Before college, I was by no means a hardcore Beatles fan. When I was a kid, my dad would play me a few of the classics—Golden Slumbers, Let It Be—but I didn’t consider myself well-versed in the Beatles discography whatsoever. When I got to MIT, my music taste evolved to include psychedelic rock, and I started encountering more Beatles cuts, but I still wasn’t interested in them enough to take an entire class on them.
In May, I watched MIT: Regressions, where I saw footage of Timothy Leary, the father of the psychedelic movement that flourished in the 60s/70s. Post-finals, when I had absolutely nothing to do, I started reading a lot about this movement and learned of the Beatles’ role in it. They not only helped establish the genre of psychedelic rock and catalyze the Summer of Love, but had written “Come Together” as a campaign song for Leary! Getting sucked into 60s lore and learning about the inception of my favorite music was fascinating, so when I was looking for a the art requirement of the eight humanities, arts, social sciences classes students must take class, 21M.285: The Beatles caught my eye, and I ended up rearranging my schedule so I could take it.
The class is so enjoyable. There are two sessions a week, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. Every Thursday, the professor talks about an album, gives historical context for it, and explains the musical influences behind the songs. On Tuesday, students present on a randomly selected song from the album in groups of two or three. The presentations are super chill; we mostly just analyze the instrumentation and main musical moments and talk about the story behind the song. All in all, the homework for this class each week consists of listening to an album, writing a brief (<200 word) response on it, reading a few chapters from the book The Beatles by Hunter Davies, and preparing for a presentation on a song. It’s super relaxed and fun!
Although there’s technically a prerequisite for this class—21M.301 – Harmony and Counterpoint—I enrolled without taking it. My classmates have a much better grounding in music theory than me, which was initially difficult since I’d have very little to say about keys and chord progressions. Over time, though, I gained a lot of nuance and became able to participate just as much as my more musically-trained peers.
The class started with the Beatles’ very first album, Please Please Me, which is most famous for “Twist and Shout” and “Love Me Do.” I only knew the most popular songs on it, so it was interesting to listen to the album with fresh ears while learning about the music that influenced it: skiffle, blues, country, Latin, folk, and more. I also loved learning about the group’s musical inspirations, like Chuck Berry and Lonnie Donegan, and picking out traces of their music in the Beatles’ earlier albums. With this, I was able to gain a new understanding and appreciation for the music I’d been hearing since I was a kid.
My favorite section of the class started a few weeks in, with the introduction of the album Rubber Soul. I knew this album for “Norwegian Wood” (thanks to a strange obsession with Haruki Murakami in high school) and saw it as the album where the Beatles’ sound grew closer to the music that I currently listen to and appreciate most. I was thrilled to learn what had shaped this new sound and how the group’s creation process was evolving.
Things only got better in the next week with the discussion of Revolver, the album that transformed rock and roll (and also my favorite). Hallucinogen-inspired and conceptually brilliant, this album pioneered a myriad of experimental studio effects. For example, in the song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a psychedelic classic, John Lennon’s eerie voice was created by placing a revolving speaker inside an organ—something that had never been done before, let alone considered. Hearing about all the technological intricacies of the album’s creation was beyond fascinating.
Then came Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, known for “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” While I knew this album was critically acclaimed, I didn’t know anything about its creation or status as a concept album, which turned out to be because the titular band is the Beatles’ alter-ego band, with Sgt. Pepper being Paul McCartney. Things only got weirder with our weekly presentations; I fought tooth and nail for the song “A Day in the Life,” which has been my favorite Beatles song since freshman year, and my kind classmates switched around their groups so I’d be able to get it! My team’s analysis ended up being seven pages…we went kind of hard since there’s so much to say about the song. There’s the reason it was banned in several countries—the decidedly non-sexual lyric “I’d love to turn you on,” which refers to Timothy Leary’s famous counterculture-era phrase about using psychedelics to evoke higher consciousness. There’s also the cacophonous orchestral swoop that connects John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s sections of the song, which was created by a group of 40 musicians randomly ascending from the lowest note on their respective instruments to the highest note closest to E major. Crazy!
Inspired by everything I’d encountered on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, I chose my final project topic to be about the Beatles’ relationship with psychedelia. In my paper, I broke down what constitutes the “psychedelic sound” and discussed the group’s impact on counterculture. Over Thanksgiving break, I was engrossed in reading the seven (!!) books I checked out from the MIT Libraries, and learned a lot about the Beatles’ contributions to psychedelic rock and place in the fabric of the 60s counterculture movement. I broke down every one of their psychedelic tracks (there are 20+) and ended up writing six more pages than what was required. That’s what happens when you’re really passionate about your final project, I guess.
Looking back, I wish I’d been able to take more HASS classes like this one. I’ve never been so motivated to learn so much about a topic, or tackled my final project in as little time as I did with this. I finished my Chinese minor this semester and definitely don’t regret pursuing it, but since my HASS requirements were being filled by language classes, I missed out on opportunities to take more whimsical classes like this.
It was so sick to be able to take a class where I learn a ton of lore about a topic I love. I also learned a lot about music theory and now feel that I’m able to listen to music with more trained ears. It helped a lot to have an open format for the class and a professor who’s willing to engage any contributions to the discussion, be they musical or cultural.
I had such a great time and would highly recommend this HASS-A!
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