Rock Music, Rock Progressions, and Theory Pedagogy

October 31, 2003

The study of popular music has recently garnered much attention in music theory circles. Evidence of this new trend can be seen through the establishment of a popular music email list sponsored by the Society for Music Theory, as well as the inclusion of specific sessions devoted to popular music at annual conferences. In addition, numerous scholars, including John Covach, Walter Everett, and Ken Stephenson, have contributed analytical writings that highlight the richness and diversity of popular music. With this current interest in studying popular music in music theory and musicology, the time seems right to consider its place in the core undergraduate curriculum.

I would like to propose a method of bringing rock music into the aural skills classroom. This approach can be incorporated in a separate twentieth-century aural skills course or in the final semester of aural skills in the general undergraduate curriculum. It makes sense to incorporate rock music for several reasons:

  • A majority of students will be familiar with the sounds and songs of rock music due to its pervasiveness in daily culture and because many students have grown up playing or listening to it. Thus, these common experiences allow the informed instructor to actively engage the students interests by bypassing unfamiliarity inherent in other twentieth-century music.
  • Teaching popular music offers a chance to expand repertoire and potentially open up more playing experiences for classical performers. For instance, the violin appears in music by artists ranging from Frank Zappa to the Dave Matthews Band.
  • Rock music brings new sounds into the classroom besides the piano. Students need to become familiar with different timbres of other instruments, and this is one way to expand their palette.
  • Teaching rock music in aural skills can encourage students to focus on traditional harmonic dictation techniques. By figuring out the bass line in conjunction with the quality of a given chord in rock music, the student acquires expanded tools to reinforce skills already taught in the context of classical music.

While the instructor can use rock music for melodic dictation (for example, through a transcription project) or for rhythmic dictation, I explain harmonic dictation through what I call rock progressions. I have codified six rock progressions that capture the great majority of rock music from the 1950s to today:

  1. Blues
  2. I-IV-V
  3. I-V-IV (retrogression)
  4. I-bVII-x (where x could be any other chord)
  5. I-vi-IV (ii)-V
  6. Descending Tetrachord

Additionally, two of the potentially unfamiliar rock progressionsI-bVII-x and the descending tetrachordare explained in more detail. Often arising out of modality, the I-bVII-x most often features a major triad a step below tonic (bVII). What I have labeled as x could be a subdominant, dominant, or other related chord. In most examples that Ive analyzed, songwriters prefer a progression of I-bVII-IV.

One example of this specific progression occurs in the song I Want to Make You Love Me, by the alternativecountry bandthe Jayhawks. The song begins with the following chordal succession in the key of G: G major-F major-C major . . . F major-C major-G major. The first three chords comprise the I-bVII-x progression in which x is IV. In hearing this progression, the student can focus on the bass, noticing that the movement between I and bVII is only a major second, instead of confusing it with other progressions that contain bass motion of a descending perfect fourth (I ↓ V) or descending third (I ↓ vi).

Additionally, the identification of the chord labeled x will be crucial to understanding the overall progression. Once the student can distinguish that third chord and its relation to tonic, he or she can then link it with the first two. In other words, noting that the third chord might be a subdominant that subsequently returns to tonic, the student can focus on the second chord and identify the progression more confidently.

In the descending tetrachord (more commonly known in classical music as the lament bass), one finds descending bass motion from tonic to dominant. The bass can move either diatonicallyfor instance, C-B-A-Gor it can move chromatically toward the final descent to the dominant as in the classical pieces.

A particularly interesting rock example of the descending tetrachord is George Harrisons While My Guitar Gently Weeps, found on the 1968 album The Beatles (the White Album). One can make an intriguing parallel to the use of classical lament bass in this song. In the Baroque period, composers employed the descending tetrachord to express grief and sadness in works like Purcells Didos Lament, and the Crucifixus from Bachs Mass in B Minor. Similarly, Harrison employs a modified descending tetrachord to express the weeping, sad guitar played by Eric Clapton. Most students should not have much difficulty hearing the descent, but the interest really lies in identifying the entire progression and its construction. The instructor may ask the students to dictate the descent and consider whether it is diatonic or chromatic. Or, in the case of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, students may be asked to parse out the entire introduction or verse to explain how Harrison alters the given paradigm. Additionally, students may wish to consider text painting and decide if the traditional lament sentiments relate to the lyrics.

The six progressions I have identified provide a starting point for bringing rock music into the aural skills classroom. I am aware that while rock music is common in American culture, not every instructor feels comfortable teaching this genre. Fortunately for the instructor wishing to take the plunge, the material taught from the music does not differ significantly from traditional classical music and can give the instructor a chance to broaden the type of musics explored in class. It is my hope that through future studies and trial and error in the classroom, rock music will gain a wider audience and interest for theory pedagogues.

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