Classical Rock and Popular Prophecy Journal

Pop is tomorrow’s Classical”- Paul McCartney. Discuss this contention within the context of rock/classical music collaborations since the early 1950s.

Classical Rock and Popular Prophecy

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To the average music-listener, musical genres are easily divided into homogenous groupings without any danger of overlapping one another. Certainly, there are rare occurrences of “cross-over” hits on the radio that find airplay on both Adult Contemporary and Country stations, or those releases which find an audience among both Easy Listening and Rock fans. Another seemingly strange occurrence that may be observed by the slightly more alert music consumer is that time shifts musical pieces from one genre to another, and yesterday’s Alternative Rock is today’s Easy Listening, yet even this phenomenon is considered an anomaly of the music industry. A simplicity is desired among musical elitists that preserves some musical forms as valid, labeling others as mere fads. However, the deep impact of musical styles on one another is a vital element of music theory, and truly an inescapable aspect of music, as it is in every art form. The emergence of Rock music in Western musical culture over the past half of a century has been one met with resistance from many stubborn sources, yet it has certainly thrived to become perhaps the most influential and widely encompassing genre of music since Classical Music. Where does the definition of Rock begin and end? From the roots in Jazz, to the incorporation of the Country-Western angst, to the emergence of Disco, Electronica, Punk, Goth, Hip-Hop, and all-around Alternative elements, Rock Music is not a simple label, but an overarching guardian of the modern musical movements. Classical Music is similarly approaching the universal in definition of music, encompassing the Neoclassical, Baroque, Romantic, Impressionistic, and more. In fact, many parallels can be drawn between Rock and Classical Music themes, interpretations, composition, and cultural significance. Yet the glorious understatement that “the average listener may be unaware of the many links between rock music and classical music,” (Duxbury, “Nexus…”) remains true. Attempts can be made repeatedly to segregate and critique music into controllable factions. It remains impossible to irradiate the fact that Classical music is often incorporated into today’s Rock, as whole pieces and through mass influence. Rock and the popular music culture are also having a significant impact on the direction of Classical music in the modern culture. Rock may be seen as a parasite by Classical elitists that wish to retain the “purity” of particular musical styles, but the relationship between them is symbiotic and unavoidable. Paul McCartney, one of the most cherished Rock musicians in history, once said that “Pop is tomorrow’s Classical,” and the evidence suggests that this statement is both prophetic and presently accurate.

Long before the official birth of Rock and Roll, the incorporation of old classics into a new sound was a common practice among trendsetters and musical rebels alike. Classical music is certainly not the only genre of music to be reinvented in meaning and sound, but the choice of Classical pieces is a popular one because of the impact on listeners. Classical pieces are almost universally recognized as familiar to an audience, whether they are able to make a distinct identification of the piece, or if it is simply a vague sense of deja vu influenced by the historical music. “Thus even the early days of ragtime and vaudeville produced their own variations on the classics, though we have few recordings. From the 1920s through the 1940s, James Price Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Fats Waller ‘jazzed up’ the classics, alongside the Big Band versions of Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Les Brown… Many composers of Broadway shows also appropriated classical melodies.” (Duxberry, “Nexus…”) Pre-Rock Classical interpretations did not stir nearly the amount of controversy that would be seen in later years. The fervent nature of Rock and the moral/political rebellion associated with the genre, perhaps coupled with the passionate dedication of Rock musicians that equals that of the greatest Classical virtuosos, has been fuel for the fires of disapproval.

