In today’s music world, classical music is often considered to exist in a category of its own, outside of pop, rock, and other popular genres. Most classically trained musicians stay away from playing non-classical music and vice versa, and the Grammy Awards even divide many of their awards into classical and non-classical categories. Non-musicians could be forgiven, then, for seeing such a sharp divide between these two worlds. For successful musicians and songwriters, however, this divide simply doesn’t exist. Some of the most popular songs from today’s biggest artists, from Radiohead to Barry Manilow, have been inspired by classical composers.
Here are five brilliant composers who have inspired great songs, and could inspire you to write better music as well.
1. Sergei Prokofiev
Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev has inspired many pop hits, and it’s no wonder – the composer was known for his powerful melodies, which are exemplified in pieces like "Peter and the Wolf," "Romeo and Juliet," and the "Lieutenant Kijé Suite." This last piece in particular has been a major inspiration in the pop and rock world: Sting’s satirical "Russians" is based heavily on the "Romance" from Lieutenant Kijé, and Greg Lake (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) took the inspiration for his dark Christmas classic "I Believe in Father Christmas" straight from Lieutenant Kijé’s "Troika."
2. Frédérik Chopin
The music of Frédérik Chopin, arguably the most romantic of all romantic composers, has inspired songwriters of all stripes to indulge their melancholy sides. Radiohead’s "Exit Music (For a Film)" makes clever use of Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E Minor, while Barry Manilow takes a more obvious approach to appropriating the music of the Polish composer, using the opening chords of Chopin’s Prelude No. 20 in C Minor as the basis for his hit "Could It Be Magic."
3. Ludwig van Beethoven
Rapper Nas is certainly not one to be restricted by genre boundaries. With "I Can," he proves that Beethoven’s "Fur Elise" is not only a lovely piece to learn on the piano, but a great sample to use in a rap song as well. Other notable Beethoven fans include Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, who used his version of one of the most famous melodies in the world – Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" – to form the verse of his punny song "Road to Joy."
4. Samuel Barber
American composer Samuel Barber’s "Adagio for Strings" has inspired not one, but two classic EDM remixes – a 1999 version by William Orbit and a more recent version from Tiesto. It’s a wonder how one of the saddest pieces of all time – one that’s often played at state funerals and war memorials – has now been turned into massive party song.
5. Johann Sebastian Bach
Where would contemporary music be without the legacy of one Johann Sebastian Bach? Not only did his use of harmony and counterpoint dramatically influence the way we hear and play music today, but many of his pieces have also directly inspired popular songs. These include Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance" (inspired by "The Well Tempered Clavier"), Muse’s "Plug in Baby" (inspired by "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor"), The Beach Boys’ "Lady Linda" (inspired by "Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring"), and Procol Harum’s "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (which contains odes to both "Air on the G String" and "Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156").
The examples above are the most obvious uses of classical music in contemporary songwriting, but of course, classical music can inspire songwriters in other ways as well. Even without directly borrowing from these composers, you can learn a lot about how to write a great song simply listening to their music. It could be the way they use dynamics, the types of chord voicings they use, or simply the feeling they evoke that inspires you. Whatever it is, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t turn to classical music as a source of inspiration.
Plus, the best thing about borrowing from classical composer is that, even if you quote one of their melodies directly, you don’t have to pay them royalties (as long as their music is in the public domain, that is – you wouldn’t want the estate of Samuel Barber coming after you for your new EDM cover of Adagio for Strings, now would you?).
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.