Climbing the stairs to the second floor of Todd Union, I could hear the music already. As I reached my destination, I found the source – a piano emanating a familiar, yet nameless, melody in the corner of a crowded classroom. The desks in this particular room were pushed close together to allow for the maximum amount of students to fit, while still providing space for a lecture or discussion to take place.
When I arrived, many of the seats were already filled with students equipped, more often than not, with music notebooks – that is, paper lined with music staffs. The remainder of the desks filled as stragglers trickled in at the start of the class.
Professor John Covach, fittingly dressed in black jeans and a button-down shirt in addition to his mustache-goatee and ponytail combination, leaned casually on the podium as he addressed the class. The topic of conversation on that particular Wednesday morning in Music 214, Analysis of Popular Music, was to be a discussion of the assigned reading – a seemingly commonplace activity.
The scholarly article of focus was found in the distinctly named “On the Understanding of Rock” and concentrated on the music of the Beach Boys, especially the group’s major songwriter, Brian Wilson. However simple this subject appeared, the analysis involved decidedly was not. The discussion began, as Covach alluded, similar to that of VH1’s “Behind the Music” specials, describing the rise and fall of the Beach Boys, a common trope according to the professor.
Quickly, these humble beginnings were left behind to examine the more sophisticated music the Boys would later produce, and its analysis. While the typical popular music fan may identify the group as a soundtrack to summers spent by the beach, the class expertly delved deeper into the composition of particular tracks to dissuade such a notion.
In order to fully understand and demonstrate the difference between typical popular music and that which was being discussed, Covach actually played the music. Not only did those present listen to the recordings of the Beach Boys for the songs “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” and “Warmth of the Sun,” but also saw both the professor and a student play selections on piano and guitar, respectively. With the music in front of them, the students dissected the composition of the tunes, taking note of influences and the evolution of the composer, Wilson.
Additionally, the class examined the chord progression, noticing the differences between typical surfer music and that of the excerpts in front of them. With this contrast, the transition from California surf to avant-garde classification of the Beach Boys was quite noticeable, creating a mapping of the band’s career.
Throughout the lesson, Covach and his students referred to a variety of genres, from vocal jazz to classical, in discussion of the influence on the focus of the day and in reference to previous classes. Aided by dynamic hand gestures, the teacher kept the attention of the class with occasional references to current musical acts, those more mainstream in today’s society. As he spoke from memory and knowledge, his voice alternatively lowered and rose as a topic became closer to point.
Perhaps due to his obvious passion for the subject, many students stayed after class. Some resumed playing the piano, now with vocal accompaniment, while others waited to discuss the analysis of the music of other bands. As seen from the cross-section of the students enrolled, and the topics discussed, the Analysis of Popular Music is not for the inexperienced. Similar to the assortment of influences on the music of the Beach Boys, popular music, its analysis especially is enjoyable but complex, much like Professor Covach’s class.
Schwartz is a member of the class of 2009.