The world of rock and roll has never been shy about wearing influences on its sleeves. Geniuses always steal from what has come before, and plenty of artists have made a living out of playing everything they’ve torn through in their old record collections. Although those records tend to be from rock, blues, and occasionally jazz artists, some of the greatest songs of all time from The Beatles and Black Sabbath got their timeless melodies from classical music.
While these records took the melody of specific sections from Bach or Beethoven, each songwriter could twist the melody around to turn it into something that feels much more at home in rock and roll. It might be easy to catch where a concerto suite may have come from, but when it’s in the context of a song by The Beatles, for instance, it’s a little harder to spot.
While usually copying someone else’s work would get artists in legal trouble, that’s not much of a problem in this case, with most of the classical pieces being in the public domain for years before the songwriters got their hands on them. Even if they might have been trying to be cheeky, an instance of “borrowing” is completely justified under copyright regulations.
Each reinterpretation of classical music follows the grand tradition of what classical music was all about. Although Bach and Beethoven could play their pieces better than most, it was always about sharing the music with the rest of the world. Even if there are similarities between the rock songs and the classical pieces, the audience still hears the songwriters’ unique take on the songsmiths of old.
10 classic rock songs based on classical music:
10. ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ – Radiohead
Radiohead have always dipped their toes into every different type of music to get what they were searching for. From The Bends onward, Thom Yorke and the band made it a habit to deconstruct every piece of their musical framework to find something that no one had ever heard. That would often involve some classical seeping through, and ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ was the perfect nod to a certain composer.
In the main melody of the verses, Yorke’s brooding voice is quoting a melody from Chopin’s Prelude No. 4. Although Yorke takes the song in a slightly different direction in the choruses, the foundation always comes back to those few notes, drenching the song in a bitter sense of melancholy.
Since this was written partly for Baz Luhrmann’s take on Romeo + Juliet, the tip of the hat to classical music feels more earned this time. This wasn’t just Yorke sprinkling in a bit of classical to earn some credit among the prog bands of the world. Radiohead were trying to tell the musical story of one of Shakespeare’s most operatic works, and having that refined touch makes the tune feel like a musical avalanche of emotion crashing down around the listener.
9. ‘2112’ – Rush
Prog rock music and classical tend to go hand in hand. Although the early days of prog were just about advancing the genre as far forward as possible, the elite set of musicians from Yes and Genesis were huge classical fans and would often quote different pieces in between their mile-long solos. Rush could have easily gotten away with a classical lift, but their nod to the classical age came from the arrangement more than any melodic idea.
Opening their magnum opus ‘2112’, the first few minutes of the overture give listeners a taste of all the motifs that will be reappearing, from the introduction of the priests of The Temples of Syrinx to the final push forward in the ‘Grand Finale’. Since this was an overture of sorts, the band only thought it would be fitting to give a nod to Tchaikovsky at the very end of the movement.
As the music swells and everything builds to one grand climax, Neil Peart’s drums are replaced with the sounds of cannons, just like Tchaikovsky used in his ‘1812 Overture’. Despite being one of the most intricate prog bands in the world, it seems like Rush thought that even lifting a second from anyone’s classical piece would still be considered cheating.
8. ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ – Oasis
Noel Gallagher is one of the last people that most would think of lifting something from classical music. If anyone were to ask him whether he listens to the likes of Rachmaninoff in his spare time, Noel would most likely tell them to piss off and throw on the likes of Slade or The Beatles. Every great melody is owned by classical titans, and Noel may have lifted one of his signature chord sequences without even realising it.
For his vocal showcase ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, the chords of the verses and chorus cascade across the eardrums, with not a single note sounding out of place. While there might be a few surprises baked into Noel’s composition, the main idea of the tune is based around Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which has since been used in a variety of different pieces beyond just rock and roll.
Gallagher was far from the first one to decide on this kind of idea, as artists from Green Day to Maroon 5 to Blues Traveler were known to copy bits and pieces from this timeless melody over the years. Noel definitely likes to talk up himself as one of the ideal composers of his generation, but the amount of tunes he’s stolen isn’t just limited to his record collection.
7. ‘The Greatest Discovery’ – Elton John
For a brief moment, there was a good chance that Elton John was never going to be a part of rock and roll at all. Prior to becoming a solo star or before his turn in his former band Bluesology, young Reginald Dwight was enrolled in a school for piano, where he would pour over different pieces from various eras of the classical period. When John went to write songs of his own, though, some of those inventions stuck long past the days of homework.
After trying his hand at psychedelic leaning songs on his debut Empty Sky, John’s eponymous album featured some gorgeous piano pieces like ‘The Greatest Discovery’, tied together with Bernie Taupin’s first brilliant turns of phrase. If John were asked where he got it from, though, even he would tell the public that it dates back to years of classical music practice.
Since most of his training was going over sonatas by Bach or Brahms, John noted that the first handful of releases saw him taking on a bit of an Elizabethan tone to his songs before launching into rock-leaning cuts on his later records. This version of Elton John was still figuring out what he wanted to be, but this song is a short glimpse of what he could have been had he hit it big in 1674 instead of 1974.
6. ‘Light My Fire’ – The Doors
The Doors were some of the most unlikely members to start a group together. After not having a bass player for the longest time, Ray Manzarek eventually relented to playing the bass himself on another keyboard he had, playing different melodic ideas with his different limbs. No one gets to that point without some practice, and some of the greatest composers of all time led to Manzarek creating the iconic keyboard line to ‘Light My Fire’.
