School of Rock: What We Can Learn From Rock Music

It's easy to dismiss rock music as loud and dumb, and sometimes it is. Sometimes, that's even part of its charm. Other times, though, songs may be hiding some nuggets of knowledge behind their driving beats and power chords. Sorry, Alice Cooper, but school's in. Schools offering Ethnomusicology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

By Eric Garneau


1. History

Claudia Ferradas Moi, head of the T.S. Eliot Bilingual Center in Buenos Aires, singles out the 1991 Genesis track 'Driving the Last Spike' as an exemplary connection between rock music and academia. The song is about the workers who built England's railroads, many at great personal cost. Similarly, though more abstract, the Who's anthemic 'Won't Get Fooled Again' can cast some light on a revolutionary atmosphere. And of course there's Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire,' a textbook romp through the latter half of the 20th century if ever there was one.

2. Literature

You might not believe it, but British heavy metal icons Iron Maiden closed out their 1984 album Powerslave with an abridged version of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' set to hard rock music. Even abridged, though, the track hits almost 15 minutes in length. Going a little more classic, Led Zeppelin's known for their many references to J.R.R. Tolkein, like reminding us that 'the ringwraiths ride in black' in 'The Battle of Evermore.' Something about dark fantasy literature just seems to compliment hard rock.


3. Science

Brooklyn alternative rock band They Might Be Giants has released an entire album dedicated to the physical world entitled Here Comes Science. It contains tracks that explain processes like photosynthesis and evolution to the same catchy beats and alluring melodies that originally made the band popular in songs like 'Particle Man' and 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople).' If you think about it, those songs are pretty educational too! Looking towards the future, you might consider what tunes about space travel - like David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' or Elton John's 'Rocketman' - have to say about the relationship between science and the human spirit.

4. Vocabulary

Bad Religion songwriter Greg Graffin, currently a professor of paleontology at UCLA, likes to bring out five-dollar words as often as possible. The Empire Strikes First, from 2004, is full of lines like 'the quickening is an ephemeral thing' and 'desperate tenacious clinging like a grain of sand... drunk with the assertions they know they can't defend.' And then there's indie sensations the Decemberists, whose lyrics sometimes read like graduate school English essays. Consider their majestic 'Sons and Daughters,' with the couplet 'by land, by sea, by dirigible / we'll leave our tracks untraceable.'

5. Hope

At its best, rock music, like all great art, inspires us. It can be a great comfort when you feel down, and a great traveling companion when you're feeling energized. Consider the words of a master songwriter like Bruce Springsteen, whose 'Thunder Road' (surely one of the greatest songs of all time) is mired in sadness yet percolating with promise. 'Riding out tonight (we're going) to case the promised land,' Bruce promises. 'I know it's late, we can make it if we run.... It's a town full of losers, and I'm pulling out of here to win.' Sometimes we all feel like that; it's nice to know some of the greats can sympathize.

6. Not to Check in to the Hotel California

Seriously. It's terrifying there. Avoid dark desert highways at all costs.

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