Classical Music In Popular Songs: You Know More Classical Music Than You Think

Feb 1, 2016

Musicians have been sampling other artists' songs for decades. Though some get into hot water when they blur the lines between homage and theft, when pop culture borrows a tune from classical music, it's usually more flattery than fines.

Recently, some VPR colleagues sat together in a studio to play bits of well-known songs from the '60s through today that we'd heard may have borrowed some, if not all, of their melodies from classical pieces. Here are a few examples we found from all over the musical landscapes of pop, rock, Motown, country and hip-hop.

You Know More Classical Music Than You Think

A Whiter Shade Of Bach: Though we're only fairly certain that the lyrics describe quite the raucous night on the town during the Summer of Love, we're very clear that Procol Harum's 1967 hit, "Whiter Shade of Pale," uses the melody of Bach's "Air" from his Orchestral Suite #3.  Give it a listen here.

Always Chasing Chopin: Judy Garland's performance of the popular Vaudeville tune, "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" from the 1941 film, "Ziegfield Girl" makes us swoon, perhaps because the melody itself is actually from Frederic Chopin's 1834 "Fantaisie-Impromptu" (the tune starts at 1:15 in the video below).

All By My C Minor: Jumping to the mid-'70s power ballad of undesired solitude, "All By Myself," Eric Carmen gracefully borrowed from another solitary soul: Sergei Rachmaninoff. The tune is straight out of the second movement of Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor."

Annie's Tchaikovsky: Even the self-declared, spectacled country boy, John Denver dabbled in borrowing notes from classical music. You can hear the first five notes of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's "Fifth Symphony" in Denver's love ballad to his wife, "Annie's Song."

Bach is for Lovers: The girl group The Toys had a number-one hit in 1967 with "A Lover's Concerto," which is Bach's, "Minuet in G." This beautiful and ultra-familiar melody might just be an ear-worm that won't quit. At least it's a melodic, Bach-inspired ear-worm.

Fur Elise I Can: Fast-forward to 2003 for the Beethoven-meets-hip-hop anthem "I Can," by rapper and artist Nas. The song encourages youth to pursue their dreams and stay drug-free while Beethoven's "Fur Elise" encourages you to practice your left-handed arpeggios.

Classical music is full of surprises. Do you have more to share? Post them below or contact VPR Classical!