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12 Rock and Pop Songs With Classical Origins

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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.


Most songwriters of rock and pop music have always held classical composers in high regard for their seemingly effortless ability to conjure up melodies that are memorable and powerful. So it's no surprise that they have made use of some of the more familiar pieces that fans can relate to even if they don't know the origin of the music. There's also the bonus that older classical music is in the public domain with no copyright restrictions in force.

Here are some of the many rock and pop songs that have benefitted from the compositional talents of some past masters of the classical world.

1. "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

1. Pictures at an Exhibition by Emerson, Lake and Palmer is a 1971 live album based on an 1874 musical work of the same name by the Russian composer, Modeste Mussorgsky. In addition to some original ELP songs, the album contains several stirring pieces from Mussorgsky's famous work such as "The Great Gates of Kiev" and "Promenade".

2. "Cans and Brahms" by Yes

This instrumental keyboard track is played by Yes band member Rick Wakeman on the 1971 album "Fragile". It's taken from the 3rd movement of Johannes Brahms' "Symphony No. 4 in E Minor".

3. "Bourree" by Jethro Tull

This instrumental piece on Jethro Tull's 1969 album "Stand Up" is a version of "Bourree", from Johann Sebastian Bach's early 18th century Lute Suite in E Minor. A Bourree is a traditional French dance, but I doubt if anyone could dance to this highly syncopated version. There are many compositions named Bourree in the classical reportoire dating from this period and earlier.

4. "A Lovers' Concerto" by the Toys

This 1965 song by the Toys takes its melody from the first section of "Minuet in G", a keyboard composition long believed to have been composed by J.S. Bach. Although one of the world's most familiar classical tunes, modern research has determined that the piece was In fact composed by Christian Petzold, a far less well-known German contemporary of Bach.

Apart from a change of meter in which the original time signature was changed from a spritely three-four to a more pedestrian four-four, the song follows the original melody pretty consistently.

5. "It’s Now or Never" by Elvis Presley

The tune of Elvis's 1960 song "It's Now or Never" is based on "O Sole Mio", an 1898 instrumental piece by composer Alfred Mazzucchi, arranged as a Neapolitan song by songwriter Eduardo di Capua with lyrics by Giovanni Capurro. Elvis happened to hear "0 Sole Mio" while on military duty in Europe and wanted to release a modern version of it on his return to the U.S. The modern lyrics are by Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder.

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6. "Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)" by Eumir Deodato

"Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)" by Eumir Deodato is a 1973 jazz-funk remake of the opening of "Also Sprach Zarathustra", an 1896 tone poem by the German composer Richard Strauss. Deodato added (2001) to his title in reference to the movie "2001 - A Space Odyssey", which famously featured the original Strauss version. The Deodato version makes an unforgettable appearance in the Peter Sellers movie "Being There".

7. "A 5th of Beethoven" by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band

As its name suggests, this disco hit from 1976 is based on the opening movement of Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 5 in C Minor". It reached no.1 in several US and Canadian charts and was featured in several movies including "The Stepford Wives" and "Mystery Men".

8. "Because" by the Beatles

John Lennon was reportedly inspired to write this beautiful song after hearing Yoko Ono play the slow movement of Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata". Both share the same key of C sharp minor and are based on slow arpeggio accompaniments, so there's a similar mood of serenity throughout. However, Lennon's song doesn't actually borrow any of the musical material from Beethoven.

9. "Blackbird" by the Beatles

Paul McCartney recalled in an interview that he and George Harrison used to mess around with Bach's "Bourree in E minor", the same Bourree that Jethro Tull made a version of featured earlier in this article. It eventually transformed into "Blackbird" on the Beatles 1968 "White Album". The politically charged lyrics are a different matter altogether though.

10. "Minuetto Allegretto" by the Wombles

The Wombles' 1974 song "Minuetto Allegretto" is based on the 3rd movement of Mozart’s "Symphony no. 41". Arrranged by composer Mike Batt and guitarist Chris Spedding, it was released as a single and also features on the album "Remember You're a Womble".

11. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harem

The music for "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was written by Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher. The Bass line and chord progression are heavily influenced by the composing style of J.S Bach, especially Bach's famous "Air on a G String" from his "Orchestral Suite no. 3".

12. "Intermezzo" by the Nice

Arranged by Keith Emerson, "Intermezzo" appears on the 1968 album "Ars Longa Vita Brevis". It's taken from the intermezzo movement of "Karelia Suite" by the Finnish composer Jan Sibelius.

© 2021 chasmac

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