Drama. Emotional intensity. Intricate passages and a rich history.
From laidback listeners to professional performers, classical music is enjoyed by folks from all walks of life! The genre’s popularity and variety of formats gives beginners and experienced listeners a seemingly bottomless pool of art to choose from.
Classical music can also be found in the inspirations of musicians past and present - even those outside of the genre. Plus, many classical pieces and recordings are within the public domain, allowing easy access to artists who wish to pay homage to their favorite pieces in their own songs.
We previously broke down the prevalence of classical music quotes in contemporary music of all genres. Now, let’s take a step back in time to hear how classical music influenced some of the 20th century’s hits! From the opera-adoring Freddie Mercury to Billy Joel’s ardent admiration of Beethoven, find out the musical inspirations behind just a couple of classic tunes. [Jump to playlist]
1. Eric Carmen x Sergei Rachmaninoff
Revived in the 21st century through memes and a Celine Dion rendition, Eric Carmen’s ballad “All By Myself” takes its inspiration from another famous work. The melody pulls directly from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 — specifically, the second movement — and even incorporates orchestral elements in the instrumentation.
2. Billy Joel x Ludwig van Beethoven
An upbeat, doo-wop song might not be the first place you'd expect to find a reference to Ludwig van Beethoven, classical music's tempestuous king of Sturm und drang. But Billy Joel, the Piano Man himself, managed to pull it off! The chorus's melody is taken straight from the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique but adapted to fit the song’s context. Instead of being tranquil and fairly slow, Billy Joel speeds up the melody and adds a slight swing for an extra campy feel. This melodic reference is even documented in the album’s liner notes: Joel credits Beethoven as one of the songwriters of “This Night!”
3. Beastie Boys x Sergei Rachmaninoff
This reference is harder to catch than some of the others on this list, but if you focus your ears, you’ll hear a faint nod to Rachmaninoff in the background! A few measures from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor are used in a looping organ part that makes up the main beat of this track. The quote is not direct, however: it is changed a little bit to fit the tempo and flow of the song.
The music video for "Intergalactic" opens with a direct reference to Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.
4. Queen x Ruggero Leoncavallo
The British rock band Queen is quite well known for its theatrical flair, including many nods to opera and ballet early on in its catalog. Apart from the more general nod to opera in "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen directly referenced a famous aria in their lesser known track "It’s a Hard Life." The song opens with a dramatic intro sung by Freddie Mercury… whose melody is a direct quotation of “Vesti La Giubba” from the Ruggero Leoncavallo verismo opera Pagliacci.
The melody is the aria’s climax, which sees the main character lament performing while his heart is completely broken. In addition to the musical quotation, Queen mimics themes found in Pagliacci through the song’s story and music video set: for example, band members are dressed like clowns and court jesters, entertaining through thick and thin.
5. Black Sabbath x Gustav Holst
Is it really any surprise to find a metal song on this list? Most fans of metal will tell you there are a lot of similarities in the way that classical music and metal music are written: from motifs, to epic climaxes, and even layered instrumentation.
One example of metal music being inspired by classical can be found in a seminal Black Sabbath song. The band's self-titled track “Black Sabbath” was inspired by Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, after bassist Geezer Butler — a self-proclaimed "medium-sized fan of Holst's" — started riffing on the opening lines at practice.
6. Barry Manilow x Frédéric Chopin
Out of all of the songs on this list, Barry Manilow’s track "Could it Be Magic" contains one of the longest direct classical music quotes. The songwriter admits he wrote the tune after becoming fixated on the harmonic structure of Frédéric Chopin’s Prélude in C minor Op. 28, No. 20. The resulting "Could it Be Magic" ended up referencing the first eight measures of the Chopin piece, then moving on to a musical development, before ultimately returning to the prelude in the song’s conclusion.