Testing the MOOCs: Coursera’s The Music of the Beatles


I wrote earlier about taking a class on Coursera, “The Music of the Beatles.”  I signed up early and was pretty excited, because, let’s face it I love The Beatles. I also ran out and picked up a couple of the recommended texts. I downloaded Beatlessongs by William Dowlding to my iPad, ordered Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and waited for the show to start.

In the week before the course began I confirmed my enrollment in the class.  Students are encouraged to introduce themselves in the web forums.

Note to selfIn the future don’t check the box that allows each poster to appear as an e-mail and thus avoid 300 or more e-mails stating something like “Hi I’m Regina from Vizcaya, Spain.  I’ve been listening to the Beatles since I saw them in Paris in ’63.  I love their music and can’t wait for class to begin.” 

The course was for six weeks and focused on musical influences on the Beatles, with a weekly analysis of the evolution of their music from Please, Please Me to Abbey Road and Let it Be.  Each week covered two albums, a pretty manageable bite out of the catalogue. The accompanying readings covered the same ground.

The lessons consisted of video lectures by University of Rochester music theory professor John Covach.  I found his lectures delightful.  His discussion of the Fab Four’s song forms were very understandable. Covach focused on several topics for each album: song form, songs by Paul McCartney, songs by John Lennon, and later songs by George Harrison.  He also focused on three distinct periods in their music-the craftsman era (when the Beatles were mostly covering the songs of others, or writing American-influenced pop;) their artist period when their music became more mature, more serious (and drug-influenced,)  and more psychedelic; and a final look at the Beatles as they became more of a singer/songwriters’ co-op.  Each week comprised 6-8 lectures per week, each  7-16 minutes  in length. Each week’s lectures were followed up by a ten question quiz.

First, let me just put it out there that I really enjoyed this class.  I loved the lectures.  Covach is interesting and engaging, as much a fan of the Beatles as the rest of us, but with the practical and theoretical grounding to inspire curiosity in the non-musical masses (or at least this non-musical mass.)  Every bit of exposure to the music as well as the opportunity to hear and explore different perspectives on their music was absolutely worthwhile.

However, it wasn’t a piece of cake for me.  The course states 2-4 hours work per week. Often the lectures would consume more than two hours. It’s important to touch bases with the music, so assume at least an hour of listening, double that if possible.  The real challenge for me was keeping current with the reading.  The Dowlding and Lewisohn books aren’t difficult, it was just a question of making the time.  Unfortunately I got as far as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band in Beatlessongs, and not far at all in Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. I’m hoping to catch up a little further this summer when I have a little more time. I took all the quizzes, including the 21 question final.  I did well enough not to embarass myself, and I am convinced I have a better understanding of the Music of the Beatles, which was the whole point.

Based on my experience with this one Coursera class, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend taking one.  I’ve already registered Covach’s History of Rock and Roll class, and purchased the text book.  It is actually part one of a two part class and it looks pretty interesting. I’ve searched the Coursera catalog and there are lots of really interesting titles beyond the music classes that keep my pop culture juices flowing. If you’re someone who has the time and wants to continue to learn and explore, the Coursera classes seem to be a free and relatively painless avenue to expanding one’s repertoire.



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