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Taking Pop Music Seriously

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Since the rise of recordings and radio in the early twentieth century, music has been a constant and often integral part of American culture. Any comprehensive account of the history of the last one hundred years requires at least some understanding of how music fits into the picture. While it is certainly important to include the music of classical composers such as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, John Cage, and Milton Babbitt in such considerations, it is also crucial to include the contributions of Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Hank Williams, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan.

In fact, even for those who hate pop music, it is nonetheless impossible to gain a balanced understanding of most classical composers born after 1945 without some familiarity with the pop so many of these baby-boomer composers grew up on. William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Christopher Rouse, to name only a few, have openly celebrated their love of pop in their concert works, as composers like Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Bernstein had done years before.  Clearly, pop matters.

In the last fifteen years or so, music scholars have become increasingly interested in pop, but music journalists have been publishing on pop since the late 1960s. Their books far outnumber (and far outsell) those of music scholars. Scholars in other disciplines (like English and history) have also been quicker to turn their attention to pop than music scholars have been. It’s not so much that journalists and non-music scholars somehow wrestled authority on pop music away from music scholars; it’s more that they became the authorities because of musicologists’ lack of interest. But musicologists, music theorists, and ethnomusicologists are no longer ignoring pop.

The newest evidence of that is our creation at the University of Rochester of the Institute for Popular Music, to encourage as much scholarly work on pop music as possible. We want to foster the attitude that the music of Cole Porter, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Madonna needs to be studied with same seriousness of purpose and methodological rigor that has traditionally been applied to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schoenberg.

When studying popular music, scholars address a number of issues that deepen our understanding of the music and the variety of contexts in which it figures. Thinking about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, for instance, a scholar may explore the musical structure of the songs: the use of harmony, melody, rhythm, tone color, lyrics, and recording technique to create a piece that either reuses elements that are already familiar or pushes the music into new territory. Based on such music-technical analysis, we can begin to determine how the music grows out of previous musical practice (and which musical practices), how it is paralleled by the work of other musicians (The Beatles, for instance), and how it serves as a model for musicians that follow (psychedelia and beyond). We may want to consider how Brian Wilson’s innovative production builds on the work of Leiber and Stoller and Phil Spector, or how such experimentation transformed surf music into something much more ambitious.

All of this might lay the groundwork for determining whether the recent recording of Smile! is faithful to what the band might have done had they not abandoned the project in 1967. Scholars have the luxury of digging deeper than most journalists’ readers would have the patience for; they possess the specialized training to pursue this work with great precision and skill along with a comprehensive understanding of music’s history through the centuries and its stylistic breadth around the world.

At the beginning of my History of Rock course, for example, students are confronted with a tremendous amount of music, extending at least from 1955 to 1992. Imagine all of this music was individual pieces of sheet music strewn across a giant floor and the scholar’s job is to organize it in ways that make sense. How do you do this?  Maybe you start by organizing it chronologically, and maybe breaking the chronology up into eras. What’s the rationale for such groupings? Is it only about dates or are styles important? Influences? Geography? Culture? Music business practices? The development of technology? How do we make such decisions and what do we need to consider as we do so?

Whatever details students may remember after the course, it’s far more important that they experience how we studied the music—to confront not only the music but also the problems that come with thinking about it carefully and objectively. The critical thinking skills required for this kind of course translate broadly and can pay off even in areas where no electric guitars, turntables, or samplers can be found.  That’s the ultimate value of studying pop in an academic environment.

Images: Piano by FotografiaStudioJN, Freddie Mercury by kentarotakizawa on Flickr, The Waterboys by 6tee-zeven at Flickr.

John Covach About the Author: John Covach is director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester. Follow on Twitter @UofR.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gilstamp 8:30 pm 01/18/2013

    I had always had a wish to do exactly what you suggest from a nostalgia going back to the fifties when the range of popular music to that time was continuously aired. alternatively, I have thought of amassing a comprehensive collection of recorded music but that is daunting also. Recently playing through a book of 1,000 popular songs from c. 1900 to 1970s, I have been impressed by the range of creativity expressed in them, particularly in rhythm and the fundamental aspect of melody that finds an immediate response in the listener. This is what I strive to maintain in my own writing because I believe that abstract writing should still preserve the vitality of the appeal that a piece first presented. I would be interested to discuss this.

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  2. 2. twangfan 8:58 pm 01/19/2013

    Here, here! In undertaking the serious study of popular music, however, let’s be careful not to fall into the same trap (or get fooled again) by drawing boundaries and only letting some pop music in, whether those boundaries are conscious or subconscious. The only female artist you mention in the entire article–pop or classical, performer or songwriter–is Madonna. I believe I counted 32 male names. Thirty-two to one! There has been a long tendency for music scholars who work on pop to privilege male performers and songwriters, just as they have often privileged certain genres and styles (Brit Invasion and Prog Rock, for instance). It’s bad enough that classical (“art”) music history has only recently stretched to explore women’s contributions. Women have been on stage and off, writing, singing, playing, and shaping pop culture for the full span of the twentieth century and beyond. I dearly wish this blog entry–which rightly endorses the academic study of popular music and should inspire its future–had represented the women of pop music more fully in its examples.

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  3. 3. carolemcbride 6:02 am 05/16/2013

    Pop is often a popular choice of dance music. Well Pop music in the 60s and 80s were awesome but, now songs seem to be techno, over use of auto tune and other form. Is This type of music is a hit with youngsters at the moment, as most dancers follow it regularly and everyone is drawn towards the dance floor because of its rhythmic beats. I love these songs and even want to learn them as well so I have made my own sheet music stuff from Musicforte website. They provided me best quality music in very affordable price. One would need to incorporate music; whether playing it, listening to it, or using it.

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  4. 4. DaveMandel 3:02 am 02/11/2014

    I agree with twangfan. John Covach is too biased in almost everything he teaches and writes. Too many of his students and readers are not getting the correct facts, but speculation. Covach still seems to posses the teenage power-chords of the male rock gods than allow the fact that many, many women have contributed to modern music history. Madonna is who he uses in his classroom. Why not Aretha, Fitzgerald, or Holiday? Are they as not as significant as Stevie Wonder? Covach is too subjective and twists historical facts with too much of his own speculation and spin.

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