The world of pop music, and that of classical music, are usually presented almost as if in opposition to each other. In many pop culture movies, if a character is hip, they notably scorn Western classical music.
It’s far more accurate, though, to say that modern pop music is a younger relative of the venerable and centuries old genre. Here are eight examples — among many more — where pieces of classical music have a direct link to radio hits.
Lady Gaga – ‘Alejandro’ / Vittorio Monti – Csárdás
In her 2010 single “Alejandro”, Lady Gaga samples from Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás, a piece written along the lines of a traditional Hungarian dance. Monti (1868-1922) was an Italian composer and violinist from Naples. His Csárdás was written in 1904, and is the most famous of his compositions. Gaga samples Csárdás in the opening of the single, and it becomes the song’s iconic theme.
Eric Carmen/Celine Dion – ‘All by Myself’ / Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor
Eric Carmen couldn’t deny that he lifted the second movement, Adagio sostenuto, of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor for the verse of his power ballad “All By Myself”. Released in 1975, the song hit No. 1 in North American charts. Apparently, Carmen believed he could use it at will, but later had to settle with the Rachmaninov estate since the work was not yet in the public domain. Celine Dion would release her own version of the song in 1996 on her album Falling Into You.
Multiple Artists / Pachelbel – Canon in D
Many, many pop artists have used the instantly recognizable chord progression of Pachelbel’s Canon in D for their songs. That includes pop star Kylie Minogue’s “I Should Be So Lucky”, and rockers Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” as well as Maroon 5’s “Memories”. As quoted in The Independent, noted British pop music producer Pete Waterman (who co-wrote Minogue’s 1988 hit) described Canon in D as, “almost the godfather of pop music because we’ve all used that in our own ways for the past 30 years”.
Multiple Artists / Erik Satie – Gnossienne No. 1
The opening strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 have been used in a few different pop and rap songs. In 2020, there was Avatar Caine and “Versaille”, and in 2017, rappers G-Eazy & Carnage had a hit using it in the song “Guala”. French popsters Dooz Kawa and Ky-Mani Marley used it in their 2007 song “Destinée”. That’s just three examples of about eight that currently exist. The piece’s mood and modernity seem to ensure its continued popularity as source material.
Muse – ‘The Globalist’ / Elgar – Nimrod
English rock band Muse used the inspiration of Bach’s Toccata in D minor for the guitar line on their song “Plug In Baby”. They went back to the classical music well for their 2015 song “Globalist”. The dystopian track depicts a dictator destroying the world, and gets its sense of grandeur from Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations (Variation IX (Adagio) “Nimrod”). “Drones”, from the same Muse album, samples from Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina’s Benedictus.
Janelle Monáe – ‘Say You’ll Go’ / Debussy – Clair de Lune
American singer and rapper Janelle Monáe is clearly a fan of Claude Debussy. She samples from his famous work Clair de Lune in her song “Say You’ll Go”. The 2017 track begins with minor 9th chords in a jazzy mode. The last two minutes or so transition from moody piano and vocals to Debussy’s unmistakable melody from the 3rd movement from his Suite Bergamasque. The song arrangement adds a chorus of singers as it fades out.
Zayn – ‘Blue’ / Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude No.1 in C Major from The Well–Tempered Clavier
British singer Zayn’s song “Blue” was a bonus track on his 2015 album Mind of Mine. In it, he sings a sad song about regret and romance against the Prelude No.1 in C Major from Bach’s The Well–Tempered Clavier. Many critics singled out the track from the album for its musicality and the beauty of the melody.
Bright Eyes – ‘Road To Joy’ / Beethoven – Ode to Joy
Bright Eyes is an American indie folk band led by founder and frontman Conor Oberst. They’re back together in 2022 after several years in hiatus. Back in 2005, on their album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, they included the song “Road To Joy”. The lyrics are cynical and, in fact, the very antithesis of Beethoven’s message, so it’s probably fair to characterize their use of his ubiquitous Ode to Joy as ironic.
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