Though Robbie Krieger got credit for writing the core tune for the song, Manzarek had originally chalked the piano intro as coming from the better angels of his brain. When dissecting the music theory behind it, Manzarek related the sequence to Bach’s ‘Circle of Fifths’, where musicians dance around the chord changes before finally ending in the key they want for the main song.
Even though Manzarek can take credit for the intro if he wanted to, he never saw his strange invention at the beginning to have much of an impact, chalking it up to basic music theory and practice rather than anything planned out. Then again, any prospective rock and roll piano player will have major homework trying to decipher what got Manzarek from classical music to this psychedelic head trip.
5. ‘Damage, Inc.’ – Metallica
Thrash metal, on the surface, seems like one of the furthest things from classical, but both have more in common than meets the eye. Both genres rely heavily on intricate passages of notes and often use the sheer power of the music as the main focus, looking to shake the walls of their venues with their volume. So it wouldn’t be that out of the question to find a classical nerd at the heart of a band like Metallica.
When the group were first starting, bassist Cliff Burton was notoriously a classical freak and would often mention composers like Bach in the same breath as his idols like Black Sabbath. Although songs like ‘Orion’ definitely fall into the category of classical metal, the intro to ‘Damage, Inc.’ was admittedly based on a Bach chorale.
Burton had admitted to lifting the melody from the tune ‘Come Sweet Death’ and even had to play his original piece to the rest of the band to make sure they didn’t notice any glaring similarities to the classical piece. Burton puts his spin on Bach’s original, though, moving block chords together, whereas Bach would use contrary motion. Burton might have had an ear for classical music, but since his tragic death in 1986 left Metallica looking for a new bass player, this was one of the only pieces fans could hear of his classical brain.
4. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ – Procul Harum
The early stages of psychedelia never had a clear starting point. Although most would argue that the main starting point had to do with certain cosmic drugs, most bands popping up out of England were usually indebted to hard rock and blues to get them through their early shows. While Procul Harum could play those songs just fine, Gary Brooker found something more interesting when fooling around with a classical piece.
When going through his piano runs, Brooker started to play the beginnings of Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’, only to flub the line once he got everything started. Rather than start over from the top, Brooker decided to let the music guide him somewhere else before coming up with the breathtaking intro to ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.
Although the 1960s were about to enter the Summer of Love with bold new musicians appearing by the minute, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ still fits snuggly in that company, almost giving an heir of refinement for the next generation of musicians. Parents might not have understood the need for Flower Power, but Procul Harum reminded listeners what made hearts flutter before rock and roll came to pass.
3. ‘This Night’ – Billy Joel
It should come as no surprise that Billy Joel was a tiny fan of classical music. Throughout most of his album tracks, Joel took his listeners through different sonic passages that most other classic rockers would never touch, including pieces of jazz and his own interpretation of ‘The Entertainer’ on one of his early albums. After refining his songwriting approach to a tee, ‘This Night’ was a way for him to reverse his entire process.
Since An Innocent Man was meant to be a tribute to all of the music Joel had loved as a kid, ‘This Night’ was his way of paying respects to Beethoven. While Joel could have easily just made a classical interpretation of a standard pop song, ‘This Night’ lifts the melody wholesale from Bach’s work, quoting the Pathetique sonata and putting a swing rhythm behind it.
That wasn’t even the last time that Joel tried to copy the giants either, even writing an entire classical album before letting someone else record it because of his inability to play what he had written. While fans could see this tactic as cheating by re-using one of Beethoven’s melodies, it takes a true artist to make blatant plagiarism of a classical composer sound this effortless.
2. ‘Black Sabbath’ – Black Sabbath
No classical piece has ever sounded more foreboding than Gustav Holtz’s Mars: Bringer of War. The massive intensity of the horns and the staccato breaks in between the different movements provided the perfect backdrop of terror and would go on to inspire John Williams to create his famous Stars Wars themes. Before Williams got his hands on it, Geezer Butler accidentally created heavy metal by trying to play the tune on his bass guitar.
In between sessions for Black Sabbath’s first album, Butler would be heard playing this classical tune until Tony Iommi had a different idea. Deciding to elongate the notes and leave lots of space in the arrangement, the band’s namesake track quickly came together, which drummer Bill Ward recalled could send shivers down one’s back.
With the demented guitar figure in place, Ozzy Osbourne sculpted graphic lyrics about a menacing figure in black pointing at him and pulling him down towards the bowels of hell. While classical music may have been the starting point for ‘Black Sabbath’, the choice to make the song one of the most apocalyptic tunes of all time is something that belongs to Tony Iommi.
1. ‘Blackbird’ – The Beatles
In their salad days in Liverpool, The Beatles were drawing from every piece of music they could get their hands on. When they were playing marathon sessions in Hamburg, both Paul McCartney and George Harrison took to making different trips across England to find the kind of chords and tunes they were looking for. Since rock and roll usually relied on three chords, McCartney’s attempt at learning Bach’s Bouree in E Minor drew into something a bit more interesting,
Using the open voicing that he had been taught when he was a kid, McCartney started moving the shapes around until he came out with the tune for ‘Blackbird’. While there might not be too many sonic similarities between both pieces of music, McCartney captured the spirit of what goes into making a Bach piece, using different pieces of counterpoint and trying to have a single droning note to tie all of the chords together.
John Lennon wasn’t shy about his classical influences, either, matching McCartney one album later by turning Moonlight Sonata into the chords for ‘Because’ off of Abbey Road. The Beatles may have been the world’s most popular band amongst teenagers, but there were four refined musical minds hidden underneath those mop-top hairdos.