[Norman Parkinson/Sygma/Corbis]
[Norman Parkinson/Sygma/Corbis]

Music 146: Meet the Beatles and the 1960's

June 4, 2012

The catalyst: Although music professor Thomas Brothers was hired as an expert on medieval and Renaissance music, he’s longed for the opportunity to teach a course on one of the most celebrated and influential bands of the past century. “I grew up with the Beatles music, and I love it still, and I never get tired of it,” he says. “My sense is that a lot of college students love it, too.”

The gist: The course intersperses toe-tapping listening sessions with music theory and the cultural history of the decades surrounding the Beatles’ evolution. “Serious but totally accessible. That is the trick of the Beatles,” says Brothers.

The twist: While some students sign up because they’re Beatles fans, the class isn’t about fawning over pop icons. “I try to talk about a little bit of music theory without getting too technical,” says Brothers. “I want to give students both a musical and cultural perspective on the Beatles’ music. There are a lot of interesting things going on—spirituality, revolution, counterculture.”

Assignment list: Readings include Timothy Leary’s 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience and “Inside the Hippie Revolution,” William Hedgepeth’s 1967 article for Look magazine. Projects include imagining a Summer of Love reset in 2012 and envisioning the “ultimate Beatles album.”

What you missed: Brothers begins one class by writing five song titles next to a clef on the chalkboard. Students are guided from the melodic bass lines in the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” to the mounting urgency in John Lennon’s distorted voice in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As Lennon’s third verse hits, Brothers exclaims with whispered enthusiasm, “Those cellos are savage!”