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A Scholarly Celebration of The Beatles

by Michael Betzold05/24/2017

As a graduate student at SMTD, Walt Everett (professor of music theory) wanted to do his dissertation on The Beatles-but he couldn't.

That was in the early 1980s, and at the time, the Fab Four weren't considered worthy subjects for scholarship. So Everett did a more traditional dissertation on Franz Schubert.

Sticking to the academic canon paid off. Soon after receiving his PhD, Everett joined the SMTD faculty. But he'd been obsessed with the boys from Liverpool since his teenage years, and he kept trying to publish papers about them.

Finally, in 1986, The Musical Quarterly ran his essay "Fantastic Remembrance in John Lennon's 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Julia.'" It was the first time the field's top journal had published a piece on pop music. Even Everett was surprised: "I guess I was in the right place at the right time," he said.

By the end of the 1980s, SMTD and other schools had changed their tune about The Beatles and other rock and pop music; it has been an accepted part of music theory studies ever since-and Everett's papers and books have made him one of the world's top experts on The Beatles. Both an ardent fan and a serious scholar, he has some of Paul's talent for accessible and engaging narrative, John's depth on social issues, George's seriousness of approach, and Ringo's playfulness.

The School now embraces Everett's scholarship so fully that it is hosting a landmark international conference (June 1-4) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the revolutionary concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Titled "Summit of Creativity," the symposium is Everett's baby-and he's going all out to make it a success. The four-day event on North Campus will include other notable Beatles scholars and people who have worked with or reported on The Beatles, including Ken Scott, the band's primary engineer in 1967-68; and Anthony DeCurtis, a long-time editor and contributor to Rolling Stone who has interviewed Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr at length.

Everett became a fan of the band as a child, after having already developed an interest in music. When he was growing up on the Jersey Shore, his parents went regularly to the opera and Broadway shows. Fiddler on the Roof composer Jerry Bock had been in his mother's class at Flushing High School in New York, and wrote their school musical. Everett took piano lessons starting at a young age.

He first saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's TV show in 1964, when he was nine. His parents didn't think much of the mop-tops. But to Everett, their electric arrangements were a revelation, an entirely different kind of music. He bought their records and, as an undergrad at Gettysburg College, taught himself guitar so he could play their songs.

Countless baby boomers did the same, but Everett was more than a fan. He was eager to explore exactly how and why The Beatles' music worked so well. As his music theory education took him deeper into classical music, he realized that the best contemporary rock music, and The Beatles in particular, "worked on the same principles as Mozart" and other classical composers. One example is the trumpet solo at the end of "Penny Lane," which was inspired by one of Bach's Brandenburg concertos.

In his office, Everett sat down at the piano to demonstrate one of his favorite analytical tools-Schenkerian theory-playing "ornaments" that support various tonal structure. "The Beatles' music is well-understood through Schenkerian analysis because of its musically goal-directed nature," he explained. "They make use of melody, counterpoint between parts, and chord relationships in ways that progress toward goals or build expectations of musical goals." A music theorist or professional musician will understand what he means; others will recognize what he's playing on the piano as elements of pop songs they've heard all their lives.

He broke down those structures even more painstakingly in his 2008 book The Foundations of Rock (which, in another mark of popular music's academic ascendancy, was published by Oxford University Press). With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Everett recruited U-M students to record the individual musical components he documented for a website to accompany the text.

Any musician wanting to learn rock techniques-and any fan wanting to understand the inner workings of their favorite songs-could spend weeks exploring the site. It's like a rock 'n' roll cookbook with all the ingredients carefully laid out-such as "the Dorian expression of tonic," a chord progression that "the Zombies' 'She's Not There,' the Association's 'Along Comes Mary,' and Santana's 'Oye Como Va' all have in common," Everett said. "The doo-wop progression, a chord progression whose bass line descends in thirds, is most closely tied to 1950s vocal groups, but is still heard in Arcade Fire, Spoon, Weezer, and Cake."

Everett's acclaimed two-volume work The Beatles as Musicians (1999) expanded on his articles to explore the Beatles' aesthetic appeal and eclectic genius. The books are dense dissections of the music, so he thought only a small number of scholars would buy them-but they ended up selling well even outside academia. He thinks that's because "so few previous publications talked about [the Beatles']  songs as music, or their performance practice, or even the instruments they used in any thorough way."

His upcoming book, coauthored with public radio music critic Tim Riley, "is written for readers with no musical background whatsoever." It will be marketed to college students but aimed at general readers as well. In it, he and Riley focus on 25 iconic Beatles songs-not just their musical aspects, but their roles in the worlds of social protest, psychedelia, and fashion-everything that made Beatles songs so integral to their era. Everett is a virtuoso in illustrating how The Beatles borrowed from many sources-classical music, show tunes, Indian music, Motown, and blues-to create their pop concoctions.