A dissonant sense of prejudice attitudes and ignorance regarding the nature of Rock vs. Classical music has served a significant barrier for the open-minded musicians. According to the World Book series definition aimed at younger readers, “Classical music is sometimes called art music. Most classical music is more complex than popular music, which includes country music, rock music, and jazz.” (“Classical Music”) Classical music is being defined as an art form which takes real talent, as opposed to “other” music which is just a hobby or distraction. The idea that all modern popular music is simple, dumbed-down, and inferior to Classical music is rampant. Classical music has been idealized with time, and the previous eras which have birthed famous pieces of music have been romanticized and purified. According to an article aimed at classical guitarists written by a classically trained musician, rock and popular music have come about because of an unfortunate shift in culture. Industry and the factory work, according to this source, left very few people with the time or dedication to master art forms, and music became something simply to pass the time between sleep and work. Long working hours, so the claim is made, changed things so that very few people were receiving advanced education of any kind. “What this meant that music had to make the shift from appealing to the intellect of a person to appealing to the carnality of an individual. Rock and roll is a prime example of this. Rock is all about sex….The music is not intelligent. So why is it so popular? It’s so popular now because it appeals to that they know, and when you are dealing with vastly uneducated people they like what they know, and what they know is sex.” (Gabriel) From a purely historical angle, this claim is ridiculous. More people today attend college than ever before in history, and leisure time is rampant in comparison with the hard labor working hours for most people before and after the Industrial Revolution. This author has fallen prey to a common misnomer that everyone was Upper-Class in centuries past and followed the examples set forth by the elite group of historians selected to document the lives of nobles. From an artistic perspective, this critique of Rock is moronic. To imply that Classical music is sexless and pure is far from valid. “How filthy can theatre be?” asks one reviewer of Mozart’s 18th Century Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail. (“Sex-laced Mozart…”) Classical music is brimming with sexuality, scandals, murder, and immorality to every Rock and Roll extreme.

The unfortunate effects of this type of ignorance are felt constantly by the rock or classical musician attempting to overcome musical boundaries. For example, the Hampton String Quartet consists of classically trained musicians, specifically graduates from the Juilliard school of music. With their developed talent, this group arranges and performs popular music in classical styles, appealing to a wide audience of both Classical and Rock fans. This quartet has sold over one million CDs, putting them at the top of the list so far as string quartet sale history. Yet when this musical group contacted their alma matter, Juilliard, to proposition sales of their published string quartet arrangements along side those arranged by Classical greats such as Haydn in the School Bookstore, they were blatantly disregarded. “The Juilliard School Bookstore manager wouldn’t even grace MLS with his presence (after several phone calls and an impromptu visit).” (Reed) Other retail sheet music dealers present the group with “the quintessential classical response to any sentence uttered that contained the word, ‘rock’: ‘No, goodbye – not interested’.” (Reed) Rock style interpretations of Classical pieces are assumed to be parodies, and classical style interpretations of rock are at the very least subversive, if not worse. While it may be nearly impossible to please elitists of any genre, rock and classical continue collaborating in back alleys and prestigious recording studios.

Classical music is often transformation of folk and traditional music into something larger, grander, and more current, such as many works by composers such as Bach and Beethoven. Folk music is that which originates among the common people of a culture, once passed by oral tradition only, but with the introduction of recording technology, by other means as well. “The folk music of our day is passed down via CD, TV, radio, and the Internet, etc. The part of greater import of the definition is ‘originating among the common people.'” (Reed) The Folk music of today can therefore be interpreted as Rock and other Popular songs without a great leap. Likewise, the popular music of today was influenced heavily by the Folk of previous years and other generations. Many Rock composers enthusiastically incorporate traditional songs and world music into their work. With this reasoning in mind, defining Rock as a form of Classical Music in and of itself is quite possible. However, even without such a bold statement, it is difficult to dismiss the fact that it seems quite natural for the Folk, Classical, and Rock genres to be further entwining and influencing one another. ” Although…removed from the music’s more traditional folk music origins, it no less captures the contemporary music of our day – rock — just as Bach and Beethoven did in their day (Ode To Joy from the ninth symphony, for example).” (Reed)

