Inspired by the late Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University where he shared how auditing a calligraphy class in college inspired him years later to add diverse fonts to Apple computers, we set out to visit classes around campus that make us think differently about what it means to be educated. This is one in a series of drop-ins.
When professor Armando Tranquilino takes out his blue Rickenbacker bass guitar, students are not only entertained but they’re learning about the social and historical impacts of one of the world’s biggest bands.
The History of The Beatles (MUH 2370) is an unorthodox course attracting students of all majors. It’s taught face-to-face and online by Tranquilino, a composer and musician. The professor takes an in-depth look at the social changes of the 1960s and the mass influence of the Fab Four.
“In the 40s and early 50s, kids sort of dressed like their parents and pretty much listened to the same music,” says Tranquilino, a professor in the School of Music. “In the 60s, everything was completely shaken up, fashion alone changed drastically. It was a social phenomenon.”
In addition to showcasing the diverse sociocultural influences on the band’s success and their lasting impact on pop culture, the course covers The Beatles’ success as a business, highlighting their management and promotions. The band’s ingenuity in the studio, with help of producer George Martin, is also a recurring topic, exploring the innovative techniques that made their recordings so revolutionary.
“They went from having fairly simple songs to creating truly amazing ones toward the end of their time together. The technology developed along with them, but they took advantage of it in a highly creative way,” he says.
The Beatles experimented with everything from classical and electronic music to even avant-garde. Tranquilino breaks down their most iconic songs, exploring what makes each one of them special.
“I limit the musical information to non-music majors,” Tranquilino explains. “So, there’s no need to read music or to know the difference between F# minor and D diminished, but I do talk about what any music listener can understand and appreciate, such as how the meaning and emotional impact of a song is driven by its melody, harmony, rhythm and the structure of the song itself—verse, chorus, refrain, etc.”
Tranquilino’s goal is for students to begin listening to music differently with a new understanding of musical form and to gain perspective on the impact of the band’s work, which he adds can still be traced today in most modern rock music.
Other angles explored in the course include art, fashion and politics.
“And that’s the great thing about The Beatles,” he says. “There is more to cover than I actually have time for.”
The course, which debuted in 2006, was designed with students of all majors in mind and is supplemented by Tranquilino’s book, The Beatles: A Magical HISTORY Tour, which he wrote a few years into teaching the course based on the notes and packets he’d hand out for each lesson. The online class usually attracts around 200 students per semester.
“I don’t really plan a word-by-word lecture, every time I teach it, it’s a little bit different. So it still entertains me. There is still a lot there to discover.”
In 2007, Tranquilino was voted “best professor to jam with” by the Miami New Times.
“I’m learning that I like The Beatles a lot,” says theater major Carlos Artze, who is currently taking the course. “I thought they were just a cool band but now I know just how much they changed everything. I feel like I actually have some music history knowledge.”
The story of The Beatles is ultimately one of bold determination and authenticity, which Tranquilino hopes will inspire his students —most of which are of the same young age that The Beatles were when they started performing in their late teens and early 20s— to pursue their passion, however unconventional it may seem to others.
“The Beatles were rejected by all the major labels before they finally got signed and they believed in what they were doing and didn’t give up,” he says. “They knew what they were doing and they were okay with failing.”
Widening their appreciation for music and history through the lens of The Beatles, students leave the course understanding how the climate of the 60s made room for their success and how the Beatles helped shape the world that came after them.
Sofia Fernandez, a health administration major whose father is a huge Beatles fan, enrolled in the course last year after seeing one of the fliers on campus. She shared what she learned after each lesson with her father.
“I’d known all of their songs since I was three years old but I never really knew the band’s true history,” she says. “I got into the band even more, which I didn’t think was possible.”
Fernandez adds that the class was the perfect elective for her, allowing her to focus on something outside of her major that was still engaging and significant.
“I remember everything I learned in the Beatles class,” Fernandez says.
“Sometimes you take a test in a specific subject and you don’t remember what you’ve learned weeks later. But when you really want to just learn something for the fun of it, you remember it forever.”