Areas of Expertise (9)
Rock 'n' Roll
Music and Culture
Progressive Rock in the 1970s
The Rolling Stones
Philosophy and Aesthetics of Music
John Covach is Director of the University of Rochester Institute for Popular Music, Professor of Music in the College Music Department, and Professor of Theory at the Eastman School of Music. Professor Covach teaches classes in traditional music theory as well as the history and analysis of popular music. His online courses at Coursera.org have enrolled more than 350,000 students in over 175 countries worldwide.
Professor Covach has published dozens of articles on topics dealing with popular music, twelve-tone music, and the philosophy and aesthetics of music. He is the principal author of the college textbook What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock Music (W.W. Norton) and has co-edited Understanding Rock (Oxford University Press), American Rock and the Classical Tradition and Traditions, Institutions, and American Popular Music (Routledge), Sounding Out Pop (University of Michigan Press), as well as the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones. He is one of the founding editors for Tracking Pop (Michigan), a series devoted to scholarly monographs on popular music. He appears regularly on radio and television in North America and England, and his writing may be found in Time, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, CNN.com and FoxNews.com.
As a guitarist, Covach has performed widely on electric and classical guitar in both the US and Europe and recorded with the progressive rock band, Land of Chocolate. He currently performs with several bands, including Going for the One.
University of Michigan: Ph.D., Music Theory and Composition 1990
University of Michigan: M.A., Music Theory and Composition 1985
University of Michigan: B.A., Music Theory and Composition 1983
- Institute for Popular Music : Director
Selected Media Appearances (20)
What Makes a Song a Hit?
WXXI Connections radio
What makes a song a hit? How does the political climate change music during different points in history? And what does the changing music industry mean for artists and audiences? We explore these questions with our guests, who weigh in on the forces that shape music in popular culture. We also preview a performance called “Hitmakers: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” now on stage at the JCC CenterStage. Our guests: John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music and professor of music at the University of Rochester, and professor of theory at the Eastman School of Music
Genesis sells music for $300M: report
New York Daily News print
In 2021, John Covach told the Daily News there probably isn't one single reason some musicians choose to part ways with their music
How the Rolling Stones overcame heroin addiction to make 'Exile'
NY Post print
In many ways, 'Exile on Main St.' is for the Rolling Stones what the 'White Album' was for The Beatles," said John Covach.
Racializing Rock: The ’60s and the White Sounds of ‘Pet Sounds’
As musicologist John Covach writes, soul artist James Brown was an unusual example of an African American in total control of his career at this time.
Simon Says Pay Me
New York Daily News online
John Covach told the Daily News in January that musical icons like Simon may be selling out now because the writing is on the wall.
Beach Boys become latest mega-star pop act to sell their music rights
New York Daily News online
Wouldn’t it be nice to own the Beach Boys’ song catalog? The band that brought the world pop classics including “I Get Around,” “Good Vibrations” and “Wouldn’t it Be Nice?” has sold its intellectual rights to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group
The times, they are a cha-ching-ing! Iconic musicians like Bob Dylan and Neil Young are cashing in
New York Daily News print
“You can imagine if you’re Bob Dylan and you’re looking back at songs you wrote in the ’60s and ’70s, it may feel like those songs were written by a different person,” says John Covach, director of the University’s Institute for Popular Music. “There may no longer be as much of an attachment.”
One minute and 42 seconds of Van Halen's guitar transformed music
Apart from all the other things for which he is now being remembered and mourned, Eddie Van Halen -- who passed away Tuesday at the age of 65 -- was among the most important figures in the development of electric guitar playing in the second half of the 20th century.
This rock-and-roll song launched a musical genre about kids, cars and crashes
Washington Post online
“Teen Angel” became the first teen-tragedy song to reach No. 1 on the charts and paved the way for a distinct, though short-lived, musical genre about youths dying in car or motorcycle wrecks. It was an unsettling tune for an unsettling time in music history. But its release also came at a unique social moment, as teen culture began to coalesce and embrace a new kind of music. Record company executives looking for the next Elvis Presley saw dollar signs in the largely white demographic that had money to buy 45s and long-playing albums. They wanted songs that would resonate, according to John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester in New York and author of “What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History.” “Teen Angel” and similar hits zeroed in on the intensity of first love and embodied the “teenage idealization of death and romance,” Covach said. “In most cases, the death that occurs … is either proof of fidelity and love, or it's a consequence of love and fidelity."
A Scholarly Approach To The Rolling Stones
Hear & Now -WBUR radio
The Rolling Stones are still touring more than 50 years after the band got together in England in the 1960s. There are shelves of books about the band, but a new book, "The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones," takes an academic look at their music and their legacy. Book Excerpt: 'The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones' By Victor Coelho Exile, America, and the Theater of the Rolling Stones, 1968-1972 The lyrics range from scriptural verses about Lucifer and the Prodigal Son to stories of beggars, sinners, prowlers, addicts, transients, outcasts, Black militants, groupies, and road-weary troubadours; the web of musical inﬂuences is spun with multi-colored threads of urban and rural blues, country, calypso, R&B, rock and roll, folk, gospel, and even the English choral tradition. The four albums released by the Rolling Stones between 1968 and 1972 – Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street – constitute for critics, fans, and historians the core identity of the group and the lasting, canonical repertory that has deﬁned the Stones' musical, historical, and cultural legacy. Excerpted from ‘The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones', edited by Victor Coelho and John Covach.
Op-ed: Why Ric Ocasek's 'The Cars' was the first new wave album you owned
He was at the leading edge of '80s New Wave, but Ric Ocasek, who died on Sunday at 75, was about the age of Bob Dylan and most of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. When he made his first commercial splash as the lead singer and songwriter of The Cars in the late 1970s, he was already a mature musician and songwriter, more than ready to earn his place in history as the driving force behind the rise of 1980s new wave rock -- the music that was pushing past the likes of the Stones and Dylan.
The Rolling Stones, Still Filling Stadiums, Know What You Need: An Annuity
New York Times print
I'd like to believe that the Stones are as ageless as Peter Pan. But it turns out that the band chose, as its sole tour sponsor, the Alliance for Lifetime Income — a trade association that promotes the sale of annuities. To be fair, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger didn't alter their classic hit, “You Can't Always Get What You Want.” The alliance did. Ads for cigarettes, alcohol and fast cars are what I would have expected from the Stones' brand a decade ago. Sorry: Two decades ago. Maybe three or four or even five decades. But not in 2019. The band's demographic has aged, and that has commercial consequences. “When fans move with the musicians, there's no reason that advertising shouldn't move with them,” said John Covach, a Rolling Stones scholar and professor of music theory who directs the University of Rochester's Institute for Popular Music.
Rolling Stones Postpone Tour, Citing Mick Jagger's Health Problems
New York Times print
“Who can tour around the country when they’re 70 or 75 years old?” said John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music, who has taught a course on the Rolling Stones. Covach said that for avid fans of the Stones or other landmark ’60s bands, many of whom are baby boomers, news of farewell tours and rock stars dying of natural causes can remind them of their own mortality. “It forces a lot of fans to come to terms with the fact that this music from their youth, the people who produced it, are passing from the scene.”
Tom Petty's rock 'n' roll was pure
On the cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 1979 breakthrough album, "Damn the Torpedoes," Petty stands holding a 1960s Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. The choice of this out-of-fashion guitar, along with Petty's late-Beatles haircut, betrays a dedication to an earlier time in rock and pop.
How Chuck Berry gave us rock ‘n’ roll—and stood out in its wake
Few would deny that Chuck Berry—who passed away on Mar. 18 at the age of 90—was a central figure in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. As a performer, guitarist, and songwriter, he played a crucial role in crafting a style that would dominate pop music for more than six decades. One important but perhaps sometimes overlooked key to Berry’s success and influence was his ability to make records that nobody else could copy. An artist could, of course, cover one of Berry’s songs—but his unique qualities made it nearly impossible to eclipse the Berry original. For a man whose claim to the title of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding father remains a lively question, this quality—his distinctiveness as both a performer and a songwriter—is, perhaps, at the core of his legacy.
Sgt. Pepper: It Was 50 Years Ago Today
In the summer of 1967, few other bands could have released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. [The album is re-released in a special edition today May 26. Sgt Pepper was released in the US on June 1 1967.]
Battling the British Invasion: Mr Tambourine Man and the fight for American pop independence
The Conversation online
Fifty years ago, in the first half of 1965, the British invasion was officially under way – at least, in music. It seemed like all the biggest hits on the American pop charts came from British bands. Ever since The Beatles’ pivotal first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964, the American shores had been flooded by a steady stream of English bands with matching suits, moptop haircuts, endearing accents and catchy tunes.
