University of Rochester

University of Rochester Creates Institute for Popular Music

December 17, 2012

From rock 'n' roll to pop and hip hop, popular music may be, well, popular. But it is rarely understood as a musical form. Now that's about to change. The University of Rochester has established an Institute for Popular Music that treats the study of popular genres as seriously as classical music.

This is an approach the institute's founding director, John Covach, calls "both traditional and revolutionary" because it applies methods of analysis in musicology to provide a better understanding of popular music's impact on society. "When people 'see' popular music they often think of celebrities and bubblegum pop music. But we mean 'popular music' in a much broader sense," said Covach. In fact, one of the institute's first lectures in the spring will examine songs from the Civil War.

As director, Covach will work with a group of seven faculty from the University of Rochester and an advisory board of 13 professors from the U.S. and the U.K to develop programs that support research in fields including musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, and music performance. "The focus of the institute is to support and encourage academic studies in popular music in the form of lectures, books, and articles," said Covach. "But we also want to support the performance aspects of this music, since making music is an integral part of studying it." Covach has dual appointments in the College Music Department, where he is the Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor of music, and at the University's Eastman School of Music where he is a professor of music theory.

According to Joanna Olmsted, dean of Arts and Sciences, Covach has an unusual breadth of expertise that was important in shaping the creation of the institute. "He is a dynamic and highly respected faculty member who can teach from the perspectives of both a scholar and a performer."

In recent years, Covach has incorporated a rock repertory ensemble into Rochester's curriculum, giving students the opportunity to study the history of rock and perform concerts for the community. "That is a great achievement and a rarity in higher education," said Daniel Harrison, the Allen Forte Professor of Music Theory and chair of the Department of Music at Yale University.

According to Harrison, popular music since the 1960s has attracted influential critics at well known publications like Rolling Stone magazine. But the scholarly study of popular music is deeply concerned with issues in history and popular culture as opposed to the more familiar concert reviews and album critiques. "If you add this to the expertise of someone like John, who is interested in the construction of the music, form, melody, and the materiality of the sound, there is a great match of strengths."

In addition to partnering with the faculty in the College's music department, the institute will compliment the expertise at Rochester's Eastman School of Music. Covach hopes the institute will be used as a model for other institutions to promote the study of popular music within academia.

The institute will initially support five existing majors and programs at the University, and will continue to add courses to the 25 currently in place. Current offerings include courses on the Music of Black Americans, Progressive Rock in the 1970s, Religion and Hip Hop, and workshops in musical theatre. Additional initiatives include a speaker series featuring leading scholars in the field of popular music studies, summer workshops or think tanks where invited scholars will train teachers in popular music and share their expertise with students and faculty, and the eventual creation of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships.

"Twenty years ago it was considered risky for academics to be associated with the study of popular music because up until that point most music scholars were classically trained," said Covach. "But now academics can get doctorates in the field and expertise in pop is even considered an advantage in landing a teaching job. It's a very active area of cultural ferment."

Harrison agrees. He credits the field's newfound legitimacy to baby boomers' respect for rock as an art form. "That belief was pretty well founded, given the events going on in 'high art' music at the time. So that's really how scholars got their ticket punched to enter in and study popular music."

For additional information about the Institute for Popular Music, visit