Rochester’s School of Rock

Univ. Communications – Want to know the difference between Death Metal, Black Metal, Speed Metal, and Doom Metal? Want to get credit for going to rock out at a Judas Priest concert?  Want to listen critically to head-spinning guitar riffs and write argumentatively about issues of censorship in popular culture?  Then Josef Hanson’s History of Heavy Metal class is just what you need.

For the first time this year the course is included in the University curriculum and it is enjoying an enthusiastic reception.  Hanson, who has previously taught a version of the class during the summer Rochester Scholars program for area high school students, was happy to create a collegiate version of the course.

Why study Metal you may ask?  There are three principle reasons besides the novelty factor, he explained.  First, Metal is the most enduring form of rock music to date.  Musical styles such as that of the Beatles’ or other popular genres have waxed and waned over the decades.  But since the release of Black Sabbath’s first album in 1970, Metal has existed in one form or another without significant changes to its core elements.

Second, Hanson and his students confirm, the genre is rich in music theory and technical virtuosity. “These people are really talented musicians,” said sophomore Paige Iovine, a Music and Brain & Cognitive Sciences double major.  “You just see how much dedication it takes to learning that instrument.  I love Baroque music and we even discussed it in the class, how there’s a huge influence of Bach and Vivaldi.  People think of it as a very gritty, dirty kind of music, but there’s also this higher level to it…It’s a type of music that really doesn’t get as much appreciation as it should for how good it actually is,” she concluded.

Finally, the issues of censorship and public political debates over the limits to creative expression are intimately connected to the history of Metal music.  “Nowhere has there been a witch hunt in terms of ‘music’s creating problems in society, music’s creating teenage pregnancies, music’s forcing people to commit suicide,’” to the extent that is has existed in the reception of this genre, Hanson explained.  “It’s the kind of music that a lot of people put a huge taboo on for no reason that’s particularly good,” added Iovine.

Almost forty students are in the class and Hanson did not have a single one drop since the beginning of the semester.  He has tried to include more open-ended assignments, critical writing tasks, and opportunities for students to pursue their own research.  Some have contacted Metal musicians and historians for interviews and one student is making a documentary about the Metal music scene in Rochester.

What has attracted students to the class is often a personal history with the music.  Junior T.J. Davison, a double major in Political Science and Brain & Cognitive Sciences, has loved and played Metal for years.  “I’ve listened to Metal for a while, since probably like high school, and my little brother he plays the drums, I play guitar, and so it’s really fun to jam out to like Metalica or something.”

“It’s actually probably my favorite class that I’ve taken so far,” said Iovine, “My dad played in a lot of local bands and my brother plays guitar really well and he does a lot of Death Metal, like Thrash Metal kind of stuff, so that was kind of the music I grew up on.”

When asked why studying the subject is a worthwhile endeavor, Davison retorted, “There’s just as much structure and depth in Metal as there is in really any other genre of music.  Yeah, it doesn’t appeal to everyone but you know, neither does classical music, and for that matter, neither does rap music.  But I think that every form of music, especially that gets as big as all of these genres have been, should be studied for the musical elements that make us enjoy it.”

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia (www.out-of-russia.com) and the other to photography (www.myorientalism.com).