FEATURE: Unfinished, Bittersweet: Why Classical Elements Elevate Music to New Heights



Unfinished, Bittersweet


ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Unsplash

Why Classical Elements Elevate Music to New Heights


A few days ago…


I wrote a feature that looked at instruments: whether we are still picking them up and if, in a digital age, there is a need to learn one. It was interesting to investigate – I came out of the piece having learnt a lot about buying habits. I feel we are still buying instruments but in a less conventional way. The Internet is dominating and, although there are music shops on the high-street; we prefer the choice and value one gets from online sites. It makes me wonder how music will change in the coming years. Will artists favour machines and simulate instruments on digital tablets?! I wonder whether the conventional Rock sound will be overtaken by Electronic/Pop; a move towards something more colourful and less jagged. That is a simplified definition (of the genres) but I worry there is too much dependability on machines and electronics. I lust after the natural sounds instruments provide. I have been looking back at my favourite songs and there is a common component that comes out: a romance and elegance that can only be produced through Classical strings. It is not only strings, in fact: horns and brass; timpani and orchestral strands help take a song in a new direction. Like Jazz; there is a stuffy sector who feels that kind of music is for a certain person – it is niche and does not warrant any serious acclaim.


The title of this piece refers to two songs that employ some rousing strings: Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy and The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Both songs are considered anthems of the 1990s; they have got into the history books and are songs we, rightfully, hear a lot. It is more complicated than saying the strings helped get the songs to more people. The songwriting is extraordinary and the songs arrived at a time when the public craved something wonderful. Other songs in my rotation – like The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby and Kate Bush’s The Man with the Child in His Eyes; The Cinematic Orchestra’s To Build a Home and The Streets’ Turn the Page – contain Classical input and instruments that elevate it beyond the ordinary. I am hearing a lot of modern artists assimilate strings and brass into their music. It can be quite expensive hiring musicians – many do not want to reproduce Classical strings and horns through their laptops. Whilst booking a professional musician adds a cost to recording - the result of adding that into the mix can make a huge difference. There is a perception that certain genres/instruments cannot be adapted and crossed. If you hear rousing strings and blossoming horns; teasing percussion and symphonic lust – that does not have to remain in Classical music. Look at the history of popular music and you can see the way artists have incorporated more ‘highbrow’ aspects into their songs.


IN THIS PHOTO: Max Richter/PHOTO CREDITDeutsche Grammophon

The reason I wanted to explore it due to misconceptions and underuse. Classical composer Max Richter has been causing earthquakes with his scales; setting his music to the words of Virginia Woolf (her last words, in fact!). All of the bands I grew up with – from The Beatles to Blur; Radiohead and The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin – have used Classical sounds in their music. Consider epics like Kashmir (Led Zeppelin) and A Day in the Life (The Beatles); more emotive tracks like The Universal (Blur) and How to Disappear Completely (Radiohead) – shivers are created and one is provided something truly spectacular and spine-tingling. It is the extra ingredient and kick that takes the song to rare heights. Maybe those bands have a bigger budget – and could afford to indulge their ambitions – but hiring Classical musicians need not break the bank. Modern music is utilising a lot of electronic sounds and, whilst that is proving popular, I think there is greater flexibility and potential inherent in Classical avenues. Any emotion can be simulated and produced in this corner; there is so much untapped potential artists are overlooking. There is, as I said, strings and Classical instruments need to score something quite refined and studious. Over the past few years; we have seen various songs and film-scores reimagined by using an orchestra. From Pete Tong’s Classic House project through to the Grime Orchestra/IXtra Grime Prom – there are collisions and unities that have taken one style of music and added new light and potential.


