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Pop in the lecture hall: from Be-Bop-A-Lula to Bieber
© KU Leuven - RS

Pop in the lecture hall: from Be-Bop-A-Lula to Bieber

In his pop music course, Professor Jeroen D'Hoe outlines the broad scope of pop. From the oldest blues to the newest beats.

13 minutes
05 July 2021

What did The Beatles have in common with Singin' in the Rain? Why no Kendrick Lamar without Miles Davis? And what was the name of Bob Dylan's medieval predecessor? Three quiz questions that KU Leuven students can easily answer after taking the pop music course. Teacher Jeroen D'hoe sketches a wide picture of pop from the oldest blues to the newest beats and focuses on a few timeless pearls.

In 2019, KU Leuven blazed a new trail by being the first Belgian university to offer a biannual course in ‘pop music’. The subject is a permanent part of the bachelor's degree in musicology, but other students can also take part.

“The course was partly at the request of the students,” says teacher Jeroen D'hoe, a musicologist and composer himself. “Pop music was already taught at a number of universities of applied sciences, but those courses are aimed at students with musical ambitions. There was no academic approach to pop music yet. Pop music – the name says it all – is the most important music genre within popular culture. If you want to paint a broad picture of music history, musicologists cannot ignore the 20th and 21st centuries.”

“During the course I talk about the major trends within pop and how they relate to social developments,” says D'hoe. “In addition, I go deeper into the music itself. You can't study pop music as you would classical music, of course, because it has its own ‘language’ and rules. But the genre is not inferior. In the US, UK and Germany, it has been developing for about thirty years. There are even journals that only publish articles about pop music. Moreover, there are pop artists who, as composers and performers, really do reach the level of a Mahler or Bach.”

Beatles c Mirrorpix Alamy Stock Photo HR B3 ND72
© Mirrorpix Alamy Stock Photo

Tin Pan Alley

It’s estimated that about 40,000 pop songs are released around the world every day. Many more songs have settled in to the collective memory over the decades. How do you put together this kind of pop music course? And where in all of that do you start? From the moment Chuck Berry wrings ‘Maybellene’ from his Gibson, Elvis’ hip-swaying routine wins over teenage girls’ hearts or Jerry Lee Lewis shows you can play the piano with your rear end?

“A lot of people do indeed think of rock-‘n’-roll when it comes to pop, but there was already a long history before that,” says D'hoe. “The first traces of ‘popular music’ can be found at the end of the nineteenth century. Roughly speaking, the moment the gramophone record player made its appearance. An important precursor is the blues, which became immensely popular in the 1920s and 1930s and originated from the work songs that slaves sang on plantations. With the arrival of the electric guitar and rhythm-and-blues, that style of music changed until artists like Chuck Berry come up with a new variant. Without the blues, there would have been no rock-‘n’-roll and no pop music as we know it today. It all connects.”

In the first lesson, D'hoe pays extensive attention to blues and the Great American Songbook. “The canon of popular music and the jazz standards of the early twentieth century”, he notes. “Just think of songs from big Broadway shows or early Hollywood musicals with Fred Astaire. Or Tin Pan Alley, a New York collective of music producers and songwriters that delivered nearly all of the hits from that era and included legendary songwriters like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin.”

Miles c Pictorial Press Ltd Alamy Stock Photo HR A2 JN58
© Pictorial Press Ltd Alamy Stock Photo


Many of those numbers have since disappeared from our radar. We think it's a shame, because what about funny song titles like ‘Makin' Whoopee’, ‘The Night We Called It A Day’, and ‘I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face’? Do hits from the twenties, thirties or forties still register with students today?

“That might surprise you,” says D'hoe. “For example, many songs from the Great American Songbook are performed today by Michael Bublé, Jamie Cullum or Diana Krall. Contemporary artists whose CDs are often left lying around by students' parents. Many of those songs can still be heard in talent shows on TV or in movies. Timeless songs like ‘White Christmas’, ‘My Funny Valentine’ or ‘Moon River’ .... That’s how young people pick up on that.”

What’s the state of pop music knowledge of the youth in general? Do they know their ‘classics’? “That varies,” says D'hoe. “Early rock-‘n’-roll, for example, doesn't mean much to young people anymore. If I ask what they think of 'Be-Bop-A-Lula' they might guess it's a rock-‘n’-roll song, but they wouldn't be able to attach an artist to it.”

