Five-year-old Tom Payne heard the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 and had his own adrenaline-fueled reaction.
He tucked the tail of a coonskin cap underneath to emulate their mop tops on his head, grabbed a Jack-in-the-Box windup that was his closest toy to a true guitar and frenetically jumped up and down on his bed for about three minutes. His parents stood in the doorway, incredulous as to what exactly he was doing.
Today’s 60th anniversary of the release of the first Beatles single, “Love Me Do,” in the United Kingdom is as good a time as any to peek into Payne’s classroom to see how his Beatlemania is progressing all these years later. Payne is the David N. and Margaret C. Bottoms Professor of Music and chair of the music department at William & Mary, and his course Music of the Beatles has been immensely popular for years.
Originally started as a freshman seminar, Payne has taught Music of the Beatles for somewhere around 15 to 20 years, he says. He teaches it once per academic year. It’s always full, and he can’t grant all of the overrides students request to get in.
“It’s perhaps one of the most satisfying things that I have done in my college career,” Payne said. “I don’t know why. My particular specialty, for example, is medieval 13th-century religious polyphony, which is actually a lot better than I just made it sound.
“But I grew up with the Beatles. I enjoy it very much. I love teaching music; I get really involved in it. And this is a way that I can get students excited about studying music and not have it be 13th-century French stuff, which is great stuff and I can sell it to you like nobody’s business. But this is a way to communicate with students who wouldn’t normally take some of the classes I teach because they involve classical music.”
Students are likely interested in learning about the band because of its familiarity to them and because the material is slightly removed from the academic canon, according to Payne. He starts off the course by asking: “How am I getting away with teaching a class about a boy band that broke up over 50 years ago and released their first songs almost 60 years ago? Why are we still listening to them?”
Students still tend to know all the Beatles’ names and frequently know their songs from childhood through their parents or grandparents.
Although the Beatles and their music touched many areas of culture and could be taught in numerous departments, Payne said the Beatles were primarily musicians, and that’s what they really knew. His course focuses on the music with him and his students taking songs apart.
“I try to show them how the Beatles put a song together, what the elements are in that song and how those elements in that song work together to create some kind of satisfying experience musically where something happens,” Payne said. “And there’s an arc that has a beginning, middle and end, so to speak, and there’s some sense of satisfaction — a kind of a journey that you’ve gone through.
“All of this — as well as things that are in the lyrics — can be explained through musical means. Like why does this particular section of the song, like a bridge, have a particular structure to it? What’s its purpose?”
Additionally, they examine how particular recordings were made. Technology in musical production was developing and growing at the time, and many of the things the band was doing were experimental and unusual, according to Payne. Misusing equipment to get a particular sound is one example.
Focusing on the band’s musical development, Payne points out that the Beatles didn’t read music, and he uses musical notation sparingly. Most of it is done by ear.
What about all those iconic Beatles beats and bops that magically lift people up?
“We talk a lot about harmony, like chord progressions,” Payne said. “I have them memorize certain formulas that the Beatles and pop music and blues music and folk music use over and over again. There’s a lot of formulaic stuff in their songs.
“We’re a music class, so I say: ‘I want to explain to you and I want us to talk about when something happens in a song that makes us feel a certain way or that pushes us in a particular direction.’ There are frequently ways that the music itself — when you talk about abstract things like chord structure or a harmonic pattern — can explain why you’re getting that reaction.”
Side by side, professor and students continue to tinker with the sounds behind the phenomenon.
“It’s been very gratifying that a number of students have said that it’s been their favorite class at William & Mary,” Payne said. “Now I don’t know whether that’s because it’s really easy or not. What I find interesting is that they seem to get as excited as I do about it.”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist