Punk Rock In(vades) the Classroom

You’ve all heard of punk rock – The Ramones, The Clash, mohawks, attitudes, piercings, et cetera. But did you know there are certain traits from punk culture that can be beneficial to our students? But isn’t punk rock inappropriate? This belief might get you pushback from administrators or parents. The same was said about hip-hop, and there is currently a big push for hip-hop’s inclusion in the curricula; so why not punk? Punk rock is a style of music, yes, but it also has a rich culture (fashion, art, community, and philosophy) that should not be ignored. 

Punk Culture exists at the intersection of music, visual art, fashion, community gatherings, and dancing. Punk art exists in the form of punk ‘zines, flyers or album art usually created by the bands or fans. It’s not uncommon to see a range of punk clothing from jeans and band shirts to mohawks and Doc Marten’s. Punks gathered at landmarks like CBGB in New York where The Ramones, Blondie, and Patti Smith got their start; The Church in Hermosa Beach, California where Black Flag lived, 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, where The Replacements played alongside Hüsker Dü who recorded Land Speed Record there, the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., where Minor Threat and Bad Brains played, 924 Gilman Street in Berkley, California where volunteers opened an all-ages venue where Operation Ivy and Green Day got their start. Punk rock is very inclusive and conscious about representation. All you need to do is look at Punk Island NYC, a purely DIY festival that strives for true representation of the punk community.

Inclusion in Our Curricula. Another key component of the culture of punk rock is the DIY (do-it yourself) ethos, which helped hardcore bands flourish in the early 1980s. It would benefit our students if they knew kids their age took it upon themselves to learn how to play, write their own songs; they created record labels to record and release their own music. They learned how to book and promote tours, and even figured out how to create their own record sleeves from paper.

Punk’s aggression is a healthy outlet for letting out energy and emotion, something your students need. Bands like Bad Religion whose lead singer Greg Graffin has a PhD. in zoology introduce a higher level of vocabulary in their songs in addition to playing with vigor. Punk rock bands are known to have anti-establishment leanings that reject the music, culture, and norms of their modern society – a counterculture. This component will help your students think critically about the world around them.

Punk Rock Music. Punk rock is a rebellious music genre characterized by fast, raw, and often political or humorous lyrics. This section is by no means the be-all-end-all of defining punk rock, but serves as a reference point using the elements of music – rhythm, melody, harmony, form dynamics, timbre, texture, lyrics:

Rhythm:

Fast, straightforward rhythms; agile.

Driving, relentless beat. 

Simple, repetitive drum patterns.

Melody: 

Simple, straightforward, memorable, and catchy hooks.

Could be amelodic in the form of screaming or yelling.

Countermelodies can happen on guitars or background vocals.

Harmony: 

Minimal harmonic complexity, I, IV, V, and vi chords.

Power chords and/or dissonant intervals. 

Modern punks have started to expand their harmonic vocabulary.

Form: 

Simple, linear song structure with verses, choruses, and a bridge. 

Short and concise. 

Minimal instrumental solos or complex arrangements (an antithesis of this is “The Decline” by NOFX). 

Dynamics: 

Loud, and limited dynamic range. 

Consistent loud volume and intensity. 

More contemporary practices incorporate a wider range of dynamics. 

Timbre: 

Raw and distorted guitars.

Aggressive, hard-hitting drum sounds. 

Snarling or shouted vocals. 

The instrumentation can be minimal but impactful.

Recording quality substandard in the early days.

Texture: 

Straightforward and dense, homophony.

Tight rhythm section and prominent guitar work. 

Commonplace – all instruments to play at full throttle. 

Lyrics: 

Addresses themes of rebellion, anti-authority, social and political issues, personal experiences; confrontational or rebellious tone.

Humorous lyrics. 

Straightforward and direct, emphasizing the message

Punk in Modern Band. Take some liberties with the arrangement of a non-punk song using the elements of punk music as a guide – speed it up (rhythm), add distortion (timbre), crank the volume (dynamics). You could also choose a punk song and change the style and feel – slow it down (rhythm). instead of power chords, make everything a seventh chord (harmony). A great example of this is the song “Straight Edge” by Minor Threat and the NOFX cover. Use the elements to write a 30-second song. Guide them through the process with a series of choices and limitations. Pop punk, ska, or hardcore? Chord progression – I – V – vi – IV, or choose your own. Writing lyrics can be done with sentence starters or a worksheet. Ask questions like “What are you upset about today?”, “What about it makes you upset?”, “What will make you feel better?”, “Use four words to describe how you feel.” I don’t like my lunch today, it’s the same gross thing everyday, I wish I had a grilled cheese or a PB and J. I hate my lunch.”  

Incorporating punk music in your classroom opens the door to new possibilities of experimentation with your curricula. Introducing students not only to punk, but its culture and ideals can yield many rewards for your classroom and, more importantly, our students’ lives.

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John M. Licari is a modern band director, concert band director, and upper elementary general music teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 

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