University of Rochester

Rock 'n' Roll Professor

Scholar and musician John Covach helps give students a new appreciation for modern popular music. By Ryan Whirty.

John Covach taps the computer, and the first strains of Sting’s “Love Is Stronger than Justice” waft into the classroom in Todd Union.

This is a story of seven brothers

We had the same father but different mothers

We keep together like a family should

Roaming the country for the common good. . . .

As the former frontman for the Police continues with the story, Covach asks the students to pay particular attention to the rhythm underlying the music.

With Covach’s help, the students identify the song’s 7/4 time—an intricate compound meter not usually found in pop music. But, Covach points out, there’s another level at work: 7/4 time for a song about seven brothers.

“The rhythm is a metaphor for what’s happening in the lyrics,” Covach tells the class. “It tells you what the song’s about.”

Welcome to Analysis of Rock Music, where Covach—chair of the College’s Department of Music and professor of music theory at the Eastman School—leads students through the history, subtext, and composition of modern popular music. In roles that mix scholar, musician, DJ, and storyteller, Covach is developing his own fan base as a teacher who helps undergraduates of all majors find a new appreciation for the influential music.

With classes that are challenging, comprehensive, and intellectually demanding, Covach is the University’s reigning rock ’n’ roll professor.

“I love his teaching style,” says David Leblanc ’08, who has taken three of Covach’s classes, including Analysis of Rock Music. “I thought it was going to be a great course going into it, and it certainly has turned out to be. He keeps a good balance between keeping it academic and fun.”

That approach impresses his colleagues as well.

“Covach is a rare combination of a true scholar and an authentic practitioner of the music,” says David Headlam, a fellow professor of theory at Eastman. “He has played guitar professionally since his early teen years and knows all the styles from the performance point of view. Meanwhile, he is a university scholar with a Ph.D. who knows the practices of that academic world. He is able to combine these with an equally important ingredient—the ability to have fun with the material.”

Ever since 1951, when Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats released “Rocket ’88,” regarded by some as the first documented example of the then unnamed genre, rock ’n’ roll—part musical innovation, part social phenomenon—has been a cultural force to be reckoned with. Covach joins a line of scholars who argue that much of the music of the past five decades cannot be understood without recognizing rock ’n’ roll’s influence.

As he puts it in his 2006 textbook, What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History:

“Considering rock’s frequent (and sometimes militant) opposition to the status quo, some people are surprised to learn that colleges and universities across the country have been offering courses in rock for many years. But as music historians look back on the 20th century, it is obvious that popular music has played an enormous role in the development of the Western musical tradition. . . .

“During the second half of the 20th century, rock music was dominant among popular styles, and even music historians whose work does not focus on rock during those decades must take into account its many and often far-flung effects on the world of music in general.

“Rock definitely plays a role in music history.”

Covach is careful to differentiate between approaching the music as a fan as opposed to a more comprehensive academic approach.

But, he says, there’s no denying the music’s place as a subject of critical analysis. It offers a portal through which undergraduates can learn about the larger world of music.

“The real goal is critical thinking,” he says.

As he grew up in suburban Detroit, Covach early on realized what he wanted to do with his life.

“I’ve been impressed by music ever since I was a little, little child,” he says. “Around the age of 12 it was pretty clear that I wanted to be a musician. I made that decision early, and I never looked back.”

In sixth grade Covach performed for an audience for one of the first times—at a school talent show. Within a year he had learned a set of songs and was teaching them to his bandmates. They started gigging all over the area, even though, he says, “we were so young that our moms had to pick us up.”

He went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in music from the University of Michigan, where he developed a specialty in the history of 12-tone music. All the while, he kept playing rock secretly on the side.

Covach currently fronts his own progressive rock band, Land of Chocolate, whose most recent CD, Regaining the Feel, was released in 2004 (he hopes to have a follow-up released sometime this year). He compares the band’s music to that of Tool, Peter Gabriel, or King Crimson.

“Back in those days, I didn’t want anyone to know I was into popular music,” he says. “It was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of life.”

After studying in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship, he was awarded a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship in 1990 to study and teach at, of all places, the University, an experience that made a lasting impression. “I loved it here,” he says.

While at Rochester, he taught a summer class in rock history after successfully pitching the idea to administrators. When he moved to the University of North Texas to pursue more postdoctoral work, he inherited a rock history class from a retiring professor there.

He then shifted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where it didn’t take long for his newly launched rock history class to attract more than 300 students every semester.

Meanwhile, his love for the study of rock ’n’ roll deepened.

“I kept busy doing other stuff,” he says, “but increasingly I was developing a lot more interest in the history and analysis of popular music. It began to take over more of my time and attention.”

When the opportunity arose to return to Rochester as a full professor and deparment chair, Covach jumped at the chance.

Covach says academic attitudes toward the study of rock ’n’ roll have shifted in recent decades.

“Even 10 years ago, there would have been more resistance,” he says. “I don’t think you’ll ever convince some people to take pop music as seriously as Mozart or Beethoven. But attitudes are changing, and they’re changing rapidly.”

And he understands that skeptics have doubts.

“They want to know the courses are serious-minded, that it’s not just entertainment, that it’s rigorous,” he says.

Covach has also worked to erase the notions of many students who think a rock history class will be a cakewalk.

“Because the music is fun and recreational, they think it will be easy,” he says, “and it’s not.”

Ohio State music professor Graeme M. Boone, who coedited the book Understanding Rock with Covach, says Covach’s intimate and broad knowledge of the music, coupled with his ability to place it within a historical and cultural context, makes him an outstanding teacher.

“He is concerned both with the history of the music and with its analysis, and he understands the value of both of these approaches,” Boone says. “As a trained music theorist, he has a special background in musical analysis, which many students of rock ’n’ roll lack.

“He engages in close analysis, but frames it in a broad consideration of the identity of rock music, and is particularly thoughtful about the varieties of theory and aesthetic viewpoints that can be brought to bear on rock.”

However, while the classes might be challenging, students also say that they . . . well . . . rock.

Students rave about Covach’s ability to approach the music from all sides and his willingness to play devil’s advocate to generate discussion about a song. They also love it when he pulls out his guitar and shows just how well he knows the music he teaches them about.

“He’s amiable and open to alternative hearings from his own,” says student Adam Baratz ’07. “I like his willingness to play excerpts and different interpretations of them on his guitar. Every other theory class I’ve taken has stuck to the blackboard for working out problems.”

Spontaneity and casualness are also key components of Covach’s approach to teaching. On this day, for example, he follows up the analysis of the Sting song with an examination of a rhythmically complex cut by prog-rockers Gentle Giant.

“I’m offering a cash prize,” he tells the students, “to anyone who can tell me what happened in that song.” He reaches into his pocket, pulls out two quarters, and slams them on a desk as the class titters with laughter.

For Covach, the study of rock ’n’ roll and its history isn’t just about the music itself—it also involves the audience, technology, and marketing of a form of music that has always been about youth but has also developed an adaptability and appeal that spans generations.

At the base of Covach’s teaching style and approach to music is the ability to understand the context, messages, and construction of all kinds of music and impart those nuances—and why they matter—to students.

“I hope that approach to critical thinking will stick with them the rest of their lives.”

Ryan Whirty is a frequent contributor to Rochester Review.