Teaching Pop Music: Music Theory with the Rolling Stones

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of teaching pop music in private music lessons. Incorporating songs that your student knows (with some discretion, of course) can improve their interest, engagement, and excitement about lessons — especially if it’s one of their favorites!

Here’s an example of how I used pop music to teach one of my bass students about chord progression analysis, bass line creation, and musical cadences. We even worked on some ear training, too!

How can “Under My Thumb” outline basic music theory concepts?

One of my adult bass students learned the recorded bass line for the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” in December 2013. Because my student had not yet learned how to read traditional musical notation, I created tabulature in Musescore that we used during this unit. We focused on the line’s rhythmic nuances and learned some new concepts like tied notes, sequences, and eighth note rests.

(Note that this is a song that I would not choose for a younger student because its lyrical content can be problematic. However, an older student is able to parse the content and make his or her own interpretation of the material.)

Five months later, we were able to revisit it after an introductory unit on music theory and creating bass lines to accompany provided chords. My student had already been successful in creating a written line to play against a simple I-IV-V 12-bar blues and I wanted to expand on this by looking at a more complex song.

Here’s how I walked him through it:

  1. Indicate the chords for each measure of the walking bass line tabulature.
  2. Ask my student to go through the tabulature, phrase by phrase, and identify each pitch.
  3. Look at how each pitch supported the accompanying chords. Did they use chord tones to outline their line, like we had talked about the week prior? (The answer was “yes.”)
  4. Take a closer look at the chord progression for "Under My Thumb."Assess the overall tonality of the song. We agreed that though the introduction and verses centered around a repeated F#m-E-D progression, the tonality of the chorus and the final measure of the song placed this song in the key of A major.
  5. Look at how the pitches chosen support the chords chosen. We found that much of the bass line featured 1, 5, and flat 7 chord tones, even when played under major chords. The presence of a flat 7 adds ambiguity and tension to the song.
  6. Ask my student to identify the roman numerals for each phrase. We found that the F#m-E-D progression of the introduction and verse could also be thought of as vi-V-IV. (This also explained the presence of a D major chord after an F#m.) On the other hand, the chorus’ progression was I-IV-II-vi-V-IV-I.
  7. Now that we were armed with this information, we let it guide how our ears heard the song. A repeating vi-V-IV progression certainly explains the lack of resolution and tension that you can hear in those sections of the song.
  8. Take a closer look at the chorus to understand why that B major/II chord stuck out so much. I showed how the II chord actually didn’t belong in the key of A and how it was, in fact, a borrowed chord.
  9. I pointed out how after the initial I-IV chords, the ear expects to hear the V chord. Instead, you hear that borrowed II chord, followed by a vi chord, before you finally get to the V! And then, of course, the chorus ends before you know it, with a plagal cadence.
  10. Finally, look at the end of the song once more. Though that repeating progression returns again, we confirmed that because the song ends with one final A chord, this progression thus turns into F#m-E-D-A – a plagal vi-V-VI-I cadence that mimics the end of the chorus and firmly places the tonality of the song in A major.

Under My Thumb Ending Chords

There’s a lot of interesting music theory stuff in that song, and it allowed my student to take all of the concepts we’ve been working on for five months and bring them all into one.

Do you have any cool music theory realizations from studying pop music with students? Are you interested in teaching pop music but aren’t sure how to integrate it into your lessons? Or are you curious about taking music lessons with me?

I’d love to hear what you think. Leave me a comment or hit me up on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+!

One thought on “Teaching Pop Music: Music Theory with the Rolling Stones

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