Today is June 6 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you allow experience to triumph over theory?” Today’s reflection centers around the adage “In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.” This is important to remember, especially for those who believe any of the following: one’s grade point average determines how much money they will make, the higher one’s IQ score, or any other indication of ‘intelligence,’ the more successful they will be, or the more difficult one’s college major the higher they will climb on the corporate ladder. GPAs, IQ scores, and majors are theory based; and they have almost nothing to do with one’s ability to succeed in life and work.
Before we delve into today’s question, let us refresh our memory on the best-selling music act of all time – the Beatles. With certified sales of over 183 million units in the US and estimated sales of 600 million units worldwide they hold the record for most number-one albums on the UK Albums Chart, most number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and most singles sold in the UK. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and all four main members were inducted individually between 1994 and 2015. In 2008, the group topped Billboard's list of the all-time most successful artists on the Billboard Hot 100.
The band received seven Grammy Awards, four Brit Awards, an Academy Award (for Best Original Song Score for the 1970 film Let It Be) and fifteen Ivor Novello Awards. Time magazine named them among the 20th century's 100 most important people. Without question, The Beatles are one of the most influential, popular, and easily recognizable musical groups in modern history. And not one of them could read or write music. Go ahead, you can reread that. Not one of the Beatles could read or write music.
As incredible as it may seem, “The Fab Four” managed to mesmerize the entire world without this one ability so often touted as ‘mandatory’ for musicians. In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon said, “None of us could read music… None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they [Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr] are as good as anybody.” In 2018 legendary musician Paul McCartney sat down with 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi for an in-depth chat about his new album, Egypt Station, and he revealed something rather contradictory: he is unable to read or write music, and neither could any of his Beatles bandmates.
Despite his songwriting success, the 76-year-old admitted he was embarrassed about the fact that he does not understand music theory. “I don’t see music as dots on a page,” McCartney said, “It’s something in my head that goes on.” How does one of the world’s most beloved and respected musicians get to the summit without knowing how to read or write music? McCartney said that while it would be nice to be able to, the music just came to him and his bandmates John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison.
Following that 60 Minutes interview one person tweeted “I once had a choir leader tell me it was not possible for me to write songs if I couldn’t write or read music notation (I’ve been doing it for 30 years.) I responded ’Are you familiar with The Beatles?’” So how did the Beatles get so good without the ability to read or write music? By practicing for thousands of hours in front of crowds. In the early 1960s the Beatles travelled to Hamburg, Germany five times over the space of two years. On their first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. The third trip, they played 48 times for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two trips involved another 90 hours of performing.
When you add up their Hamburg tours the Beatles performed 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they finally burst to success in 1964, they had performed live….wait for it… an estimated twelve hundred times! Most professional musicians today are lucky if they perform over 400 times in their life; the Beatles performed three times as many prior to their stardom!
John Lennon, in an interview talking about his experiences playing the Hamburg strip clubs, said: “We got better and got more confidence. We could not help it with all the experience playing all night long. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul it in.…In Liverpool, we’d only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at everyone. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.”
Some people criticize musicians who can’t read music as people who don’t truly honor their craft (Gene Simmons, of KISS, once famously said that any musicians who can’t read music isn’t really an artist), but many would argue that sheet music stifles creativity. It would be nearly impossible not to label the Beatles as artists.
As you go about your day reflect upon how often you study theory at the expense of experience? Are you willing to put in the time needed to succeed?