By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager
MIT juniors and seniors recently had the opportunity to take a deep dive into the musical world of the Beatles. Students enrolled in 21M.299 The Beatles surveyed the music of this iconic band, mapping how the Beatles’ musical style changed from skiffle and rock to studio-based experimentation. They examined the cultural influences that shaped the band, as well as the group’s influence worldwide. While some of the students had prior experience with music analysis, others did not. Yet, a spirit of collaboration pervaded the course and enhanced the written analyses students completed on a weekly basis. So how did this happen?
We interviewed the instructor of the course, Music and Theater Arts Lecturer Dr. Teresa Neff, to find out how she facilitated learning experiences to meet the needs of students with diverse skill sets. You can read excerpts from our interview below. Whether you’re an educator facing a similar situation, a Beatles fan—or both—we think you’ll enjoy listening in on the conversation.
OCW: Why did you select the Beatles as the topic for this musical analysis course?
Teresa Neff: I wanted to teach a course about the Beatles because of their popularity today and their influence on the 1960s. I hoped that by looking at the Beatles’ body of work, students could see where these musicians came from, how they were open to new influences, and how they influenced each other.
We also had ample materials that could support the course. Hunter Davies’ The Beatles and The Beatles Anthology served as the mainstays of the class. We had other texts about the Beatles owned by the MIT Lewis Music Library. These materials allowed us to supplement our studies beautifully.
“When you want to engage with music analysis, you either have to have people who are conversant, or you have to have a lot of good scores that can help bridge any gaps for participants who feel unsure about doing this kind of work.” — TERESA NEFF
The plethora of available materials helped equalize the skill sets that students brought to the course. This was important because when you want to engage with music analysis, you either have to have people who are conversant, or you have to have a lot of good scores that can help bridge any gaps for participants who feel unsure about doing this kind of work. The Beatles anthology provided that kind of support: it had all of the music, text, and individual lines. It also had the guitar tabs. So even if a student could not distinguish a tonic from a dominant, they were still able say, “This note is a D and this note is G.” It allowed me to open the class to an audience wider than that of only students with prior music analysis experience. I love the Beatles. But having materials that could support the music analysis work was incredibly important in selecting the Beatles as the topic of the course.
OCW: Tell us about the role of collaborative learning in the course.
Teresa Neff: The Beatles lived an insulated life in the 1960s. They couldn’t go out without being mobbed. As a result, the four of them were always together. They spent their time listening to and playing music together. In that process, they were constantly learning from each other. The opening of “Blackbird” has a lick that comes from the Bach Bourree in E-Minor. It’s come out in an interview with McCartney that they were trying to noodle through one part of the Bach Bourree, and it morphed into the opening of “Blackbird.” This happened because were just living with the music. That’s what was going on in the 1960s with the 45s and the LPs. You sat down and you listened together, without headphones. It was communal.
I wanted the course experience to emulate the Beatles learning from each other. As such, group work became a central component. I administered a questionnaire at the beginning of the course to gauge students’ musical skill sets and used that information to make sure that students with strong musical abilities were grouped with students who felt less confident in their abilities, so that they could help each other get better at the focal skills. We also constantly shifted groups so that everybody in the class worked with everybody else. My guiding philosophy was that everybody could bring something to the table.
The focus of the course was on students’ group presentations, but they also needed some historical context for their analyses, and providing that became my role. I structured the class such that we all listened to one album every week. That was their preparation for my lectures, which were then followed by their own presentations in the next session. We went chronologically by British release of each album. I also threw in some singles and the Magical Mystery Tour as supplementary material. I tried to provide insight into who the band members were before they were The Beatles, context about George Martin, Capitol Records, the coming to the United States of the Beatles, the whole concept of Beatlemania, the other players at the time, how the Rolling Stones fit into the scene, and the blues artists John Lennon and Paul McCartney were trying to emulate. I gave them this context, and then let the students take it from there. I thought this strategy was incredibly successful. I was so pleased with the work the groups did that I’ve started to apply group learning to other courses I’m teaching.
You can read the complete interview with Teresa Neff on the Instructor Insights page of her OCW course.
Keep learning! The following courses and Instructor Insights may be of interest to you:
More OCW Courses Offered by Teresa Neff
This course surveys the development of popular music in the United States and in a cross-cultural milieu relative to the history and sociology of the last two hundred years. It examines the ethnic mixture that characterizes modern music, how it reflects many rich traditions and styles, and provides a background for understanding the musical vocabulary of current popular music styles.
This course surveys Romantic musical genres including song, choral music, opera, piano sonata, character cycle, concerto, symphony, and symphonic poem, including the composers Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler.
This course surveys seven Baroque and Classical genres: opera, oratorio, cantata, sonata, concerto, quartet, symphony, and includes work by composers Bach, Handel, Haydn, Monteverdi, Mozart, Purcell, Schütz and Vivaldi.
More on Musical Analysis
This class is an introduction to the analysis of tonal music. Students study rhythm and form, harmony, line and motivic relationships at local and large scale levels of musical structure.
This course explores the ways that music is both shaped by and gives shape to the cultural settings in which it is performed, through studying selected musical traditions from around the world. Specific case studies will be examined closely through listening, analysis, and hands-on instruction. The syllabus centers around weekly listening assignments and readings from a textbook with CDs, supplemented by hands-on workshops, lecture/demonstrations and concerts by master musicians from around the world.
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