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Designing a History of Rock Class

Patricia Cornett | September 2018

    The scenario is familiar to many music teachers: a meeting with an administrator informing us that we will now teach a new class. It might be music theory, music technology, or the dreaded music appreciation. If, like me, you went to college preparing solely to be a band director, this kind of class might be daunting. Because I had trained as a band director, I was terrified of a room full of students without instruments in their hands.

    I spent five years as a high school instrumental music teacher, and in my third year, the band was split up into three sections of random instrumentation. My class load now qualified as full time. While I appreciated the intent of my administration on this, the practical problems of rehearsing an ensemble in three parts became too much to bear. I was willing to teach another class if it meant combining my various sections of band into a single rehearsal period. Our department already offered guitar, piano, and music theory, so I proposed a new class: History of Rock. Being young and foolish, I suggested this class despite little expertise on the topic. It was a risk I was willing to take for the sake of my band program.

Proposing a Rock History Class
    Administrators often resist adding new courses that drain money and faculty resources. However, compared with other potential courses, a rock class is an easy sell. For one, it is a music course for students who do not play an instrument or sing. This makes it an attractive course to fill a fine arts requirement, which pleases administrators and guidance counselors alike. Secondly, we all know and love those typical music students that fill the halls of the fine arts wing. However, a class like History of Rock can attract a completely different type of student to the music department. Some who sign up for this class might otherwise never set foot in the music wing.
    I’ll admit, before I taught History of Rock I thought it might attract students likely to cause discipline problems. Once I started teaching this class I realized the students were so engaged in the material that I didn’t have any of the feared difficulties. Plus the class was full every semester. Also, the cost of a rock history class is low compared with other arts classes. There is no need to buy instruments, art supplies, costumes, or cameras. All you need is a textbook and perhaps a bit of start-up money for music downloads or CDs. Finally, the study of rock can be interdisciplinary. It is hard to talk about the history of rock music without also considering social and political aspects of American history. I taught this as a semester-long course that was strictly music-based. However, the potential remained to turn it into a full-year course that could be team-taught with an American history teacher. That sort of class is catnip to an administrator.

Learning the Content

    I enrolled in an online history of rock course through a local college during the summer before I taught the class to high school students. However, having gone through the process, I believe it is possible to teach this class without taking a formal class, and I intend to share as many helpful tips as possible to get you started.
    The first step is to begin educating yourself on the material, and you will want to give yourself at least a summer to do this. I highly recommend two books on the topic. The first is Rockin’ in Time by David Szatmary. This is the book used in the online course I mentioned above and in my high school class. This text does a great job of highlighting the parallels between what was happening in American society and American popular music throughout the second half of the 20th century. In my experience, this is the most interesting lens through which to approach this course.  
    I also strongly recommend is What’s That Sound? by John Covach and Andrew Flory. I used this book when I taught the course at the college level. It is thorough in the artists and bands covered, and it includes listening guides that help students understand form and structure in music. While the book might be a bit dense for high school students, it is an excellent resource for teachers preparing to launch this class. Another resource I would highly recommend is a TimeLife Video documentary called The History of Rock n’ Roll. I watched this ten-hour film as I was familiarizing myself with the material, but I also pulled clips from the documentary to show my class throughout the semester. At the time it was not in our department budget to purchase this DVD set, but I convinced the school library to purchase it. I checked it out for the summer, used a computer program to rip the clips I wanted to show my class, and the DVDs remained in the library as a resource for the entire school come fall.
    Finally, YouTube can be an almost endless source of information for your class. You can find everything from iconic performances to short documentary videos to interviews with musicians. The trick is wading through everything to find the highest quality videos. One particularly memorable video on YouTube was a news broadcast, complete with commercials from the time, of Walter Cronkite describing a music festival known as Woodstock that had just happened in upstate New York. Another particularly helpful YouTube video, produced by Watch Mojo, gave a three-minute history of MTV, which I used to sum up our first class on the video age.

