Lennon and McCartney; Taylor Swift and Bon Iver; Billie Eilish and Finneas: An AI Analysis of Dynamic Songwriting Duos (Guest Column)

MyPart is a Tel Aviv-based music-tech company focused on AI powered song search, analysis and matching. It has developed a proprietary technology for finding songs that match creative and commercial needs by deeply analyzing music, lyrics and sound. It maximizes music catalog utilization by rediscovering long-forgotten gems for labels, publishers, music supervisors and creative industry executives in TV/film, gaming and advertising, while enabling the instant discovery of songwriting talent from around the globe.

From Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lennon and McCartney, co-writing has been a long-standing tradition in popular music. A quick review of the songwriting credits for chart-topping songs in 2021, however, reveals that today’s hits feature multiple writers in unprecedented numbers. In fact, the solo singer-songwriter hit has all but disappeared from pop over the past decade. A 2020 review of data by Rolling Stone found that “it takes, on average, roughly five writers to write a hit song,” while Billboard claims that “since the beginning of the 21st century, a mere 13 of the 283 songs to top the chart have just one credited writer.” In 2018, Travis Scott brought this trend to new (almost absurd) heights, breaking the record for most writers credited on a single song with a whopping 30 collaborators on “Sicko Mode,” while 2021 saw Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” break a Grammy Award record with 11 songwriters contributing to the song of the year nominee.

Cynics might explain this trend by pointing to the multitude of copyright lawsuits and subsequent court settlements imposing the inclusion of additional writers on a particular song for fee/royalty-splitting purposes (see: “Uptown Funk”). But the truth is, crafting a pop hit is more often than not, a joint effort. Collaboration is simply part of the pop DNA.

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Can we evaluate the contributions of each individual writer to the collaborative creative process? We chose several pop icons who achieved mass commercial and critical success with both types of writing, and embarked on a journey to understand the qualitative differences between their works, as well as to determine how their collaborations affected their songs’ contextual, lyrical, and musical aspects. We enlisted the artificial intelligence of MyPart’s SongCrunch platform to analyze dozens of songs individually and collaboratively crafted by these iconic duos, in order to discern what exactly each artist brings to the proverbial table.

Our analysis focused on three primary aspects:

  1. Lyrical Themes and Moods: the narrative and feelings conveyed by the lyrics, measured on a scale of zero (low association) to five (strong association).
  2. Lyrical Writing Style: aesthetic preferences in lyric writing, including literary and linguistic devices such as repetition, rhyming and alliteration schemes, verbiage selection, etc.
  3. Musical Composition Analysis: the song’s compositional features, including harmony (keys, chord progressions, cadences, etc.), melody (i.e. vocals, hooks), song structure, and arrangement.

Here’s what we found:

1. John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Lyrical Themes and Moods

Lennon and McCartney are arguably the most successful and prolific writing duo in pop history. We analyzed songs from the Beatles’ catalog that we’re certain were co-written by the pair, such as “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “In My Life.”

These songs grade exceptionally highly in features generally associated with romantic relationships, reaching the max in the categories of infatuation, love, and romance. Together, the duo scores higher in these areas than Lennon’s solo songs (despite him having written some fantastic love songs, such as “Oh My Love”) and far higher than McCartney’s solo songs. Early Beatles songs were were more daring sexually, more hedonist, and dealt more with pleasure than Lennon and McCartney’s later solo tracks, which is unsurprising considering their initial work celebrated the height of their success during their twenties. Examining the anger category is interesting, as it is one of the moods that most sharply differentiates the pair’s respective styles. The data reveals that Lennon’s post-Beatles solo tracks are angrier, more bitter, and more cruel than both McCartney’s solo songs and the duo’s earlier collaborative work. Lastly, the data alleges that the Beatles scored higher on themes such as criticism and satire than they did in their respective solo tracks, with McCartney’s solo works unexpectedly scoring higher in those particular categories than Lennon’s.

Writing Style

Beatles songs are famously efficient and hooky, and It would appear that McCartney’s solo repertoire continues that commercial appeal, as he tends to reach the choruses relatively early (both in general and in comparison with Lennon’s solo tracks) in his songs. Alternatively, Lennon, always known to be more verbose than his partner, scored notably higher than McCartney in lyrical density. Both writers use more slang in their solo years, maybe as a result of pop culture’s trend towards informality.

Overall, the data comes to contradict the preconceived notion that the pair’s individual writing became more sophisticated over the years, as their earlier Beatles tracks are richer in everything from usage of rhymes and number of groups of rhymes, to perfect rhymes at the end of lines — a crucial ingredient in advanced songwriting. It would appear that through their partnership, Lennon and McCartney created a “tighter” linguistic song-making machine. One only needs to catch a glimpse of Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” series — which provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective of their creative songwriting process during their last days together — to understand how teamwork gave their songs a distinct, added edge.

