Popular Music Inspired by Classical Pieces

Pop music heavily relies on unforgettable lyrics and melodic hooks to ensure its success. But little do most of us know that some of the popular music we hear today is inspired by classical music.

While a lot of people would rather see pop and classical music being firmly apart, others would happily embrace what is perceived to be two extremely different musical genres. Unbeknownst to most people, pop and rock stars see classical music as a “gold mine” for their own material. Discover your favorite chart hits and the great classical music works of the past from which they derive their inspiration.

1) Judy Garland – “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” / Frédéric Chopin – Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. posth. 66 in C-sharp minor

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is one of the famous and memorable vaudeville songs. Judy Garland’s performance of it in the 1941 movie Ziegfield Girl would always make us swoon. Although Harry Carroll composed the song’s music, the melody is obviously derived from Chopin’s beautiful piano piece Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor. Joseph McCarthy wrote the lyrics.

The great Polish Romantic composer and pianist wrote Fantaisie-Impromptu in 1834. It was published in 1855, six years after his death. Although Chopin refused to have it published during his lifetime and even wanted its manuscript destroyed (as he did towards his other unpublished works), it is now one of his most frequently performed and recorded compositions. It was most likely inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 (also known as “Moonlight Sonata”), particularly its tempestuous third and final movement which is also played in the C-sharp minor key.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” has enjoyed numerous covers (some of which became big hits). Like Fantaisie-Impromptu, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” has an appeal that transcends time and generations.

2) Procol Harum –  “A Whiter Shade of Pale” / Johann Sebastian Bach – Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068, 2nd movement, “Air” and Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV156

One of the quintessential 1960s hippie songs, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is known for its memorable intro and haunting organ riffs. The bass parts will instantly remind one of Bach’s “Air” (also known as “Air on a G string”) from his Suite No. 3 in D major. However, the famous intro was inspired by his church cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe BWV156, which is known for its introductory sinfonia and oboe solo.

3) Eric Carmen – “All By Myself” / Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18, in C minor, second movement (“Adagio sostenuto”)

Before Celine Dion turned “All by Myself” into a global pop phenomenon, it was Eric Carmen who first popularized “All By Myself,” the power ballad he wrote and released as a single in 1975. The song’s unforgettable verse is based on a famous theme from Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto’s poignant and gorgeous second movement (marked as “Adagio sostenuto”). Rachmaninoff wrote the piano concerto between 1900 and 1901. It was his first major work after overcoming a three-year bout with clinical depression and writer’s block.

Carmen’s “All by Myself” became a big chart, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. Celine Dion’s version, on the other hand, went to #4 on the Hot 100 in 1996.

4) The Beach Boys – “Lady Lynda” / Johann Sebastian Bach – “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”

Bach has continued to be a significant inspiration not just to classical musicians, but also to several pop artists. The Beach Boys are one of those pop artists who were caught by the Bach bug. The melody of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was used for the intro of “Lady Lynda,” which was composed by the band’s vocalist and guitarist Al Jardine. It appears on their 1979 album L.A. (Light Album).

“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is actually a well-known English title referring to a piece of music derived from a chorale of Bach’s cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, which he composed in 1723.

5) Barry Manilow – “Could It Be Magic” / Frédéric Chopin – Prelude No. 20, Op. 28 in C minor

Imagine, if all those classical greats were alive today, they would have been huge pop stars raking in billions from all the great pieces they wrote!

Chopin would have been enjoying vast royalties had he turned his famously funereal Prelude No. 20 into a major pop hit, like what Barry Manilow did to it to write the music for “Could It Be Magic.” The song, which contains the prelude at the intro and outro, peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard pop chart in 1975.

One of Chopin’s groundbreaking 24 Preludes, Prelude No. 20 in C minor leaves a significant cultural legacy on its own, inspiring other works such as Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme by Chopin.”

6) Elvis Presley – “Can’t Help Falling in Love” / Jean-Paul-Égide Martini – “Plaisir d’amour”

If you happen to hear Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour,” maybe the tune is somewhat familiar to you?

Well, that’s because Elvis Presley’s 1961 hit ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love” derives its famous melody from Martini’s love song, which he composed in 1784. The title, “Plaisir d’amour,” literally means “pleasure of love,” although the lyrics otherwise speak of the grief of a heartbroken man.

Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is included in the soundtrack of his movie Blue Hawaii, which became a box-office smash. The single became a Billboard pop hit, just a notch behind Joey Dee and the Starliters‘ chart-topping “Peppermint Twist.”

“Can’t Help Falling in Love” has enjoyed numerous covers, most popularly by British reggae group UB40, whose version went to number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1993.

7) Eric Carmen – “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” / Sergei Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 in E minor, 3rd movement (“Adagio”)

The Russian composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff is considered the last great figure of the Romantic music era. He has always been one of Eric Carmen’s favorite musicians, and Carmen got some of his inspiration from Rachmaninoff’s greatest works to write his own songs such as “All by Myself,” “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” and “My Girl.”

In this case, Carmen used the theme of the third movement from Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 for his single “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.” The song peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Billboard adult contemporary charts in 1976.

The second symphony in E minor is one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous and enduring works. He wrote the symphony between 1906 and 1907 and conducted it on its premiere in 1908.

The disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897 led Rachmaninoff to a years-long depression, and caused him to doubt whether he would (and could) write a good symphony at all. But the success of Symphony No. 2 restored his confidence and sense of self-worth as a gifted symphonist.

8) Lady Gaga – “Bad Romance” / Johann Sebastian Bach – Fugue No. 24 in B minor

This one comes as a shock – the queen of mind-boggling costumes and irresistibly catchy pop tunes has borrowed something from Bach! His Fugue No. 24 in B minor is sampled at the beginning of Lady Gaga’s electro-pop and dance single “Bad Romance.”

“Bad Romance” became a global hit following its release in 2009. While it reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, it went to number one in several countries.

Fugue No. 24 in B minor, BWV 869, is included in the first book of Bach’s renowned and influential Well-Tempered Clavier (1722 and 1742). It is a collection of preludes and fugues which covers all 24 major and minor keys. Well-Tempered Clavier has inspired numerous composers, including Chopin (who wrote 24 Preludes), Dmitri Shostakovich (who wrote 24 Preludes and Fugues), and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (who composed “Les Guitares bien temperes,” a set of 24 preludes and fugues for guitar).