At 62, Everett still has a teenybopper's passion for pop music. And he says his students are amazingly attentive to his insights into the music of their grandparents' generation. He's heard today's students dismiss Nirvana as "old music" because it dates to 1990 but says he's never heard any diss the Beatles that way. The group has yet to skip a generation in their appeal, and in this sense, as well as their sheer genius, they are becoming a contemporary form of classical music-enduring, deep, and always open to fresh interpretation.

No one pooh-poohs Everett's research interests any longer. "It's a long time since I've encountered any resistance," he says. "Most of the music faculty support research and teaching in many forms of popular music."

Fifty years after Sgt. Pepper's, is anything left to be discovered about the Fab Four? Absolutely, Everett says-for instance, the album's impact on the "Summer of Love," hippies, Woodstock, and the Vietnam-era antiwar movement. "Whenever I listen to a Beatles song," he says, "I hear something new." 


An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer. Reprinted with permission of the author. 

past news

August 2017

Walter Everett, professor of music theory, will be presenting his paper, "Command and Surrender in Patti Smith's 'Land'," to the Women in the Creative Arts conference at Australian National University in Canberra, on 12 August, 2017. This work is drawn from his projected book on sex and gender in rock music, co-authored with Katie Kapurch (assistant professor of English at Texas State University, San Marcos).   08/04/2017

April 2017

Visitors to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance might wish to see the Music Library's exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Two authentic sets of autographs, records from six countries and other artifacts will remain on display through through June.   04/21/2017

Fellowship awarded to PhD candidate 04/04/2017

February 2017

Anna Nelson, Ph.D. student in music theory, will present her paper, "Adorno's Musically Influenced Philosophy: Schoenberg's 'Idea' as Resistance to the 'Culture Industry," to the 23rd Annual Symposium of Research in Music Theory at Indiana University on March 25, 2017.   02/21/2017

Michigan Theory Department in Toronto 02/08/2017

June 2016
March 2016

René Rusch, Assistant Professor of Music in Music Theory, will present her paper, "The Four Key Exposition? Schubert's Sonata Forms, the Fantasia, and Questions of Formal Coherence," at the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic conference in Philadelphia, April 8-9, 2016.   03/14/2016

January 2016

Karen Fournier on David Bowie's final statement: "Knowledge Comes from Death's Release: Blackstar Recalls David Bowie's Influence on Goth."   01/22/2016

December 2015

Michael Schachter, Ph.D. student in Theory and Composition, has been invited to present the keynote address to the Graduate Student Forum's conference at Bowling Green State University in March 2016.   12/07/2015

October 2015

Asaf Peres, doctoral student in music theory, will be presenting three different papers to gatherings this fall: "Modes of Listening and Music Addiction" to the national SMT conference in St. Louis, "TechnoSpeak: Why the Language of Music Technology Should Be Integrated Into the Music Curriculum" to the national CMS meeting in Indianapolis, and "The Gestural Dominant: Filter Sweeps, Pitch Glissandi, and Drum Intensification as Dominant Functions in 21st Century Pop Music" to the Ann Arbor Symposium IV.    10/12/2015

Walter Everett, professor of music in music theory, will be presenting a talk entitled "Two Approaches to Beatles Research: Plumbing the Recording Process and Parsing a Text," at Duke University in November. In September, Everett was a faculty member for the week-long Second International Postgraduate Summer School in Ösnabrück, Germany.   10/12/2015

April 2015

  William Van Geest, PhD student in Music Theory, will give a talk entitled "Meter in the Music of Anton Webern: New Perspectives on Metric Theory" at the Brandeis University Musicology Conference on May 2, 2015.  He will also deliver the paper, "Metrical Ambiguity in the Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier" at the KeeleMAC conference in England in July.       04/14/2015

  Jim DiNardo, PhD student in Music Theory, will read his paper, "The Soloist as Form-Functional Agent in Rachmaninov's D-minor Piano Concerto,"  at the KeeleMAC conference in England this July.       04/14/2015

Vivian Luong, Ph.D. student in Music Theory, will deliver her paper, "Toward a Radical Theory of Music-Theoretical Ethics, Morality, and Music Loving,” for the Committee on the Status of Women at this fall's meeting of the Society for Music Theory in St. Louis.   04/14/2015

  Michael Schachter, Ph.D. student in Music Theory, will present two talks at the national meeting of the Society for Music Theory this fall: "Structural Levels in South Indian Music" and "A Closer Look at Harmonic Prolongation in Jazz Performance."       04/14/2015

Somangshu Mukherji, Assistant Professor in Music Theory, will present his talk, "Are there movement transformations in musical grammar?," to the Society for Music Theory in St. Louis this fall.    04/14/2015

March 2015

U-M selects Sphinx’s founder as new dean of School of Music, Theatre & Dance 03/19/2015