In the early years of true Rock and Roll, circa 1950s, modernized versions of Classical pieces were already emerging. Billy Storm’s “I’ve Come of Age,” Elvis Presley’s “Tonight is so Right for Love,” and Jackie Wilson’s “Night” ended this decade with an emerging fascination with borrowing themes and pieces of Classical music that would shape Rock for years to come. “The popularity of classical borrowing is not in any way diminishing. It spans all musical genres and its prevalence is widespread. As new musical styles emerge, the fascination with borrowing catches on.” (Duxbury, “Nexus”) In the decades to follow, the birth of Classically inspired “Baroque Rock” would further influence popular music, and classical music would be found emerging in soul, pop rock, disco, reggae, prog rock, new wave, punk, heavy metal, and even rap subsections of the Rock genre. “Variations range from contemporary renditions of complete classical works, some of which do not stray noticeably from the original, to brief classical quotes or phrases so subtly incorporated into rock compositions that only the most discerning ear can pick them out. Brief excerpts of actual classical recordings have been incorporated into several rock recordings via the technique known as sampling.” (Duxbury, “Nexus”) Specific Classical pieces that have found immense popularity in the Rock genre include Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” which can be cited in over forty individual Rock recordings, with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” also attaining similar popularity.

Rock musicians incorporate the sound and essence of Classical music in other ways as well. Many Rock recordings have featured Baroque-style sounds, such as synthesized harpsichords and compositional styles. Of note are The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, two of the most influential Rock bands, both of whom utilized the Classical/Baroque Rock sound. The rhythms and structure of Rock and Baroque are beautifully similar, and other techniques such as using a violin bow to play the electric guitar are musically fantastic as well as symbolic of the union between Rock and Classical music. By the 1970’s, the Rock “Wall of Sound” production style had merged in many ways with classical arrangement techniques, and the electric guitar, synthesizer, and rock drum beats were regularly teamed with strings and other orchestral instruments. Artists of note are the Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, and Genesis.

Perhaps the most primal of examples of Classical Rock is the work of Jim Steinman, the creator of Meat Loaf’s “Bat out of Hell” epic. Jim Steinman has been dubbed the father of the modern Power Ballad, a style of composition and arrangement with obvious influences from Operatic pieces, and described often as “Wagnerian” in nature. According to Steinman, “Rock and opera are probably closer to each other than to other musical forms…Rock and opera both make huge gestures, they’re both about extremes in content and form. Each puts incredible physical demands on a performer. And each of them has a great mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, heroism and humor. Seems to me that people’s barriers to enjoying both have more to do with sociology than actual music and performances.” (Steinman, “Artist’s Mind”) The man responsible for setting the standard for Rock music studio production throughout the 1980s relates a story often in interviews about an experience he had at the age of six where he laid in bed motionless for 24 hours, captivated by the radio broadcast of Wagner’s complete The Ring Cycle, followed by a rock parody of the piece. “I’d play Wagner and Little Richard back-to-back – it never occurred to me that they were ‘different kinds of music’ that ‘shouldn’t’ go together.” (Steinman in Fissinger) This “Little Richard Wagner” Steinman excelled as a classically trained concert pianist at a young age, and applied that passion to a series of Rock and Roll pursuits throughout high school and college, composing what was arguably the first Rock Opera while attending Amhurst College. This background, once applied to Rock, brought the concepts of the epic song cycle with full orchestral accompaniment and mythological elements to a new generation with the release of “Bat out of Hell.” In the following years, other Rock albums would feature full Classical Rock compositions by Steinman, such as “The Storm” performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1981. New productions of Classical pieces, such as Verdi’s Requiem Mass (dubbed “Requiem Metal” on the 1989 Steinman “Pandora’s Box, Original Sin” album), would be geared towards blurring all lines between Rock and Classical. Even Steinman’s production of Sisters of Mercy song “This Corrosion,” known to be one of the most influential hits on the entire Gothic music movement, incorporated a chorus of over 100 singers to add a Classical element to the synthesized dance track. Steinman even convinced MTV, considered by many to be the Rock authority of the video generation, to create a made-for-TV Rock Operetta based on the literary classic Wuthering Heights, and Bonnie Tyler’s recording of Steinman’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” features the Aria from Madame Butterfly. University level music theory classes use Steinman’s “Back Into Hell” to teach the Fugue, or his “Ewigkeit/Gods” to exemplify the Bolero.

