Analysis of Popular Music

The [Rolling] Stones are fake-simple, without gift. The design of their “[Sympathy for the] Devil” lacks arch, the sonic element is without sensibility, much less invention, and the primary harmonies are not simple but simplistic. Neither does the melody flow anywhere, nor does its stasis invite hypnotism rather than boredom … Misfired simplicity, then, makes this music bad.

Ned Rorem, “Against Rock” (1969)

Ned Rorem, an American composer in the neotonal idiom (like Samuel Barber), was trained at Northwestern, Curtis, and Juilliard and studied with Nadia Boulanger. Granted, Ned Rorem is a known polemicist, but this quote nevertheless is representative of the attitude toward pop music in the academy until relatively recently.

Popular music studies have thankfully become an accepted subdiscipline of musicology in the past few decades. Analysts now have several techniques to uncover musical nuance and depth that could otherwise go unrecognized. In this class, we will take a magnifying glass to a repertoire that, while often designed to be enjoyed superficially, is nevertheless rewarding to consider deeply.