Structuring the Course
    Once you have familiarized yourself with the content, decide how to structure the class.
• Will it be a semester or year-long course?
• How many instructional units will you have?
• What broader topics or genres will be included in each one? (Decades are good way to divide this course, with a disproportionate emphasis on the late 1960s.)
• How many exams will you give, and in what format will they be?
• Will there be a culminating final project? For both my high school and college classes I assigned a final project where the students had to write the a fictional next chapter of our textbook. They chose a band or artist not covered in the text and explained why they were worthy of inclusion. They had to describe and analyze some of their music, compare them to other artists we discussed in class, and defend why this artist would still be relevant in ten years. I found it helpful for them to reflect on contemporary music through the lens of all the history they had just learned.

Listening Examples

    Listening to music is a huge component of the class, so you will need to decide the best way to give students access to listening lists outside of class. When proposing the course, ask for one-time funding to build a basic CD or digital music library. Copyright laws prohibit distributing this music to students outright, but check with your administration on the best practices for giving access to students. A streaming service such as Spotify might be the best option. If that won’t work, many songs are readily available on YouTube. Either way, this is an important detail to resolve before launching your course.

Organized and Engaging Lectures
    Use a program like Keynote or PowerPoint to create a lecture for each class. I won’t lie – devising these initial lectures will be time consuming. (Another reason to take a full summer to prepare for this class.) However, putting in the time to produce well-structured and engaging lectures will allow you to use the same or similar lectures year after year with only minor adjustments. We always want to think creatively as educators, but once you have found a lesson plan or lecture that works, the 
basic information you are teaching will not change. If you are primarily an ensemble director, this can free up time to study scores, manage administrative tasks, and prepare for each rehearsal. Make sure you save these lectures electronically in multiple places. Once you see how time-consuming they are to create, you will understand why losing them would be devastating.
    You will probably find that you are delivering a lot of information verbally, which is why I suggest a lecture program such as Keynote. I found that it kept me on track and helped the visual learners in the room as well. Perhaps most importantly, these programs let you embed audio and video examples so you’re not fumbling back and forth between the white board, CD player, and YouTube. I started lectures by outlining a particular artist, band, or genre. I gave students information and played or showed examples.
    Then, about halfway through the lecture I switched gears and turned on their higher order thinking skills. There would be a discussion or group activity to apply this knowledge to new music and identify some sound, instrument, or musical characteristic. Even with lecture classes, the goal was to keep students engaged with some discussion or group activity in every class. This may seem obvious, but I have learned that it is easy to get caught up in delivering all the information quickly, because there is much to get through. Think creatively about ways to check student understanding through activities each day.
    Because I was new to giving lectures, I wanted to make sure students were staying with me and getting the right information from each class. So I created guided notes, a pre-typed outline of what we would discuss in each lecture, and I left certain terms, definitions, or bullet points blank for students to fill in throughout the class. At the time I thought it worked well, and students seemed to like it. However, I have since heard the counterargument that this approach encourages students to zone out and only pay attention when they have to fill in a blank. I would encourage you to give this some thought and decide if it might work for you.

Sex, Drugs, and Parental Consent
    Finally, it is difficult to talk about the history of rock without at least a few references to drugs and the sexual revolution. While you certainly will not promote these things, I strongly recommend including a parent consent section of your syllabus that parents must sign. I also suggest running this by your administration in advance to avoid surprises.

Sample Lesson
    To demonstrate some of the concepts I have outlined, I will share the basic structure of a typical lesson. This lecture is on The Beatles’ arrival in America, their initial string of success, and the influence of American music on their earliest songs.
    Begin the lecture by asking students to recount our discussion last class on the early origins of The Beatles and their success in the U.K. Move on to Brian Epstein’s strategy for preparing The Beatles to arrive in America. Share video of their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Explain how this led to a string of hits unprecedented in American music history, and play clips from these songs, including Can’t Buy Me Love, A Hard Day’s Night, Ticket to Ride, Help! and Paperback Writer. Outline how their appearance and their music largely accounted for their unprecedented popularity in every demographic.
    Ask students to describe what they think made The Beatles’ music sound fresh and new. Finally, play the song I Want To Hold Your Hand. Ask students to get in small groups and write down elements of this song influenced by other music discussed in class thus far. You might give them hints by asking them to listen for the following possible influences: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Girl Groups, Tin Pan Alley Forms, and Rockabilly or country-style singing. Hopefully students will hear some or all of the following influences in this song:

• Influence of Chuck Berry in the driving guitar (like Johnny B. Goode).
• Influence of the girl groups with hand claps (like My Boyfriend’s Back).
• Influence of The Everly Brothers in the tight harmony/duet singing.
• Influence of Little Richard in the falsetto “Ooooohhh” (like Tutti Frutti).

