Pop music brands each generation. In the 70s, kids rocked to Pink Floyd or to Led Zeppelin. A decade earlier, they swooned over the Beatles; in the 80s, danced to one-hit wonders, and in the 90s, worshipped Nirvana. We know all the words in our favorite albums, can jam on air guitar to our favorite riffs. What we don’t know or, more likely, just don’t think about, is that by growing up with rock, we’ve inundated ourselves into experts.

John Covach believes in our expertise, relies on it in his work, both on paper and in class. Covach, professor of music history and theory, sees our familiarity and commitment to pop music as fertile ground for expansion—toward analysis and close readings, toward critical thinking.

The classes Covach teaches illustrate our interest, his skill. Each year, his rock history course is crammed full of kids eager to argue over the improvisational abilities of their favorite guitarists, discuss the pros and cons of live versus studio recordings, decide once and for all the significance of an odd lyric. Covach gives them the vocabulary and the historical perspective to do the job convincingly. And for music majors, he offers courses that take music study into realms typical music programs consider off-limits. Last fall, he taught a history seminar on the concept album—thematic records such as The Wall and Sgt. Pepper. He had the class analyze the albums’ music using some of the same techniques they’d learned in their classical theory courses.

This borrowing of classical analytic tools by rock theorists can offend both classical musicologists and cultural studies scholars, Covach says. Both groups sometimes feel their turf is being invaded. Classical musicologists believe that their tools, developed to study music often more texturally and harmonically complicated than rock, are inappropriately applied. Cultural studies professors complain that since the normal joe (and many of the musicians under the microscope) can’t read music, the intensely analytical nature of musicology, which relies heavily on musical examples, will leave an audience out in the cold.

Covach disagrees. He points out that there are a few thousand books on rock `n’ roll already on the market. There are history books, biographies, stylistic overviews, college textbooks, but nothing that deals with the music using the close analysis we’ve come to associate with serious musicology. In Covach’s view, close analysis is not better than cultural studies, but both are needed if rock is going to be understood and, ultimately, afforded the same degree of respect that classical music engenders in music departments.

To that end, Covach has assembled seven musicologists, all with a homegrown interest in rock and extensive academic experience in traditional musicology, to apply the tools they use at work to the music they grew up listening to at home. Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, is the result. A collection of essays by each writer, the book provides the novice rock theorist a handy quorum of analytical tools.

Rock provides musicologists a few challenges classical music doesn’t. One example—the music’s only text is its recording. There are no scores until someone, usually the researcher, listens to recordings and, track by track, transcribes each musical line onto paper. When publishers do put out a score, Covach snatches it up because, though most don’t include every line, they’re a timesaving start.

If this transcription into score seems artificial to classical musicologists, to Cov-ach, the move many classical musicians are trying to make into the popular world also feels a bit unreal. He says he’d prefer to hear a rocker making classical moves any day over a classical musician going the other way. He feels the same way about musicologists who try to analyze rock without ever having immersed themselves in it. A practiced musician himself, Covach is famous in his classes for his Stratocaster guitar and the licks he lets rip playing musical examples.

Covach says he’s gone full circle in his career. Starting off in college as a rock musician, he played in a band for a few years before deciding to go to music school. He sent in his application as a pianist, afraid they’d look askance at a guitarist. Throughout his stay at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in music theory, he kept his rock up, playing gigs on the weekend. But it wasn’t something that he talked about around the department.

Eventually, though, word did get around. William Bolcom, one of Michigan’s resident composers, asked him to try out a set of songs composed for rock guitar and orchestra. Covach made his debut in Carnegie Hall, playing that set. And as his notoriety spread, people became interested in what he had to say about rock theory. Almost as a joke Covach started writing rock analysis.

Covach still is a heavy theory dude, editing a journal, In Theory Only, and contributing his own articles to other journals. Many of these essays aren’t what his students in Music 43 might expect: they analyze music about as far removed from rock and its pop appeal as a bunch of notes can get. Covach doesn’t feel the discrepancy though; for him, each world informs the other. He’s even started writing for the mass-market magazine, Guitar World. The editor there, a colleague from his Detroit days, is looking for new takes on old guitarists. So he’s hired Covach to interview guitarists about the more classical and analytical moments in their careers.

Covach’s contribution to Under-standing Rock is an essay on the music of Yes. When he met the band on an interview for Guitar World, he gave copies of the book to each member. Covach says, “The bass player and I got into a pretty deep conversation about the analysis. He even played through some of the examples, and was like, `yeah man, I think you’ve got something here.’” Covach says they were happy to have been taken seriously, though he adds, with a chuckle, “I’m pretty sure most of them left their copies behind for the hotel maids.”

Covach to Music Classes: Shake, Rattle, and Roll

When John Covach joined the music department faculty, he started a revolu-tion. “He’s been a great catalyst,” John Nadas says. Nadas, chair of music, feels Covach has helped the department rethink pop music, to see it as something legitimate to study. He says there’s a lot more excitement around Hill Hall as a result. “Teaching the music of your time is important,” Nadas says. “It helps students realize music history isn’t stuck in a museum—it’s alive and changing every day. The students have caught fire with this.”

Numbers bear him out. Class enrollment has grown among general college students taking music history courses, and the number of music majors has increased. Graduate students are getting caught up in the sea change too.

Ph.D. candidate Richard Rischar sees pop music analysis as a way of getting into the heads of listeners and really figuring out how they’re responding to the music. His dissertation is on singers like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. He’s looking at certain formulas these vocalists use—etiquettes, he calls them—to help nonblack audiences get a handle on the R & B sound.

A natural ham, Rischar gets excited when he talks about the wide-ranging nature of his research topic: “I was in the park the other day, and there was a girl there, just wailing away singing a Mariah Carey cover. And I start singing with her, but I’m singing Steve Perry’s version, instead of Carey’s. And when we get to this certain part of the song, a flourish, she stops me and says, `No you’re not doing that right, it goes like this.’ And that just floored me, because she’s just one of all the many many nonprofessionals out there who totally knows the music down to even the little turns.”

One of Covach’s teaching assistants, Christina Brandt credits her last job offer to her experience in his class. Last summer, Duke University’s talented and gifted program hired her to teach a rock seminar of her own. Brandt believes that, without the rock class on her resume, she would never have had such a golden opportunity so soon in her graduate career.

Like Rischar, Brandt is an ardent advocate for rock analysis. She says, “Cultural studies’ view of rock pays a lot of attention to the lyrics. But there’s much more to the music than just the words.”

She mentions Elvis. His first single was “Blue Moon.” Elvis took an Appalachian waltz and turned it more assertive by switching the tempo from three to four beats per measure and adding a bluesy bass line. By mixing up folk and blues, he pulled the song out of one genre—bound by class expectations—and radicalized it into one of the first songs of the youth generation, helping birth rock and roll. “But the lyrics didn’t change a bit,” Brandt says. “If you leave out the music, you’ve missed the point.”

Julia Bryan was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.