Musical Composition

While many saw McCartney as the Beatles’ composer and Lennon as the primary lyricist, their solo scores are almost identical in compositional features such as number of chords, inversion, unique chords, and number of seventh chords. In fact, our analysis reveals remarkable similarities between Lennon and McCartney’s respective individual works, as well as the songs they co-penned during the early 1960s.

2. Taylor Swift & Bon Iver

Lyrical Themes and Moods

One of the most interesting contemporary collaborations is the unlikely union of pop superstar Taylor Swift and Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, a renowned figure from the alternative Americana/folk scene. Though on the surface the two could hardly be more different, their recurrent collaborations since 2020 — on a pair of songs they co-wrote for her albums, “Exile” and “Evermore,” and two Big Red Machine numbers that have them vocally hooking up, “Birch” and “Renegade” — clearly demonstrate their musical chemistry. These powerful tracks are equally marked by Swift’s solemn intensity and Vernon’s air of mystique.

The data reveals that Swift deals more with themes such as infatuation, love, and romance as a solo artist than in her collaborative work with Bon Iver. Her solo works (compared to solo Bon Iver and Swift-Vernon collaborations), also score higher in sex, hedonism, pleasure, yearning, longing, loneliness, and anger. In their collaborations, Vernon’s touch brings in themes and moods of success, criticism, feelings of detachment, cruelty, and realistic observation.

Writing Style

Bon Iver songs are less repetitive than both Swift’s solo songs and their collaborative efforts, proving that in the lyrical sense, Swift influences Vernon as well. Their scores of slang usage, lyrical density and complexity are interestingly almost identical.

Working together, however, they use more sophisticated, less common words.

Swift and Bon Iver use a very similar percentage of perfect rhymes (overall) in both their solo and joint works. In terms of rhyme placement, solo Swift tends to employ more middle of line rhymes, while the Vernon-Swift duo uses more rhymes at the end of lines. Overall, as we saw with the Beatles, their co-writing creates richer textures.

Musical Composition

Harmonically speaking, In both their duets and respective solo works, Swift and Bon Iver are highly diatonic. Vernon scores higher in the versatility of melodic groups, meaning that his solo works are much less melodically repetitive. His hooks are also shorter.

3. Billie Eilish and FINNEAS

Lyrical Themes and Moods

The brilliantly talented Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell form another creative partnership defining contemporary pop music. At just 20 and 24 years old respectively, the incredibly accomplished sibling duo have already won seven Grammy Awards together. As opposed to the two aforementioned pairs in this piece, we can only compare this duo’s collaborative work with Finneas’ solo tracks, as Billie has yet to work on her own at this stage of her career.

The data reveals that the siblings’ collaborative tracks score higher than Finneas’s solo songs in themes such as infatuation, love and self-esteem, but lower in romance and breakup. The pair’s catalog achieved higher grades in hedonism, pleasure and sleaziness, as well as yearning and longing. Billie’s songs are darker, angrier, more satirical and sadder than Finneas’ solo tracks.

Writing Style

The duo’s co-credits are less repetitive, but reach the chorus faster than Finneas’ solo efforts. Finneas’s solo work contains more slang and uses simpler verbiage (fewer “difficult words”) than Billie Eilish songs. Billie Eilish songs contain more perfect rhymes, are more dense in rhymes in general and rhymes at the end of lines in particular, and achieved a higher structural complexity score than Finneas solo songs. Overall, in terms of linguistics, their co-writing demonstrates greater sophistication and thoughtfulness.

Musical Composition

Billie and Finneas operate in the electro-pop realm with singer-songwriters sensibilities. Their collaborations contain more unique chords, more inversion, more seventh chords and more chromaticism. Whilst Finneas has indeed stepped into his own as a solo artist, he seems to shine brightest when songwriting and producing alongside his superstar sister. Our analysis clearly reinforces her broad contribution to their partnership.

The Bottom Line

It’s important to reiterate that this piece represents a somewhat limited view of these songwriters’ full body of works, and that including more extensive catalogs in our research would undoubtedly render additional, more precise insights. That said, our analysis undoubtedly confirms that the creative process of songwriting clearly benefits from the power of teamwork.

Moreover, thanks to the continued globalization of music, gradual diminution of conventional genre boundaries, and advancements in technology and connectedness, the process of songwriting teamwork is becoming easier and more accessible. As the recent genre-bending partnerships between BTS and Coldplay (“My Universe”) or Young Thug and Elton John (“Always Love You” feat. Nicki Minaj) have demonstrated, songwriting tandems in pop music are here to stay, and rightfully so.

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