History of Rock, Part One

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Course Date: 09 May 2014 to 27 June 2014 (7 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

Learn about the early days of rock music, from the pre-rock years of the post World War II era through the birth of rock in the mid 1950s to the psychedelic era of the late 1960s.

Estimated Workload: 2-4 hours/week

Course Instructors

John Covach

John Covach received his B.Mus., M.Mus. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan. He was a Fulbright scholar in Vienna, Austria during 1987-88, and has done post-doctoral work in philosophy under Charles Bambach at the University of Texas-Dallas. Professor Covach has taught at the Interlochen Arts Academy, The University of North Texas College of Music, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His students have won a wide variety of awards, and hold faculty positions at CUNY, the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the University of Surrey, Carleton College, among others.

Professor Covach has published dozens of articles on topics dealing with popular music, twelve-tone music, and the philosophy and aesthetics of music. He co-edited Understanding Rock (Oxford, 1997), American Rock and the Classical Tradition (Harwood, 2000), and Traditions, Institutions, and American Popular Music (Harwood, 2000). His textbook, What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock Music, was recently published by W.W. Norton & Co. in the in its third edition and is the country’s leading textbook in rock music. Covach currently serves on the Editorial Board of the Cambridge University Press journal, Twentieth Century Music, and is a General Editor of Tracking Pop, a monograph series devoted to topics in popular music to be published by the University of Michigan Press. He has lectured across the US and in Europe, and has been the focus of feature stories in newspapers and magazines, as well as on radio and television.

As a guitarist, Professor Covach has performed throughout the United States and Europe. He remains active as a performer, touring and recording with several bands as well as a solo artist.

Course Description

This course, part 1 of a 2-course sequence, examines the history of rock, primarily as it unfolded in the United States, from the days before rock (pre-1955) to the end of the 1960s. This course covers the music of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and many more artists, with an emphasis both on cultural context and on the music itself. We will also explore how developments in the music business and in technology helped shape the ways in which styles developed. 

Rock emerged in the mid 1950s as a blending of mainstream pop, rhythm and blues, and country and western--styles that previously had remained relatively separate. This new style became the music of the emerging youth culture and was often associated with teen rebellion. We will follow the story of how this rowdy first wave of rock and roll (1955-59) was tamed in the early 60s but came roaring back with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and then went psychedelic by the end of the decade.


  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

  • What resources will I need for this class?

    For this course, all you need is an Internet connection, the textbook (if you decide to use it) and the time to read it, an eagerness to seek out and listen to the music, and the desire to discuss the music and the issues it raises.

  • What is the coolest thing I'll learn if I take this class?

    You probably will know a fair amount of rock music when you begin the course, but you'll know a lot more more when you finish it. You may be surprised how much of this new music you will like, even if you initially thought you might not. You'll also gain a deeper and broader sense of context in which to enjoy your favorite rock music. A course that helps you enjoy your favorite music even more--how can you beat that?!


View the video lectures listed for each week. Students have the option of using the textbook or not; the video lectures are designed to be self-contained. The textbook provides increased depth, context, and background, as well as dozens of listening guides. [Additional assignments for those using the book are given in brackets below.]

Week One: "The World Before Rock and Roll (1900-1955)"
The Role of Tin Pan Alley in mainstream pop, the formation of a national audience through radio and the rise of television, the pre-rock pop of Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, and Les Paul and Mary Ford; rhythm and blues in the years before rock and roll; country and western and the rise of Nashville.
[Read introduction and Chapter 1, along with the listening guides for each. For each listening guide, you may view the dedicated video on the W.W. Norton textbook site.]
Week Two: "The Birth and First Flourishing of Rock and Roll (1955-59)"
Chart crossover and cover versions, the first hits of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, the rise of Elvis Presley, the music of Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, the rise of American Bandstand, the payola scandal and the "death of rock and roll."
[Read Chapter 2 and work through the listening guides in that chapter, viewing the dedicated video.]

Week Three: "The Demise of Rock and the Promise of Soul (1959-63)"
Was this era the dark ages for rock music or was it a golden era cut short by the British invasion? The music of teen idols, the folk revival, early surf music, sweet soul, rockabilly pop, and girl groups. The Brill Building songwriters and the rise of the producer. Playlets and splatter platters.
[Read Chapter 3 and work through the listening guides for that chapter, viewing the dedicated video.]

Week Four: "The Beatles and the British Invasion (1964-66)"
The Beatles transform the UK music scene and then invade America. Other Beatles-type British bands. The London blues scene and the Rolling Stones. Other Stones-type bands. The Who and the Kinks.
[Read Chapter 4 and work through the listening guides for that chapter, viewing the dedicated video.]

Week Five: "American Responses (1965-67)"
Dylan, the Byrds and folk rock. Garage bands in the northwest. Sonny and Cher and the legacy of Phil Spector. TV rock, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Monkees. Music in New York and Los Angeles.
[Read Chapter 5 and work through the listening guides for that chapter, viewing the dedicated video.]

Week Six: "Motown Pop and Southern Soul (1960-69)"
Berry Gordy and the rise and first flourishing of Motown. Atlantic, Stax, and southern soul (Memphis, Muscle Shoals, New York). Parallels between Motown and Stax. James Brown and the roots of funk.
[Read Chapter 6 and work through the listening guides for that chapter, viewing the dedicated video.]

Week Seven: "Psychedelia (1966-69)"
How can music be psychedelic? Underground psychedelic scenes in San Francisco and London. Psychedelia in LA. The Summer of Love and the rise of hippie culture. The birth of FM rock and rock magazines. Woodstock and Altamont.
[Read Chapter 7 and work through the listening guides for that chapter, viewing the dedicated video.]


The class will consist of lecture videos, which are between 8 and 12 minutes in length. These contain 1-2 integrated quiz questions per video. There will be quizzes for each chapter and a final exam.

Suggested Reading

Although the lectures are designed to be self-contained, we recommend (but do not require) that students refer to the book, What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History (Third Edition), which is the basis for this course. The book contains a more detailed treatment of all the topics discussed in the videos and its structure parallels that of the course. The book also includes dozens of listening guides. The publisher (W.W. Norton) has made an online version of the text available to Coursera students with added features. Extra assignments for those using the book are given in brackets in the Course Syllabus.

Unfortunately, the expense of licensing music to support a course like this is prohibitive. Students are therefore asked to seek out the music discussed here (most of which is readily available on the internet). Because artists cannot be paid otherwise, we encourage all students to purchase the music they enjoy when possible; a playlist of listening guides presented in the textbook is available through iTunes.

Course Workload

2-4 hours/week

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