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Episode 26: "Let It Be"

Let It Be by The Beatles (The Single)

Today we deconstruct The Beatles song, "Let It Be," which peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Contemporary Singles charts, and went to #1 in eight other countries.  It was also certified Double Platinum in sales by the RIAA (selling over 2 million copies).  

While anyone can easily appreciate this massive hit song by listening casually or singing along, we can gain greater insight about Let It Be's inner workings by digging a bit deeper into the music and lyrics.

Click the "play" button below to listen with music, or continue reading for the episode transcript.

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Pop Standard

Let It Be,” the premier single from The Beatles album of the same name, was released on March 6, 1970.  More than fiftyLet It Be by The Beatles (Album Cover) years on, the song remains a modern pop standard.

Writing a tune with that much staying power is no small feat.  It would be easy to presume that a divine hand guided the songwriter’s fingers, voice and pen.  But chalking up this achievement to a few moments of heavenly inspiration would be denying credit to the songwriter’s experience, musical instincts, and craftsmanship.

Sure, the song was hitched to the star vehicle of one of the best-selling music acts of all time -- The Beatles, and sung by one of the most beloved voices in pop music history -- that of Sir Paul McCartney.  And that spectacular genealogy didn’t exactly stunt its growth.

But beyond the song’s royal pedigree, it was a series of creative judgment calls that ultimately helped it resonate with a universal appeal.  As we eagerly await director Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back,” the new documentary filmed at the time of the Let It Be recording sessions, let’s look at a few of the key decisions about lyrics, music, instrumentation, and arrangement which culminated in the creation of a classic.


Per their business partnership, Let It Be was credited to Lennon-McCartney, the writing team that helped The Beatles sell hundreds of millions of records worldwide.  But in an interview with author David Sheff, Lennon effectively disowned the song, confiding that was it composed solely by McCartney.  Let's start by examining the lyric.


McCartney’s simple, seven-letter title, "Let It Be," is imbued with multiple, subtly different connotations.  That interpretive flexibility deserves a lot of credit for the song’s lasting popularity.

The original title and concept for the album and its accompanying film was “Get Back” — signaling a return to The Beatles' early roots, when they recorded songs as a band, with little or no overdubbing.  But soon the the band and producers found themselves recording additional instrumental and vocal overdubs, so that project title was scrapped and the emotive power of “Let It Be” won out.

As for the song, the chorus is essentially just those three words, "Let it be," punctuated with a short, alternating line to keep it fresh, and to reinforce subtle layers of meaning with each hypnotic repetition.  While the casual listener won’t think twice about the title, I believe this flexibility of meaning works on a subconscious level.

By examining three possible translations for the words "Let It Be,’’ we can appreciate how they offer a variety of ways to connect with masses of listeners who identify with one or more of these three perspectives.  For the purposes of our analysis, we’ll call them Closure, Hope, and Spirituality.

Closure *

* To let go of something, to leave well enough alone, or to put something behind us.  The idea of closure definitely suits The Beatles' swan song album and accompanying 1970 documentary, as an appeal to a legion of heartbroken fans to accept the bitter disappointment of their beloved band's disintegration.  And just as a eulogy can provide solace for the mourners at a funeral, the refrain of “Let It Be” may have helped some Beatle followers cushion the blow of dissolution.

Hope **

** To let something become [to let it be] or to let it happen.  The emphasis here is on avoiding interference, so that a thing can continue to exist, grow or thrive. While this idea is relatable outside of the context of The Beatles, it could also apply to the seemingly endless legacy of the band: Let it be… forever, without end.  Thanks to the periodic release of greatest hits packages, remasters, remixes and Anthology set, the band’s reputation and influence have strengthened over the decades.

Spirituality ***

*** An emotional plea with religious roots, about overcoming adversity and finding answers to difficult situations.  In this light, “Let it be” can be interpreted as an religious interjection or response, much like "Glory be," "Hallelujah" or "Amen."  In fact, the age-old expression of "Glory be" may have subconsciously paved the way for our natural acceptance of "Let it be" as a song title, since the two phrases sound so similar.  Within a spiritual context, Let It Be is soulful pop music, moonlighting as Gospel music, ministered by Preacher Paul.

McCartney stated in a 2018 interview that he wrote "Let It Be" after a dream visitation from his late mother.  Paul had lost his mom when he was only 14 years old, and in the dream, she was there to reassure him that everything was "going to be okay, just let it be."  In his very first line of the song, he sings: "When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me."  On the one hand, that sounds like a literal reading of Paul's origin story.  But for many listeners, "Mother Mary” is more likely to evoke the holy Mary, mother of Jesus.

Undoubtedly, Paul was aware of this character double entendre, as evidenced in the song's deliberately hymnal qualities.  You can hear it in the musical arrangement, which includes a Hammond L100 organ played by Billy Preston, and in the sermon-friendly tag lines: “speaking words of wisdom...” “whisper words of wisdom...” and “there will be an answer.”

