17 iconic pop songs you didn’t know were directly inspired by classical music

26 August 2022, 17:06

Lady Gaga’s Alejandro samples Monti’s Czardas; Bach provides inspiration for Muse
Lady Gaga’s Alejandro samples Monti’s Czardas; Bach provides inspiration for Muse. Picture: Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

From Billy Joel’s inability to resist a good Beethoven melody to Lady Gaga’s sampling of rhapsodic violin solos, here are the greatest examples of classical samples in pop.

In 17 cases of chicken and egg, we explore the times pop artists were influenced by their classical predecessors.

Read more: 13 unbelievable oboe solos you didn’t even notice in pop music

  1. Billy Joel – This Night / Beethoven – Pathétique Sonata

    “I have not forgiven myself for not being Beethoven,” Billy Joel said in an interview for CBS. So, in a classic case of ‘if you can’t beat them’, Joel wove in a swung version of the opening melody from the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata in his chorus for ‘This Night’.

  2. Lady Gaga – Alejandro / Vittorio Monti – Csárdás

    For the intro of her single ‘Alejandro’, Gaga neatly nabbed Csárdás, the rhapsodic concert piece for violin by Vittorio Monti – which itself was based on a traditional Hungarian folk dance.

  3. Eric Carmen – All by Myself / Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor

    A great ’70s power ballad, reincarnated by Céline Dion in 1996, that finds the melody for its verses in Russian giant Rachmaninov’s most famous piano concerto – pop-classical sampling doesn’t get much more iconic than this.

  4. Maroon 5 – Memories / Pachelbel – Canon in D

    Pachelbel’s ubiquitous cello chord progression has inspired plenty of pop songs – from Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ to Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. Now we can to the list: ‘Memories’, from Californian pop group Maroon 5.

  5. Clean Bandit – Mozart’s House / Mozart – String Quartet No. 21

    The chorus of ‘Mozart’s House’ is the first phrase of the Classical composer’s String Quartet No. 21. Band member Grace Chatto says, “Another part of the quartet returns as a breakdown later in the song”, while some of the lyrics touch on “a journey to Mozart’s House, and use various Italian musical terms”.

  6. The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army / Bruckner – Symphony No. 5

    Music history’s most iconic bass guitar riff is inspired by seven notes from the first movement of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Lead singer Jack White had classical training as a student, and while the rhythms here are slightly different, his inspiration is unmistakeable.

  7. Elvis Presley – It’s Now or Never / Eduardo di Capua – O Sole Mio

    Elvis takes on the greats of opera with this romantic little ditty, the melody of which is inspired by ‘O Sole Mio’ by Eduardo di Capua (also known as the Cornetto song).

  8. Little Mix – Little Me / Gabriel Fauré – Pavane

    One of the world’s biggest girl bands, Little Mix, knows the power of a good melody – as does French composer, Gabriel Fauré. Their 2013 single ‘Little Me’ nabs the tune of his Pavane in a lo-fi rendition in the intro, while the chorus weaves in Fauré’s chord progression.

  9. Take That – Never Forget / Giuseppe Verdi – ‘Tuba mirum’ (Requiem)

    Unlikely as it seems, Gary Barlow nabbed a choral and trumpet fanfare from Verdi’s Requiem to kick off one of Take That’s most popular songs.

  10. Muse – Plug in Baby / Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor

    Once you dive into the world of prog rock and metal, you’ll find classical music at pretty much every turn. Take a listen to the nifty guitar riff for Muse’s ‘Plug in Baby’ – heard that somewhere before? Bach exercised a profound influence over his Classical and Romantic successors, but listen close and you’ll hear his Toccata and Fugue in D minor all over in today’s pop – including Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’.

  11. Barry Manilow - Could It Be Magic / Chopin - Prelude in C Minor No. 20

    In this rather brilliant clip, Manilow explains how he wound up writing ‘Could it Be Magic’ after a glass of wine. “I thought I had come up with the coolest batch of chords in my composing experience. And then I realised that before that glass of wine, I had been practising my Chopin preludes.” Hear the similarity for yourself...

  12. Mika – Grace Kelly / Rossini – Largo al factotum

    Pop star Mika has admitted on several occasions that he half-inched the melody for Rossini’s ‘Largo al factotum’ from The Barber Of Seville on his hit ‘Grace Kelly’.

  13. Robbie Williams – Party like a Russian / Prokofiev – Dance of the Knights

    In the chorus for Robbie Williams’ musical cocktail of questionable stereotypes, the ex-Take That star samples Prokofiev’s ‘Dance of the Knights’ (also known as The Apprentice song).

  14. John Denver – Annie’s Song / Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5

    A country song with Romantic influences – John Denver was inspired to write ‘Annie’s Song’ during a particularly adrenalin-drenched ski run. But he didn’t realise, until a friend told him later, that his ‘original’ melody is actually the horn solo from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

  15. The Beatles – Because / Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata

    One day, as John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono was playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata at the piano, Lennon asked her to play him the chords once more – but backwards. When she did, it formed the basis of one of The Beatles’ later tracks, ‘Because’.

  16. Phil Collins – A Groovy Kind of Love / Clementi – Sonatina in G minor

    Originally written by Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Singer, Phil Collins’ hit ‘A Groovy Kind of Love’ is based on a charming Classical piece, but one without too much groove – the opening of the final movement of Italian composer Muzio Clementi’s Sonatina in G minor, Op. 36, No. 5.

  17. Nas – I Can / Beethoven – Für Elise

    The world of hip-hop and classical music might not seem like natural bedfellows, but seasoned rapper Nas turned a sample of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ into a smash it.