Despite the apparent success of such Classical Rock musicians as Jim Steinman, few people know this composer’s name or understand the Classical elements of his work, and this revolutionary style has been met with serious criticism and rejection. Examples of scandals over Classical use in Rock music include the Tomita The Planets album from 1976. “The Planets was actually banned for sale and use in the United Kingdom after a 1977 court injunction was awarded to Gustav Holst’s daughter. She objected to the synthesizer version of her father’s composition.” (Duxbury, “Nexus”) Further legal battles were fought in the name of retaining the purity of Classical music. “The release of Guitar Orchestra’s rendition of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (1971) was delayed until 1997 due to copyright issues. Sonja Kristina (1985) and Apotheosis (1992) renditions of Orff’s “O Fortuna” encountered legal suits from Orff’s estate. William Orbit’s album Pieces in a Modern Style (1995) was withdrawn from the market because of copyright problems with the track “Cantus” composed by Arvo Part….Hungarian rock group Panta Rhei’s 1976-1977 album Bartok was never released because of objections from Bartok’s son.” (Duxbury, “Nexus”) The Rock genre is unfortunately proving that it is the Classical music of tomorrow in a similar elitist fashion. Prior to his death, George Harrison had supported the use of his music as samples and additions to new Rock music, specifically lending rights to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to hiphop artist Eminem. Unfortunately, after his unexpected death, Harrison’s wife strictly forbid the use of the late musician’s work in a move reminiscent of the ones mentioned involving the heirs of Classical composers.

The most enlightened of modern Classical Music scholars understand that the future of Classical Music will be determined by the ability of Classical and Rock forces to find harmony. The Folk music that must be referenced and appealed to in listeners is the Rock and other popular music styles of the 20th and 21st centuries. To make Classical music a natural part of Western culture in modern and future times, bringing the sound of rock into Classical works is vital. “Beethoven’s music once was contemporary. How can we understand what that felt like, unless we know the contemporary music of our own time, which — if we’re talking about music that connects to the spirit of its age the way Beethoven’s did — would have to be rock?” (Sandow, “Why Classical…”) Beethoven’s music was once revolutionary as Rock is today. A great deal of Classical music was originally composed to be dance music, as the electronic rave and hip-hop music is today. “Italian opera ought to be larger than life. What can that mean to us, if we haven’t heard the larger-than-life performers pop music offers today?” (Sandow, “Why Classical…”) All of the elements to ensure an enthusiastic future of Classical music in our culture have been presented through the history of Rock. Blurring the lines between musical genres and accepting music on its own label-free terms is the key to making “pop” artistically complete. Pop is as certainly the Classical music of tomorrow as Classical Music is the spirit of Rock today.


“Classical Music.” Heart & Soul. World Book. 2004.

Duxbury, Janell R. “The Nexus of Classical and Rock.” Progression, no. 39, p70-74. Summer, 2001.

Duxbury, Janell R. Rockin’ the Classics and Classicizin’ the Rock: A Selectively Annotated Discography. Greenwood Press, 1991.

Fissinger, Laura. “Jim Steinman: To ‘Hell’ & Back.” BMI MusicWorld. Spring 1994.

Gabriel, Logan L. “Why the Classical Guitarist should embrace popular music.” Classical Guitar. Guitar Noise. 21 April 2001.

Reed, John. “Can Today’s Rock Become Tomorrow’s Classical?” World Music Central. 24 July 2003.

Sandow, Greg. “Pop Fiction: Why Classical Composers Don’t Sound Like Rock & Roll.”

Symphony Magazine, the official publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League. December 1998.

Sandow, Greg. “Why Classical Music Needs Rock & Roll.” 1996.

“Sex-laced Mozart raises scandal at Berlin opera.” HindustanTimes. 5 July 2004.,00050003.htm


Steinman, Jim. “The Artist’s Mind.” The Lord of Excess. Dream Pollution – The Jim Steinman Website.

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