Speaking of spirituality, in the last verse, when Paul sings, “I wake up to the sound of music,” it's not likely he's talking about a clock radio.  Still, the narrative could be taken literally, as in someone playing music in another room, or maybe they're watching "The Sound Of Music" (1965) on TV or listening to its soundtrack.  But more likely, the protagonist is singing about a spiritual awakening or personal enlightenment.  Whenever I hear a lyric line that could mean multiple things, I like to imagine that the songwriter came up with the most straightforward idea first, possibly because (s)he liked the way it sang, and then realized the possibilities for deeper meaning, as good songwriters often do.

These three interpretations make “Let It Be” a universally relatable song title, attracting listeners with different perspectives and inviting them to attach their own personal meanings.  For songwriters who seek broad acceptance for their music, a title like “Let It Be” demonstrates the power of versatile meaning.


The scheme is comprised of just three song sections: 1) Verse (Intro), 2) Chorus, and 3) Interlude (Outro).  The verses appear in groups of two.  The solo section is the same as a double verse.  The Interlude (Outro) is a keyboard break which appears twice after the second set of choruses and once at the end of the song.




half a verse, piano only

Verse x 2

when I find myself
and in my hour of darkness

Chorus x 1

whisper words of wisdom

Verse x 2

and when the broken-hearted
for though they may be parted

Chorus x 2

there will be an answer
whisper words of wisdom

Interlude x 2

electric piano

Guitar Solo x 2


Chorus x 1

whisper words of wisdom

Verse x 2

and when the night is cloudy
I wake up to the sound of music

Chorus x 3

there will be an answer
there will be an answer
whisper words of wisdom

Outro x 1


Tracks Performed by Paul McCartney

(1970 album release)


Lead Vocal

Backing Vocal

Blüthner Grand Piano

Fender Rhodes Electric Piano


The song’s introduction features a solo McCartney playing a Blüthner Model One concert grand piano, his right hand playing block chords on downbeats.  With his left hand, he plays root notes on down beats as well as lighter hits on the up beats.  For his fourth and fifth chords, Paul plays a IV Maj 7 chord (FM7) followed by a IV 6 chord (F6).  Whenever I hear someone cover the song faithfully and they leave that out, it feels like something important is missing.


Paul opens his verses by vocalizing across a pentatonic scale in the key of C Major.  As he approaches the title line, he rises once again, and then resolves downward with a quick series of suspensions on "speaking words of" (E - E - F - E), "wis-dom, let it" (E - D, E - D), and "be__" (D - C).  In just a few short lines, we’ve already heard something special.


After another section of verse, he begins the chorus by returning to that pentatonic scale, climbing to an even higher note (an A). Then, recognizing that his title line melody is one of the strongest, most original and ear-catching parts of the song, Paul wisely makes it a callback in the choruses as well.  The chorus covers a span of nine scale tones.  That's a lot of musical ground!  He begins on E, moves down to C, then rises up to an "A," then spins down to a G below tonic, before jumping up a 6th, to the E where he started.  There's a lot of movement, but it's still easy to remember and sing.  These are signs of a memorable melody.

Interlude / Outro

A good way to explain the familiar allure of the interlude chord progression is to have you listen to the ending of a George Harrison song called “Piggies,” from “The Beatles” (a.k.a. "The White Album”).  Piggies concludes with a tag ending, culminating with a grandiose “Amen” suspension and resolution (4 - 3 - 2 - 3). Music theory aside, if you’ll listen to it, you’ll probably recognize the chord changes, which you may associate with an “Amen,” as it might be sung in church.

Let It Be's majestic electric piano break (played in an overdub by Paul), is based on that Amen chord progression, but with four important twists. 

1) It *starts* with the Amen progression, rather than ending on it.

2) Instead of that single “Amen,” it keeps descending downward, so it’s like playing three “Amens” in a row. 

3) Diatonic, third-above harmonies are added to the descending notes.  So now, instead of F - E - D - E, we have F - E - D - C (with white-key thirds above).  Notice that because of the added thirds, the Amen notes are still in there. 

4) One of the best parts of that progression is his fifth chord (immediately after the opening Amen suspension).  This B flat chord (a chord built on the flatted seventh note of the scale) is the only non-diatonic chord in the bunch.

With these simple changes, the inventive motif delivers the gravitas of the Amen suspension, in a way that sounds fresh and not appropriated.

Try playing nine descending scale tones starting on F, like this: F, E-D-C, B-A-G, F, E.  Now add a white key third above each note.  Something's missing, right?  Now change the "B" to a "B flat" (keeping all white-key thirds above it): F, E - D - C, Bb - A - G, F, E.  *There's* the magic.

The keyboard break really takes wing when it repeats a second time, as the other instruments make way for Billy Preston’s angelic organ.  During this drastic change of timbre, he inverts the chords for an uplifting and emotional impact, as we segue into the guitar solo with some bluesy gospel chords..


