Theory Class Rocks!

Who doesn’t love the same music you do? Your students, probably.

None of your students cares what this man sang forty years ago.
None of your students cares what this man sang forty years ago.

First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room: popular music brought into the classroom by a professor will never be a student favorite. If a timely hit is brought to class to illustrate a point, it will soon enough be out of date. A classroom of students represents a spectrum of tastes, so while you are reaching the Zeppelin fans of the class, you are making the Beyoncé fans roll their eyes.

I think, though, that students appreciate learning from a variety of sources (rock and pop among them) since this illustrates an important concept:

Music theory embraces universal principles, not just irrelevant techniques of long-dead, elite composers.

Rock still works

Still, when I bring classic rock examples into the classroom, I get the warm approval of 2/3 of the class (if it’s a good song and not too obscure). I even have great experience bringing in absolutely terrible, stupid music into the classroom of it is hokey enough and makes a good point. I really like a lot of classic rock, so it has a strong place in my course content. If I tried to use trendy music, I would look like even more of a fogey than I already do; just by “allowing” pop in the classroom, though, students sometimes volunteer great suggestions of current radio music.

I’m a huge fan of Ken Stephenson’s book What To Listen For In Rock, not only for use teaching about rock theory (its basic purpose), but for the perspective on basic musical principles that it provides. Some of the best parts are dedicated to cadences, harmonic “progression” (retrogression, mostly) and what he calls “phrase-rhythm,” which completely turned around the way that I teach most melodic topics.

Favorite Rock and Pop Songs for Teaching

Chord Inversions and Bass Melody
  • Real Emotional Girl (Randy Newman). A very pretty song that pretty much nobody knows, this tune has such a simple piano accompaniment that it is makes great Theory 1 tune for analysis by students who are just getting their toes wet crunching chords. After teaching the basics of chord inversion (figures and such), I have students analyze this piece to introduce inversion functions (passing, neighbor, pedal and such aren’t just for second inversion chords, you know).
  • A Whiter Shade of Pale (Procol Harum). A fun tune for harmonic dictation, with a  ground bass that is pathetically easy to write down, but offering non-intuitive choices for harmonizations above the simple descending bass scale.
Chord Progressions
I should take a time-out to mention Ken Stephenson’s chapters on “Harmonic Palette” and “Harmonic Succession.” Together, they offer an interesting approach to “rock standard progression” and chord usage in rock that is often opposite to that in common practice harmony.
  • Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road (Elton John). Interesting circle progressions in both the verse and pre-chorus transition! Use it also to study clever phrase elision.
  • Hey Jude (The Beatles). The verse of the song uses plain-ol’ common practice chord progression. The bridge is common practice, but great for discussing harmonic prolongation in its IV – vi6/4 – ii – IV6/4 – V6 – V – I progression. The coda loops I – bVII – IV – I, which is a textbook example of down-by-fourths retrogression.
  • I Want You Back (The Jackson Five). Also great for retrogression, with vi – iii – IV – I embedded in each phrase before resuming common-practice motion to the tonic.
  • Jumping Jack Flash (The Rolling Stones). More retrogression here in the chorus, with the pattern bIII – bVII – IV – I.
  • Space Oddity (David Bowie). It’s easy to spend a class session discussing non-functional-but-tertian harmony using this song.

Chord Types (Non-Triadic)

  • Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix). “Split-third” chords (dom#9)
  • SSDSigned, Sealed Delivered (Stevie Wonder). Chock-full of great chords, this song’s refrain gives a great opportunity to contrast pop-chord notation and sonic reality. I call the F9omit3 and C9sus chords both types of “super-sus” chords!
  • Wouldn’t It Be Nice (The Beach Boys). More super-sus chords, and strange voice-leading in the bass. See also “modulation and toncization”
Modulation and Tonicization
  • Allentown (Billy Joel). A song of short melodic gestures, each with its own “pocket” of tonicized harmony. It gives a good chance to identify the starting key (it starts on IV in G Major), then follow ii-V-I progressions in D and G before settling in D for the rest of the verse. The extension of the verse’s repeat then moves to C major with IV-V-I on “but the restlessness was handed down” before returning to G Major, which leads back to the intro music. Spend a little time having a discussion of the bridge’s key… F Lydian? Or does the bridge just dwell on IV in C Major?
  • Angie (The Rolling Stones). An “endlessly” modulating progression Am | E7| G F | C provides ambiguity between A Minor and C Major. The bridge does the opposite, using diatonic retrogression: < G | Dm – Am | C – F | G > as < V | ii – vi | I – IV | V >.
  • Another Girl (The Beatles). Has a great modulation. My “theory” is that the song pivots around a flexible C/C-sharp pitch that acts as blues third in A Major (“for I have GOT another GIRL”) and the modulation goal (“another GIRL” elides into the modulation section, now using C natural over a C Major tonic harmony). When modulating back to A Major, it does so with an altered common chord.
  • I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston) used to be a go-to for this, but I think nobody cares about the song anymore.
  • Livin’ On A Prayer (Bon Jovi). VI – VII in E Minor is used as IV – V of G Minor, plus it skips a beat! Plus it has a crazy vocal overdub to elide the phrases! It’s turbo-charged!
  • Penny Lane (The Beatles). Chorus is in A Major and uses a common-tone pivot (DM leads to F#M) to return to the B Major verse.
  • Pleasant Valley Sunday (by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, but most famously recorded by the Monkees). Begins in A Mixolydian, directly modulates to C Major for the first chorus, which in turn moves to E Mixolydian. Same for second verse and chorus, and stays on an E7 harmony for the bridge, which works as a dominant pedal back to the return of the intro (A Mixolydian). The third verse is the same as previous ones, but with nonsense lyrics. The chorus that follows, however, has a different modulation than the previous ones (moves to F Major instead of E Mixolydian), which elides with the return of the A Mixolydian “intro” via common-tone modulation.
  • Save a Prayer (Duran Duran). A magically beautiful shift from the B Minor chorus to the D Minor verse can be used as an example of common-tone modulation. Examine how the vamp pattern changes to accommodate it.
  • Wouldn’t It Be Nice (The Beach Boys). The intro is in A Major and it abruptly modulates (mid-phrase!) to F Major for the verse. Direct modulation leads to D Major for the bridge., which pivots back to F Major. Here’s the kicker: the harp part in the A Major intro is almost identical to that of the bridge, which is in D Major. How is this possible? Transcribe the harp part (or just write out the notes of its chords) from the intro and superimpose it over the bridge’s bass line, seeing how the harp notes work as chord extensions over the new bass.
  • You’re Gonna Lose That Girl (The Beatles). A great tune for study of modulation by common tone.

Form: Phrase Structures, Combinations, Elisions

  • Blackbird (The Beatles). The constantly shifting metric patterns always seem to surprise students who know this song but never thought anything sounded “out of whack.”
  • Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road (Elton John). Study phrase elision between the verse and pre-chorus and between the chorus and post-chorus interlude. Use it also to study interesting circle progressions.
Mixed Meter and Rhythmic Structure
  • Blackbird (The Beatles). Interesting shifting phrase-lengths that result from uneven bars.
  • God (Tori Amos). A strong drum beat helps clarify constant shifts in meter, all built as extensions on a basic 4/4 pattern.
  • Good Morning, Good Morning (The Beatles). Phrases of verse constantly shift duration from 10 to 12 to 9 to 14 beats in length. Trying to divide these into bars of 2, 3, or 4 beats can lead to lively discussion of what “makes meter.”
  • Hey Ya! (Outkast). Primarily in 4/4, but each chorus has a two-beat “hiccup” that students can easily identify.
  • I Say a Little Prayer (Burt Bacharach, recorded by Dionne Warwick). Makes for great charting of changing meter, both in verse and chorus.
  • Mean Mister Mustard (The Beatles). No changing meters here — I use this song to look at “levels of rhythmic interest,” charting the polyrhythmic organization of the first phrase based on the oom/pah drum/bass pattern (four beats long), melodic gestures (three beats each), rhyme patterns (irregular) and alliterative patterns (also irregular).
A recommended resource: Alan Pollack’s Notes On… series of analysis of Beatles songs. Every one of them.

7 thoughts on “Theory Class Rocks!

  1. Much better! Also: HOW IS THAT STUPID AND/OR TERRIBLE! Also: I wonder if you (one) uses the Beatles, you might as well use Schubert. In other words, I wonder if old is old.

    1. In my experience, nothing feels as out-of-date to students as Romantic lieder. Baroque music sounds fresher. Mozart arias sound fresher. Beatles songs go over well! They tend not to know “Honey Pie.”

  2. Adam, I’m thoroughly enjoying this blog. Thank you for sharing your insight… I’m teaching theory at Atlantic City High School and will be teaching AP Theory next year. Coming up with a lot of ways to integrate what I’m finding here!

    1. Hi, Chaz. After you teach AP for a couple of years, you should apply to be an AP Reader. Working with AP has been my favorite job, and they almost always need new high-school readers!

  3. It makes me happy to hear that thinking about phrase-rhythm models changed the way you enjoy some of these songs. It did that for me, too! 🙂

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