“At the same time, research shows that people in their twenties have more difficulty storing contemporary hits in their musical memory than particular classics. That may be due to the generic nature of these recent songs. They’re often based on a certain formula and are therefore very similar. Recent songs by Justin Bieber, Beyoncé or Kelly Clarkson are already forgotten after a few months, whilst you only have to hear ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen once and it stays with you forever.”

According to D'hoe, young people are also less aware that there is a historical through line in music. For example, the music from the Great American Songbook, like the blues, has an effect on the work of later superstars. “Paul McCartney, for example, grew up with the records of old Broadway musicals à la Singin' in the Rain. He naturally took that influence into account in his own work. Just listen to a song like ‘When I'm 64’, which is heavily influenced by those jazz standards and could just as well have been written in the 1930s. In my lessons I try to show those musical connections.”

Pop music is not an inferior genre. Universities in the US, the UK and Germany have been studying it for about thirty years. There are even journals that only publish articles about pop music.


When we talk about pop music, it's hard to ignore The Beatles. Since the sixties, they’ve managed to seduce just about every new generation with their catchy songs. How can that success be explained? “The Beatles managed to mix the rhythmic rock-’n’-roll of Chuck Berry with the infectious melodies of the Tin Pan Alley songs. So you get a combination of white and black culture. Songs like ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ or ‘Help!’ sound fantastic when played on an acoustic guitar because of the melody, but the electric energy and sound of rhythm-and-blues give them a little something extra. There are also influences from traditional British folk music, which you can hear in a song like ‘Norwegian Wood’.”

“Apart from that, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were just really strong composers, constantly evolving and delivering ground-breaking work without losing sight of the general public. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, from 1967, is quite an experimental and complex song for its time, but it is also one of the most famous Beatles songs. Just about all of their songs are earworms. ‘Penny Lane’ stays in your head for a whole day after one listen. Songs that are completely unique and yet sound simple, that's the power of The Beatles.”

D'hoe therefore introduces the Fab Four in detail in the second major lesson, which focuses, among other topics, on the period of rock-’n-roll in the fifties, and the many pop and rock groups that stemmed from there in the sixties. “In those decades, ‘modern pop’ took shape,” says D'hoe.

“Several branches of music derived from rock-‘n’-roll. Think, for example, of the hard rock of Jimi Hendrix, the blues rock of The Rolling Stones or the folk rock of The Byrds.”

“For the first time, something like a youth culture emerged, which completely coincided with the music. I'll end the period with Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles, an album that brings together many elements of music history and at the same time is so innovative that it, in turn, influenced countless artists.”

Research shows that people in their twenties have a harder time storing contemporary hits in their musical memory than particular classics.

Lyrical gems

In the last two parts, D'hoe zooms in on the singer-songwriter phenomenon and the origin of hip-hop. “Singer-songwriters are actually a genre of their own,” he says. “The emphasis is as much on the lyrics as on the music. Artists like James Taylor or Paul Simon, for example, really expose themselves in their songs, singing in a poetic way about their struggles or emotions. That's different from songs about girls, cars or ‘blue suede shoes’ (laughs).”

The genre also has a long history, according to D'hoe. “As early as the Middle Ages, you had itinerant troubadours who composed their own music and wrote lyrics. One of those original singer-songwriters was the British lutenist John Dowland, who was enormously successful in the seventeenth century. There is also a strong link with folk music, although the latter has a more political charge. Bob Dylan – just about the greatest singer-songwriter of his time – was, for example, strongly influenced by folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. His early protest songs – ‘Blowin’ in The Wind’, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’' or 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' –drew heavily on that folk tradition, whilst he later started writing more personal lyrics.”

Amongst the ‘ho's'’, ‘niggas’ and ‘bitches’, you’ll also find lyrical gems in hip-hop. D'hoe tells his students how the genre came about in the 1970s, and also cycles past other black music genres from the past decades. “A lot of those genres stem from gospel,” he says. “You can hear the interaction between the cantor and the choir, and the call-and-response structure of black church songs in soul and Motown. Think of James Brown, who chanted his lyrics like a preacher and was answered by his backing singers. Funk and disco also stem from this. And when DJs started mixing that music and MCs started rapping to it, you get early hip-hop.”

Hip-hop also influences other genres of music, often giving them a modern twist. “The rhythm-and-blues of Ray Charles, for example, sounds quite different from the R&B of Beyoncé or Rihanna, which arose within hip-hop. Soul music and Motown also got a makeover. Just think of the music of Amy Winehouse, who actually made ‘neosoul’.”