DRUMS: Ringo Starr’s minimalist, foot-closed high hat enters quietly with the second verse on beats two and four.  Phil Spector added a nice delay to this on his album mix.  For the choruses, Ringo uses syncopated pings on the cymbal bell to great effect, and a patterned tom part (as opposed to tom fills) to create excitement in the last few verses.  Ringo's tom part reminds mThe Beatles: Get Back (Book), Photo by Linda McCartney/© Paul McCartneye of the one he played on the bridge to George Harrison's "Something," on the Abbey Road album.

BASS: Although John Lennon did record a 6-string bass track with the band, producer George Martin asked Paul to record a new bass line afterward.  Paul's bass enters unexpectedly — one note into the Amen chord sequence which separates the second set of verses.  Despite the fact that it joins the piano in mid-phrase, the late entrance feels right.

GUITAR: George’s Harrison’s guitar solo on the "Let It Be" single and on the "...Naked" and "1" albums is the most pedestrian contribution to the song.  Despite a cool guitar sound, having been run through a rotating Leslie speaker, the take is meandering and uninspired. 

Luckily, the gutsier solo which was recorded for the original album in a later take is great, especially on the high "A" note, where the solo peaks.  (This is also McCartney's highest-sung vocal note, the sixth of the scale).  And if you listen carefully, you'll hear that George's earlier solo is mixed beneath it in a supporting layer, making it much more effective.

The beefy riff before “I wake up to the sound of music” is a highpoint.  And the guitar fills over the last choruses are also nice. 

BRASS: A brass section (two trombones, two trumpets and a tenor sax) plays a descending-scale in harmony with the bass line during the later choruses.  When the horns hold the 7 of the scale (B) there is a pleasant tension with the tonic note, C, which is played against it.

VOCALS: Filling out the sustained horn and organ parts on the album recording are some possibly inaudible cellos, as well as some high "ooh" backing vocals, sung by John and George, and bolstered with overdubs by George, together with Paul & Linda McCartney.  According to Beatles authority Mark Lewisohn, this is Linda's first and only music performance on a Beatles recording.

Making It Look Easy

Paul McCartney enthusiasts tend to fawn over his reputation for a swift and effortless writing process.  But once you dig into the Beatles archives and books about the minutiae of their recording sessions, you’ll find that quite a bit of thought, re-writing, experimentation, arranging, producing ideas, collaboration, and multiple recorded takes helped craft some of Paul’s best music, too.

McCartney’s melodic mastery has been demonstrated time and time again, not only in his vocal melodies, but also in his guitar parts and bass lines.  The man certainly has an ear for what people want to hear.

And in the end... aren't musical instincts really just harmonic empathy?

-- Dave Caruso

Special thanks to:
Callaway Arts & Entertainment for their kind permission
to use
The Beatles: Get Back book cover photo
John Lowry for his research and enthusiasm
Rob Caruso for his insightful discussion and ideas

  Album Artist Producer Song
Let It Be by The Beatles (The Album) Let It Be


The Beatles Phil Spector Let It Be (Original album version)
This recording contains the overdubbed keyboard break (outro), the horn section, additional backing vocals by George, Paul and Linda McCartney, and a better, more gutsy guitar performance from Harrison.
1 by The Beatles (The Album) 1


The Beatles George Martin Let It Be (Remixed & remastered version)
For comparison, I've included links to a few other versions of the song, which were based on two band takes, with different additional instruments, solos, and production.  The "number 1" album version is the same as the original Beatles single.
Let It Be... Naked (The Album) Let It Be... Naked


The Beatles George Martin,
The Beatles
Let It Be (Naked version)
Having scrapped mixes by engineer Glyn Johns, the band's tapes were given to Phil Spector for mixing.  Paul, for one, was never happy with that decision.  In 2003, the band released this "naked" version, without the ornamentation added by Spector. 
Anthology 3 by The Beatles Anthology 3


The Beatles George Martin Let It Be (Anthology 3 Version)
A rehearsal version, in which you can hear John playing the kind of lackluster bass part which was deemed insufficient by George Martin and subsequently replaced by Paul.

The Beatles / The ‘White Album’ 50th anniversary super deluxe edition


The Beatles   Let It Be - Unnumbered Rehearsal (disc 5).
This take is from a rehearsal during The Beatles / The White Album sessions.
The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) by The Beatles The Beatles
(a.k.a. The White Album)


The Beatles George Martin Piggies (by George Harrison)
Check out the false endings on this George Harrison tune and notice the "Amen" chord progression on the final ending, as it pertains to our discussion.
Abbey Road by The Beatles Abbey Road The Beatles George Martin Something (by George Harrison)
I included this link so you can compare Ringo's patterned tom fills on the bridge of this song to those on the chorus of the song Let It Be, on the original Let It Be album release.

Let It Be  
Music & Lyrics by Lennon-McCartney

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be
And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Yeah, there will be an answer
Let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be


Let it be, let it be
Let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be

And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be

Let it be, yeah, let it be
There will be an answer

Let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, yeah, let it be
There will be an answer

Let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be

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