Essential Question

How can teachers help students analyze and understand Rock and Roll?


Songs are like portals. Look into them and you can see the world in which they were made, see the social, cultural, and political landscapes that affected their making and their makers. For many listeners, however, it isn’t instinctual to approach music in this way. And it’s for good reason that this is the case — the personal, emotional response to music often overwhelms other ways of listening. This lesson is our effort to share some methods for bridging out from the personal/emotional response in order to contextualize songs and encourage critical thinking, hopefully giving teachers and students a sense for the rich possibilities around bringing popular music into the classroom.

If putting songs against their backdrops is an aim here, it nonetheless makes sense to begin with the music itself, considering issues of song structure, instrumentation, production, and so forth. While the aim of Rock and Roll: An American Story is to explore the many ways in which Rock and Roll can be analyzed, it is the music that provides the reason and the energy for such an undertaking. The music then becomes a kind of launching pad for an approach that situates songs in their moment. It is our belief that to understand and discuss a song’s basic musical features does not require expertise in the field, just the love of music that got us all here in the first place.

In this lesson we explore one song — Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” released on Chess Records in 1958 — and suggest several analytical frameworks in which one can deepen one’s understanding of the song: using a listening template; using a timeline to understand a song’s historical context; understanding Rock and Roll as a visual culture; understanding Rock and Roll as performance; understanding Rock and Roll as a literary form; and understanding the industry and technology of Rock and Roll. Of course, what we do with “Johnny B. Goode” can be done with any song. The objective is to understand a recording in the most complete way possible.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will develop frameworks through which they may

  • Use a Listening Template to understand a song
  • Use a Timeline to understand the historical context in which a song was created
  • Understand Rock and Roll as a visual culture
  • Understand Rock and Roll as performance
  • Understand Rock and Roll as a literary form
  • Understand the industry and technology of Rock and Roll