The Atlantic online
John Covach, a rock historian from University of Rochester Institute for Popular Music, in a statement called Prince “one of the most important artists in American popular music during the last two decades of the twentieth century.” “As a performer, he challenged the limits of sexuality, in many ways paralleling Madonna’s musical exploration of suggestive behaviors and taboo topics during the 1980s,” Covach said. “He will be remembered as one of most significant artists in American popular music history.”
The Story Behind David Bowie’s Name Change
Time Magazine online
It was a relatively normal practice at the time to take on a stage name, but Bowie took that tradition one step further: David Bowie wasn’t just a pseudonym. The name change was linked to his penchant for creating an ever-changing persona, rock historian John Covach told TIME. “What started out as a simple name change became a character,” said the 56-year-old director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester in New York. “That part was enormously innovative.”
Prog rockers belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
University of Rochester Newscenter
The 32nd annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be held on Friday, April 7th at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York, and this year’s class of inductees is one of the most musically diverse yet. In this episode of the QuadCast, student host Nick Bruno ’17 sits down in the studio with John Covach, a professor of music theory and the director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester, to discuss this year’s inductees, the Rock Hall, and its place in music history. Then, with the help of his guitar, Professor Covach walks us through Yes’s hit song Roundabout and explains what makes it such an important part of rock history...
Selected Articles (4)
Review of Robert Freeman, The Crisis of Classical Music in America: Lessons from the Life in the Education of Musicians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)Music Theory Online (MTO)
2015 Robert Freeman is probably best known among post-secondary music faculty as the former director of the Eastman School of Music; he came to Rochester from a musicology post at MIT in 1972, served for more than two decades at Eastman, and left in 1996 to take up positions as dean at the New England Conservatory and then later at the University of Texas at Austin. While Freeman had very little administrative experience when he began the top job at Eastman, he soon became a leading figure in collegiate music administration, in part because of his vision and innovation as director, and in part owing to the prestige and standing of the school he led. Indeed, many today would consider Freeman to be among the country’s most authoritative and experienced senior figures in performing-arts leadership—the dean of music-school deans.
To MOOC or Not To MOOC?Music Theory Online
2013 At colleges and universities across North America, online education is a topic that has generated a significant amount of discussion in the past year or so. In many ways, the idea of online education is only the most recent version of something that got its start in the nineteenth century: the correspondence course. (1) The development of radio and television in the twentieth century, and then the rise of the internet over the last twenty years, has made it possible to conduct courses with far less time lag than was present in the early days of distance learning, when lessons and assignments were carried by surface mail. Each issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education seems to bring word of some new development or wrinkle in the rapid development of online courses, and perhaps no topic is more controversial than MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). (2) While many embrace the idea that MOOCs make college-level learning available to thousands who would otherwise not have pragmatic access to it, others worry that MOOCs threaten to put traditional college courses out of business. (3)
Traditions, Institutions, and American Popular Tradition: A special issue of the journal Contemporary Music ReviewContemporary Music Review
John Covach, Walter Everett
2013 This issue of Contemporary Music Review focuses on the composers, performers, theorists, historians, critics, and listeners who welcome the potentially difficult-but also potentially fruitful-intercourse between" classical" and" popular" styles and techniques in American music and culture; this group of new essays addresses a variety of philosophical, historical, and analytical topics concerning the relationships between the learned and the vernacular in the music of this century's stage, screen, sound recordings, and academies. Taken together with its companion volume," American Rock and the Classical Music Tradition," these essays suggest that the interaction of popular and art music in American culture not only raises a number of fascinating and even sometimes highly charged issues, but that it also has a rich history dating back at least to the end of the nineteenth century...
The hippie aesthetic: cultural positioning and musical ambition in early progressive rockRock Music
2011 This study takes its point of departure from two problems that regularly recur in historical accounts of rock music. The first problem consists of a strong tendency among many writers to neglect much mainstream rock from the 1970s, often to focus on the rise of punk and its transformation into new wave in the second half of the decade, or perhaps also to chronicle the emergence of disco and the strong reactions to it. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Elton John, the Eagles and many others are frequently mentioned only in passing, while highly successful progressive rock bands such as Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Yes are neglected almost entirely." The second problem is that rock music from the 1966–69 period–frequently referred to as “psychedelic'music—is often kept separate from the mainstream 1970s rock that follows.