In addition to classics, works by relevant artists from recent years are also featured.

Pimped-out butterfly

In recent years, hip-hop has only become more important within pop music. The genre has almost completely supplanted rock. Is rock on the brink of death? “I don't think so, but it's becoming more and more niche. The popular music among the youth is hip hop and electro. In the future, rock may share the same fate as blues. There are still blues musicians and blues festivals, but it's far from the popular genre it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Maybe rock will also become something for a more limited but loyal audience.”

During the series of lessons, D'hoe goes deeper into a few legendary albums (see inset) that each time ‘explain’ a certain genre. “Real case studies,” he says. “I’ve noticed that this makes the theory more comprehensible for students. When it comes to singer-songwriters, for example, I include an early Dylan album, and we go deeper into Graceland by Paul Simon – his great comeback album. But it's not just ‘classics’. I also pay attention to relevant artists of recent years. For example, I discuss the hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, or Overgrown by the electro-pop artist James Blake.”

There is so much contemporary music. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? “I look at what an artist means for the music itself, but also at the social impact they have,” says D'hoe. “James Blake, for example, explores the boundary between electro, classical music and avant-garde, creating a new kind of electro-pop. Kendrick Lamar managed to innovate hip-hop by rapping in an original, complex way and incorporating jazz into his music. You can even hear muted trumpets on To Pimp a Butterfly, just like with Miles Davis. At the same time, he exposes social problems – just listen to a song like ‘Alright’, about Black Lives Matter. I think there’s a good chance that young people will still be listening to those records in thirty years’ time.”

Magical music

In addition to lectures in which D'hoe sheds light on the historical and stylistic evolutions in pop music, there are also tutorials in which musicology students analyse pop songs. “How does a pop song come about and what are its building blocks? For example, I zoom in on a particular arrangement, the producer's role in mixing a song, or the way in which the recording studio is used as an extra ‘instrument’. I invariably sit down at the piano during that type of analysis. If I’m talking about a certain chord or melody that I want to draw attention to, I can play it – that makes it enjoyable for the students too.”

These analytical techniques can be of great use to musicology students later in their professional life, says D'hoe. “In addition, they can also do their master's thesis on pop, which can be an extra asset if they want to develop further in that direction. That sort of musicological knowledge can be very useful if they aspire to a career as a music critic, for example. Or if they are looking for a job in the concert and festival world.”

Isn't the magic of music lost when you start analysing it? “I try to be vigilant about that,” he says. “You shouldn’t get lost in details, you should keep the big picture in mind. Analysis needs to be audible. You can focus on a certain detail – the bass line of ‘Daytripper’ or the operatic harmony vocals in ‘Bohemian Rhaspsody’ – but you also have to show how that contributes to the power of a song. A bit like taking apart the gears of a watch, seeing how cleverly it’s put together, and then reassembling everything afterwards. For me, that just makes music more magical.”

Pop professor Jeroen D'hoe selects five indispensable albums for your record collection.

1. West Side Story (soundtrack)

1961 – various artists

D'hoe: “The soundtrack to the ground-breaking musical that was first performed on Broadway in 1957 but became even more famous with the 1961 film version. Leonard Bernstein composed the music, while Stephen Sondheim provided the lyrics. The songs contain Latin influences – think of chacha or mambo – but are also based on the modernist classical music of Stravinsky.”

2. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

1967 – The Beatles

D'hoe: “An innovative, eclectic album that still captures the imagination of listeners and pop artists. The role of producer George Martin as ‘fifth band member’ and of the recording studio as an additional ‘instrument’ set a new standard in pop music.”

3. Graceland

1986 – Paul Simon

D'hoe: “Proof that Paul Simon's solo work isn’t inferior to that of his perhaps more famous group Simon & Garfunkel. An irresistible mix of polymetric South African rhythms, rock-‘n’-roll, country, and top-notch singer-songwriting.”

4. Back to Black

2006 – Amy Winehouse

D'hoe: “Winehouse builds on the sound of ‘Motown girl groups’ like The Marvelettes or Martha & The Vandellas and adds personal lyrics about broken relationships and drug and alcohol addiction. Her emotional singing style has the same urgency as Billie Holiday's and a jazz bravado reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan.”

5. Black Radio

2012 – Robert Glasper Experiment

D'hoe: "A tasteful and original mix of jazz and R&B hip-hop which completely blurs the boundary between the two genres."


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