Paul McCartney became one of the most successful musicians of all time without the ability to read or write music. He’s not alone in this — many popular artists can’t read or write music, including his Beatles bandmates. Unlike some of them, though, McCartney took music lessons growing up. While he had the opportunity to learn to read music, he explained that his lessons were so torturous that he couldn’t continue with them.
Paul McCartney can’t read music
McCartney’s father was also a musician, and McCartney often asked him to teach him to play piano. He refused, saying that he needed a professional teacher.
“Dad was a pretty good self-taught pianist, but because he hadn’t had training himself, he always refused to teach me,” McCartney said. “I would say, ‘Teach us a bit, and he would reply, ‘If you want to learn, you’ve got to learn properly.’ It was the old ethic that to learn, you should get a teacher. It would have been OK for him to teach me, but I respect the reason why he wouldn’t.”
McCartney agreed to take lessons, but they didn’t last long.
“In the end, I learnt to play by ear, just like him, making it all up,” he said. “I did then take lessons, but I always had a problem; mainly that I didn’t know my tutor, and I wasn’t very good at going into an old lady’s house — it smelt of old people — so I was uncomfortable. I was just a kid. I quite liked what she was showing me, but then she started setting homework: ‘By next week I want you to have learnt this.’ I thought it was bad enough coming for lessons, but homework! That was sheer torture. I stuck it for four or five weeks, and then the homework really got difficult so I gave up.”
He suspected that if he had learned to read music, his career may have gone differently.
“To this day, I never learnt to read or write music,” he said. “I have a vague suspicion now that it would change how I’d do things.”
Paul McCartney wasn’t the only Beatle who couldn’t read or write music
Luckily, McCartney’s inability to read or write music didn’t negatively affect his career. It helped that none of his bandmates could read or write music either.
“I think Paul and Ringo stand up with any of the rock musicians,” John Lennon told Playboy. “Not technically great — none of us are technical musicians. None of us could read music. None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they are as good as anybody.”
What other professional musicians can’t read music?
There are a number of other artists who cannot read or write music. They avoid the technical side of music and have still established prolific careers. Per Classic FM, artists including Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Elvis Presley could not read or write music.