A Guide To Help You Have More Fun At Your Piano
History and overview:
“Let It Be” is one of the most iconic rock ballads of all time. As with most of The Beatles’ later songs, whoever wrote the song sang the lead vocal, and in this case it was Paul McCartney.
McCartney composed the song after his mother, Mary, appeared to him in a dream and reassured him about his life. (You can watch him recount this event on the Carpool Karaoke video I’ve linked to below.). In my opinion, McCartney must have known that the lyric “mother Mary” would also be interpreted to have religious overtones, especially since he titled one of his earlier songs “Lady Madonna.”
The album that “Let It Be” appeared on, also called Let It Be, was actually a collection of barely-finished songs that the Beatles has recorded but not released by the time they broke up in 1970. After they recorded their last masterpiece album, Abbey Road, they disbanded and left it up to their producers and engineers to sift through hundreds of hours of tape recordings to find anything that could be usable and suited for release. “Let It Be” was one of the recordings they found.
Musically, The Beatles’ recording of the song features the now-standard style of piano ballad accompaniment from McCartney, a melodic guitar solo by George Harrison, and some very subtle drum and cymbal work from Ringo Starr. In addition, Billy Preston’s organ playing manages to sound both bluesy and traditionally “churchy” at the same time. It’s worth studying how beautifully the arrangement builds up as it unfolds.
Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)
The Beatles: Let It Be (Remastered 2009)
The Beatles: Let It Be (Video)
Listen to how simple the piano chords are at the beginning of this arrangement. They allow it to build more effectively later on towards the middle and ending.
Alicia Keys and John Legend: (Tribute To The Beatles, 2014)
Musical ideas and piano improv practice tips:
Along with their recording of “Hey Jude,” the Beatles’ version of “Let It Be” practically defined the modern pop/rock piano ballad sound. There’s something very compelling about the insistent rhythm of quarter and eighth-note right hand chords that Paul McCartney played, and it’s become more and more influential over the years. Despite this, the song itself is extremely versatile and this means that we pianists can have a lot of fun with the textural possibilities of “Let It Be.”
One way to start exploring this concept is to begin playing the song the same way that Paul McCartney played it, as a standard rock ballad with quarter and eighth-note chords. Then after a while, lighten up the feel with some guitar fingerstyle-type arpeggios between your hands, for a more folk-like musical style. Then, take it in the other direction by ”digging in” more and bringing in a gospel influence.
There are other possibilities as well, such as totally “rocking out” or even going in a classical direction. Ask yourself “How would Beethoven or Chopin have played Let It Be?” and then give it a try. This method isn’t as far out as you may think, since The Beatles themselves did it on songs like “In My Life” (Bach/Mozart) and “Because” (inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata). Start out by playing the song’s melody and chords until you’re comfortable, and then “go for it.” The sky[s the limit!
Here’s a video I made that uses some of these interpretive ideas.
Let It Be: Complete Beatles Piano #2
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke
Check out the wonderful segment in this where McCartney recounts the inspiration for Let It Be. It begins at 5:12 on the video.
Flowing Water ebook: Play piano with more joy and less stress!
Introduction Table of Contents