16 pop singers you probably didn’t know were classically trained
24 May 2021, 20:19 | Updated: 25 May 2021, 12:57
From Ariana Grande to Freddie Mercury, these pop superstars’ musical greatness is deep-rooted in school orchestras, classical theory lessons and local church choirs.
Some of pop’s biggest names have nodded to their classical training as an invaluable source of songwriting inspiration and music theory know-how.
Here are all the pop stars you might be surprised to know dabbled in jazz, opera... and the brass section.
Before she topped the charts, Katy Perry briefly studied Italian opera at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. After pop fame, opera has always remained close, at the 2014 Grammy Awards she wore a dress, designed by Valentino, which was embroiled with Verdi’s score to La Traviata. Nice.
Perfect pitch isn’t the only rogue musical card Charlie Puth has up his sleeve – this hitmaker is a jazz piano devotee and graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He also loves his Romantic piano repertoire and included Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor at the start of one of his smash-hit music videos. That means 700 million people around the world have now heard Rachmaninov – maybe for the first time – through the lens of a pop superstar. Which is lovely.
14 years before Gangnam Style became the first YouTube video to clock up one billion views, South Koren rapper PSY was attending one of the world’s most prestigious music conservatories, Berklee College of Music. In the late 90s, Park Jae-sang was intent on pursuing music in a more academic sense and took lessons in ear training, contemporary writing and music synthesis.
However, YouTube immortality must have been calling and he dropped out to return to South Korea and pursue a career as a singer, and made us all very happy in doing so.
Chorister-turned-crooner Ed Sheeran spent his early years singing hymns at his local church in Suffolk. A few years ago, the ‘Thinking Out Loud’ singer even became patron of a choral foundation in Ipswich. He said: “As a former chorister myself, I appreciate the benefits singing brings to young people. There is nothing equal to the joy of performing wonderful music with other like-minded people.” Bravo, Ed.
While perhaps better known for her compelling showwomanship and mezzo soprano voice, Gaga is also a brilliant pianist who was once accepted to the Juilliard school. Here’s remembering the great time she cued in her 2009 hit ‘Bad Romance’ with a fugal passage from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Seems that classical background never quite left her.
Queen’s extravagant frontman was sent to a boarding school in Mumbai, India aged nine, where he received formal piano training. But it is always said that Mercury had no real vocal training. Astonishing, when you listen to the incredible power and range in his isolated vocal track – operatic in its power and intensity (listen below).
Vocal powerhouse Kelly Clarkson began her journey in music in the land of musical theatre. In the hopes it would earn her a college scholarship, Clarkson later received some classical vocal training – and much like PSY, got accepted to Berklee College. She turned the place down, but the classical lessons stayed with her. Here’s the time she performed Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ for the Pope in 2008. Lovely stuff.
Lennox’s first taste of singing came from a stint in her local choir, where she learned to wrap her vocal cords around traditional Scottish songs. Her teachers saw that music was in her veins, and by the age of 17 the Eurythmics singer had won a scholarship to study flute at the esteemed Royal Academy of Music in London.
Lennox dropped out before her finals, but always cites the piano as her main musical inspiration: “It has all kinds of different textures in it, and it covers a very wide range. It’s almost like an orchestra in itself. There’s all kinds of potential in the piano.”
The Pussycat Dolls star is a self-proclaimed “classically trained opera singer” who studied musical theatre at college, and whose voice spans a jaw-dropping four octaves. Here’s the time she proved she was actually a lyric soprano in disguise, with this Mozartian interpretation of ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’...
Rock n’ roll superstar Elton John has deep classical piano roots. As a teenager he studied piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music and sang in the Academy choir, and he credits this time to shaping his unique musicianship. In a recent interview he said: “I’d advise anyone to get formal training, because it teaches you the rudiments – chord structure, melody.”
Aspiring pop stars, listen to Elton and learn your rudiments. *cue rhapsodic piano solo*
The genre-defying singer spent a childhood bathed in piano and flute practice, after enrolling aged six at the Reykjavík school Barnamúsíkskóli. She became fascinated with modern classical and minimalist music and began incorporating those sounds into her music. The choral lines on her album Medúlla hint at the soundworld of Arvo Pärt and Penderecki.
“I played French horn for a few years but I’d love to learn violin… the most beautiful sound in the world to me,” Grande once tweeted, to the delight of all brass players everywhere. While she hasn’t had any formal vocal training, Grande credits her horn and piano-playing for all her music theory know-how.
In a 2018 tweet, hunky pop superstar Jason Derulo opened up about his background in classical singing and one piece in particular that’s very dear to his heart.
This is a side of me that’s been burning within for a long time. I was trained classically (operatically) & have sang classical music since I can remember. Mom cried happy tears last night. The reception has been amazing! Should I do a classical project one day? #mtv #mtvema pic.twitter.com/ObSCYZkrjW— Jason Derulo (@jasonderulo) November 5, 2018
American singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha has a knack for churning out pop anthems. But she initially had her sights set on the music of two centuries earlier. “Interesting fact, I first wanted to be an opera singer and I studied classical music,” Rexha captioned a video on Instagram, in which she sings Puccini’s aria ‘O mio babbino’. “Sorry if I [messed] up the words, I haven’t sung it in a long time. Rusty…”
Alicia is a dab hand at her namesake instrument. Keys first sat at the piano aged seven, fell in love with it and went on to graduate from a performing arts school at 16. The popstar once said of her training: “Classical piano totally helped me to be a better songwriter and a better musician. The dedication that it took to study classical music is a big reason why I have anything in this life, I think. It opened a lot of doors because it separated me from the rest. And it did help me structure my songs.”
Soul and R&B legend Roberta Flack has classical roots stretching back to childhood. In her early years, she accompanied her church choir on the piano, playing hymns and spirituals.
At age 15, she entered Howard University on a full music scholarship, and was apparently one of the youngest students ever to enrol there. She excelled at classical piano, vocal music and even directed an acclaimed production of Verdi’s Aida.