    I am not a rock scholar. I’m a band director. Hopefully I have made the case that rock history is a rewarding subject and well worth the initial effort. History of Rock provides a refreshing change of pace, exposes you to a new kind of student, and can be an important and valuable addition to any music department’s course offerings.    

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History of Rock and Roll by Tom E. Larson (2nd ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2004).
Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development by Joe Stuessy (6th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990).
Rock and Roll: The Music, the Culture, the Generation by Mike Evans (New York: Reader’s Digest Association, 2007).
Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker (New York: Rolling Stone, 1986). 
Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-roll by David P. Szatmary (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000).
What’s That Sound?: An Introduction to Rock and Its History by John Rudolph Covach and Andrew Flory (4th ed. New York: Norton, 2015).

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100 Suggested Songs for Your Library
(Listed in chronological order, 1950s-1990s)

Shake, Rattle and Roll – Big Joe Turner
Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry
Tutti Frutti – Little Richard
Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley
Great Balls of Fire – Jerry Lee Lewis
That’ll Be The Day – Buddy Holly & The Crickets
The Twist – Chubby Checker
Will You Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles
Bye Bye Love – The Everly Brothers
Surfin’ USA – The Beach Boys
I Want To Hold Your Hand – The Beatles
A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) – The Beatles
Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles
House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones
You Really Got Me – The Kinks
My Generation – The Who
Blowin’ in the Wind – Bob Dylan
Blowin’ in the Wind – Peter, Paul and Mary
Positively 4th Street – Bob Dylan
Turn! Turn! Turn! – The Byrds
The Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel
God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
Sherry – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
My Guy – Mary Wells
Baby Love – The Supremes
My Girl – The Temptations
It’s the Same Old Song – The Four Tops
That’s Enough – Ray Charles
In the Midnight Hour – Wilson Pickett
Respect – Aretha Franklin
I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown
Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud – James Brown
Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys
Penny Lane – The Beatles
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – The Beatles
A Day in the Life – The Beatles
Uncle John’s Band – The Grateful Dead
Somebody to Love – Jefferson Airplane
Piece of My Heart – Janis Joplin
Sunshine of Your Love – Cream
Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Break On Through (To the Other Side) – The Doors
Black Dog – Led Zeppelin
Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Evil Ways – Santana
Born to Be Wild – Steppenwolf
25 or 6 to 4 – Chicago
Space Oddity – David Bowie
School’s Out – Alice Cooper
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Fire and Rain – James Taylor
So Far Away – Carole King
You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
Bennie and The Jets – Elton John
Little Green – Joni Mitchell
Tequila Sunrise – The Eagles
Dance to the Music – Sly & The Family Stone
Celebration – Kool & The Gang
In the Stone – Earth, Wind & Fire
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
I Want You Back – The Jackson 5
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – Marvin Gaye
Superstition – Stevie Wonder
Give Up The Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker) – Parliament
Get Up, Stand Up – Bob Marley & The Wailers
Stayin’ Alive – The Bee Gees
Hotel California – The Eagles
Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac
You Really Got Me – Van Halen
Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
Blitzkrieg Bop – Ramones
Anarchy in the U.K. – Sex Pistols
White Riot – The Clash
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic – The Police
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
Thriller – Michael Jackson
Material Girl – Madonna
1999 – Prince
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty
Glory Days – Bruce Springsteen
Jack & Diane – John Mellencamp
With or Without You – U2
Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC
Let’s Lynch the Landlord – Dead Kennedys
You Give Love A Bad Name – Bon Jovi
Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
One – Metallica
Enter Sandman – Metallica
Rapper’s Delight – Sugarhill Gang
The Breaks – Kurtis Blow
The Message – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
I Need Love – LL Cool J
Rock Box – Run-D.M.C.
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Even Flow – Pearl Jam