essay or doing a crossword puzzle."

"That's the system I’ve always used, that John [Lennon] and I started with," Paul said. "I've really never found a better system and that system is just playing the guitar and looking for something that suggests a melody and perhaps some words if you're lucky."

How Paul's songwriting process surprised Stephen Sondheim

In The Lyrics, Paul explained that he and Sondheim once had an interesting conversation about their songwriting methods. Paul told Sondheim that he starts by finding the chords. The "Yesterday" singer admitted that Sondheim was surprised by this.

"What chords work well next to each other, what progression suggests a new melody," Paul wrote. "He seemed a little surprised that what I did was all chord based. For him, it's all about melody and counterpoint, how various melodies can work together and complement each other. It had never occurred to me that his music and classical music mightn't be chord based, so that was an interesting insight into how classical music is written."

Paul hasn't changed his songwriting process since he and John devised it as teenagers, but that doesn't mean he knows exactly what he's doing all the time. He told NME, "You never get it down. I don't know how to do this. You'd think I do, but it's not one of these things you ever really know how to do."

So, it doesn't look like anyone will ever truly understand Paul's songwriting process, especially since he doesn't understand himself. However, that's what makes it all the more intriguing.

Next. Pattie Boyd said if she could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be with George Harrison. dark

Stairway to 11 is dedicated to providing news, reviews, and original content covering classic rock, oldies, and old-school music of all genres. This site also serves as a community for like-minded fans to catch up on the latest news and discuss their passion. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.