“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” — John Keats
Before any cynics state the obvious, of course, all modern music derives from classics in one way or another. Unless some musicians meddle with quantum physics and invent new notes, that will always be the case. However, on some occasions, the breadcrumb trail of a modern epic leads back to one classic composition directly.
Moreover, the link to the inspiration is often unmistakable owing to the fact that in general (although it varies from country to country) once the creator of a piece of music has been dead for 70 years, their creation enters the realm of public domain and therein it is a free-for-all for anyone who wants to pick at it.
The Beatles famously drew heavily on classical inspiration, and there’s more than a few of their best-loved songs that could’ve made this list but working on a one song per artist basis, we’re delving into ten great songs that directly transpose classics into contemporary hits.
10 rock songs inspired by classical composers:
10. ‘This Night’ by Billy Joel based on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata
Billy Joel’s love of Beethoven is so profound that he once ventured to say, “I have not forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.” Just to assert the point even further, he also publicly declared the famed German master his “favourite composer and musician of all time.”
Unsurprisingly, therefore, he prised apart ‘Pathétique Sonata’, added words, swung the rhythm and turned up the tempo a few notches for ‘This Night’. Aside from the slight adjustment to give Beethoven’s piece a poppy edge, the song remains pretty much untouched.
9. ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bourrée in E minor
When Paul McCartney was performing live at the 02 Academy in Liverpool back in 2010, he treated fans a guitar rendition of Bach’s Bourrée before explaining that he thought it could be a piece of music that would give hope to those struggling in the Civil Rights Movement at the time ‘Blackbird’ was written.
“We had a little party piece to show people that we weren’t as stupid as we looked,” McCartney once said, “and it was by Bach […] we liked how the bassline and melody were going at the same time […] so we truncated it and adapted it years later.” And with it, one of the most beautifully sweet songs of all time was crafted.
8. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bourrée in E minor
Much like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin was another band whose back catalogue incorporates a lot of old classic tunes. The grandeur of Viennese concert halls back in their heyday almost seems befitting of Led Zep’s rock ‘n’ bravura, but it was once again this delicate Bach piece that influence ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
Jimmy Page once said of the intro to the iconic song, “[It’s] fragile, exposed, acoustic played in the style of a poor man’s Bourrée by Bach.” While song might evolving into something entirely different from that point, it is fascinating to hear the contrasting origins that spawned one of rock’s most well-known songs.
7. ‘Same Old Thing’ by The Streets based on Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony 9: ‘From the New World’
Samples, by their very nature, often find artists delving into disparate areas of music. Thus, strange as it might sound, hip hop, prog rock and garage have been the mainstays for classic transpositions in recent times.
For the urban pub life classic ‘Same Old Thing’ from The Streets iconic debut masterpiece Original Pirate Material in 2002, sampled a repeat phase from Dvorák’s symphony to add a bit of undertow to the social commentary that sits seamlessly on top of the genuine old school.
6. ‘Black Sabbath’ by Black Sabbath based on Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, Bringer of War’
With a composition named ‘Mars, Bringer of War’, there is a lot to be said for Gustav Holst being a heavy metal pioneer right down to aesthetics and lexicon. The dramatic overture of his work is the perfect hand in glove fit for Black Sabbath, and they propagated his work on their self-titled single.
Geezer Butler explains, “I was a medium-sized fan of Holst and particularly ‘Mars’. One day we were trying to play ‘Mars’ and that’s how ‘Black Sabbath’ came about.” Their imitation might not be an exact note for note recital, but it captures the same darkness inherent with tritone melody.
5. ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes based on Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5
On my of the examples shared in this list, the musicians themselves have revealed the breadcrumbs to the past themselves; however, when it comes to ‘Seven Nation Army’ and Bruckner’s Fifth, all I have is my own ears.
Whether that means that Jack White was influenced to write the ubiquitous rock anthem based on the classic or the similarities are simply serendipitous uses of the same basic riff remains to be seen. Still, there is no doubting the chordal similarity. Whilst the two songs are played at a very different rhythm structurally, they’re just about a perfect match.
4. ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s practice sheets
Contained within classical music is the building blocks of melodic structure. Thus, musicians, particularly pianists, grow up playing it before they venture into pop. Ray Manzarek of The Doors was no different. For the piano lead on ‘Light My Fire’, he used a classic Bach practice circle to work out a melody centred around A minor.
“It was a box circle of 5th’s,” Manzarek once explained, “it just came out of 15-20 years of music practice.” Therefore, Bach might not be involved in the song in a strict sense but learning his ‘Inventions’ at a young age certainly had a profound effect on the music that followed.
3. ‘Tubular Bells Pt. I’ by Mike Oldfield based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’
Mike Oldfield was only 19 years old when Tubular Bells was recorded. Since then, the song has become a piece of music that just about everyone in the world has heard via The Exorcist and various other cinematic guises.
When Mike Oldfield was on Jools Holland the host ventured to say just that, “Everybody knows that tune don’t they, everybody knows that tune! Where did that tune come from?” And as exhibited in the clip below Oldfield casually replies that it is simply the upside-down version of Bach’s Toccata.
2. ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ by Elvis Presley based on Jean-Paul Martini’s Plaisir d’amour
With the benefits of microphones to amplify singing voices beyond the wall of sound caused by a hundred instruments, most classical songs went without. However, this also allowed songs to be more melodically ornate, meaning that many classical pieces are primed for stripping back into a pop tune.
Although ‘Plaisir d’amour’ does actually have lyrics, the one-person choir that is Elvis Presley needed a bit more space to breathe within the melody of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, thus a few of the flourishes in the original were stripped back, and the teary-eyed singalong classic lived on forevermore.
1. ‘A Whiter Shade Pale’ by Procol Harum based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’
It wouldn’t seem right not to wrap up on yet another Bach piece. The composer clearly has had an enormous impact on the popular music that followed in his wake.
As Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker once said, “I do remember having this musical idea that I worked out on the piano. ‘Air on a G String’. Which was a Bach composition and it came out and after about the first two bars I got it wrong and I just carried on in my own way.” The descending chord progression and overture of long descending notes remain but ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ drifts off into the realm of Gmaj7 and doesn’t look back. Though there are notable differences beyond the first two bars both songs share a sense of grand profundity that remains throughout.