Professor Somangshu Mukherji will deliver a talk entitled "Are There Prominent Movement Transformations in Musical Grammar?" at the May, 2015, meeting of Music Theory Midwest hosted by Oakland University, Rochester Hills, MI. At the same conference, a workshop on "Early-Career Publishing" will be co-led by Professor Patricia Hall.   03/13/2015

Professor Walter Everett, along with music education Professors Marie McCarthy and Carlos Rodriguez, will serve as program committee for the conferece, “Teaching and Learning in Popular Music," to be held at the University of Michigan in November 2015. Full details including the Call For Papers and a listing of invited speakers may be found at the link above.    03/13/2015

July 2014

Professor Patricia Hall will be presenting her paper, "Alban Berg's 'Guilt' by Association to the Music, Censorship and Meaning in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union conference at the Colburn School in Los Angeles this August.   07/12/2014

Heewon Chung, PhD student in music theory, will be presenting her paper, "The Limits of Tonality: Semitonal Modulations in Chopin's Music," at the 13th international conference on Music Perception and Cognition and the fifth conference for the Asian-Pacific Society for Cognitive Sciences of Music in Seoul this August.   07/12/2014

April 2014

Bryan Parkhurst, who will defend his dissertation for the PhD in Philosophy and Music Theory in May, will be a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Music at Columbia University beginning Fall 2014. He plans to translate Moritz Hauptmann's Die Natur der Harmonik und Metrik, as well as to write a book-length commentary on its Hegelian philosophical underpinnings.   04/30/2014

Asaf Peres has received a Graduate Student Fellowship in the Michigan Institute for the Humanities for academic year 2014-15. He is writing a dissertation developing analytical methods for current commercial pop music's digital soundscape.   04/30/2014

Professor Guck Delivers Lectures on Philosophy of Music Perception 04/30/2014

Professor Mukherji to Speak in London this July 04/04/2014

Áine Heneghan, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, will present her research on Schoenberg's Formenlehre at the following conferences, all in 2014: Music Theory Midwest (Appleton, WI), the Eighteenth Biennial International Conference on Nineteenth-Century Music (Toronto, Canada), EuroMAC (Leuven, Belgium), and the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory (Milwaukee).   04/01/2014

March 2014

Wayne Petty, Associate Professor of Music Theory, will read his paper, "Some Multimovement Designs in C. P. E. Bach's Late Keyboard Sonatas" at the Seventh EuroMac conference, which will gather scholars from all music theory societies in Europe in Leuven, Belgium, from 17 to 21 September, 2014.  An adaptation of the paper will be presented to the Society for Music Theory in Milwaukee in the Fall of 2014.   03/26/2014

Professor Robert Gjerdingen of Northwestern University will present his lecture, "The Institutionalization of Apprenticeship in the Great Conservatories: A Cognitive Interpretation of a Non-Verbal Praxis," as Michigan Distinguished Resident in Music Theory. The talk will be given at 4:30 P.M. on March 27 at the Cady Room (Stearns).   03/26/2014

Walter Everett, Professor of Music Theory, announces the publication of Los Beatles como músicos: De Revolver de la Antología (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2013), the Spanish translation of his The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology (Oxford University Press, 1999).   03/21/2014

Prof. Korsyn presents keynote in The Hague, serves in scholarly appointments 03/14/2014

December 2013

In January 2014 Professor Wayne Petty will read the paper, "Wilhelm Fischer and the Fortspinnung-type Sonata Exposition," at the Seventh International Conference on Music Theory in Tallin and Pärnu, Estonia.  The conference theme is "Musical Form: Mapping the Territories."   12/17/2013

September 2013

SMTD Welcomes New Faculty 09/27/2013

Ramon Satyendra, associate professor of music theory, has published his essay, "Morphisms of Generalized Interval Systems and PR-Groups" (co-authored with Thomas Fiore and Thomas Noll), in Journal of Mathematics and Music 7/1.   09/20/2013

Alan Gosman Co-authors New Beethoven Book 09/06/2013

June 2013

Music theory professor Walter Everett's role as an expert on the music of the Beatles was the subject of an article in      06/06/2013

Hall presents in Copenhagen 06/03/2013

September 2011
Current News

Marco Antonio Bertuccelli, an undergraduate student pursuing a double BM in Music Theory and Composition, will present a paper entitled "Towards a Greater Understanding of Nonconventional Interior Themes in Mozart Rondos" at the Bowling Green State University Graduate Conference in Music on February 10. 

On Friday, November 17, 2017, Dr. René Rusch will read an invited paper entitled ""Historical Hermeneutics Revisited: Schubert's Biography, Music Analysis, and the Narrative Impulse" at Michigan State University's College of Music.

The Department of Music Theory at the Society for Music Theorymore

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