I am not a huge Classical treasurer and someone who grew up on that type of music. My exposure came young but I was always a little off-put by the lack of vocals and variation. There is a range of emotions and styles explored in Classical music: it, in its way, created sub-genres and styles of music we hear today. Bigger, edgier Classical pieces had the element of Grime and Hip-Hop; pastoral suites had a more Folk/Pop vibe; those epic, ever-changing cannons remind me of the Progressive-Rock greats. Transpose that connection and it is clear, consciously or not; artists from the past few decades take from Classical music and the variety inherent. Those who overlook Classical music ignore how complex, intricate and detailed the music is. The amount of work needed to create a Classical piece is immense. Maybe that amount of work – replicating it in the modern age – is quite daunting for anyone trying to update the wonders of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I am not suggesting every artist needed to hire a forty-piece orchestra and book Abbey Road for a professional record - few have the potential and money to do that! There are artists, through all genres, that sprinkle in a little bit of Classic here and there. The common thread is how much is added down to something simple and unexpected.


Woodwind and brass can take a song in a new direction and provide extraordinary romance and emotion. Strings are nimble and spirited; they have malleability and can project in every direction. Classical music is one of those genres that can fuse with any other type of music. From Grime and Pop to Folk and Blues: there are no reservations; everyone is welcome to use whatever they feel. It can be quite tricky knowing what to incorporate into your music and how much – striking that balance is always hard. What amazes me is how few of the mainstream stars out there realise the potential of Classical. They put huge beats and layer electronics up; lots of fake sounds and synthetic charm to produce something quite anodyne. It can be rather jarring hearing something like that come out of the speakers: there is endless potential available to the songwriter who takes that gamble and breaks from convention. It is only a small group of musicians who are unaware of Classical music and what it can do. Maybe prices are causing restriction and limitation. One needs to get a genuine instrument and player to get the sound just right. It can be hard getting a part how you want it so, with the hire costs and studio time; the final bill can be quite steep – for something quite minor.


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Rather than consider Classical music as a necessity: it might be worth thinking about it as a treat. Every artist will go through fallow periods and lose a certain spark of inspiration. I feel a wonderful string quartet or horn section can rekindle a passion and vein of creativity. It need only be a bassoon or cello thrown into the mix to give that song unexpected nuance and vivacity. I feel genres like Folk are bonded closest to Classical – that has been the way for a long way – but other genres are starting to get in on the act. Hip-Hop and Grime acts are fusing something dignified and high-class with music that has a distinct ‘swagger’. I am not saying Grime/Hip-Hop is low-rent and scruffy: the genres are all about keeping it real and projecting a sense of reality. Melting these disparate styles of music together could be risky and backfire. If done correctly; the effect is outstanding. I would urge more modern artists to look at Classical music and how, over the decades, it has been used to heighten some of our favourite songs. Classical music has been proved to relax the mind and can increase the I.Q. – a brief spike has been noted in college students (in the U.S.) after hearing a snippet of Mozart. It can nourish and improve the mind; heal the body and help aid those with anxiety.


A couple of articles I have researched online how Classical music have inspired modern artists. One of them, produced late last year, explored how Pop choruses connect with Classical music:

One of the main ways that classical music has impacted today’s popular music is with the chorus. The chorus, or the short melody repeated throughout most songs, was first seen during the Classical era. A vast majority of songs we hear on the radio today are structured to include a chorus. It’s typically the part of the song we remember the most, and we have the Classical era to thank for it!

The Baroque period, which is often associated with classical music, also had a notable influence on contemporary music – particularly the rock genre. Many modern rock songs copy the original intensity and complexity that you’ll observe in music from the Baroque period. Several rock artists, including Led Zeppelin and Muse, have also stated that composers from the Romantic period influenced their music.

Many of today’s pop songs are based on a handful of chords and sequences that were discovered during the Classical period. When you listen to artists like Adele, you might not even recognize the rich history that has gone into the music. Lady Gaga has also adopted Baroque themes into many of her songs”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Adele/PHOTO CREDIT: Alasdair McLellan

The Guardian, back in 2014, explored another connection between Pop and Classical masters:

Most pop songs are based on a dozen or so of the most familiar chord sequences that were "discovered" in the late 18th century. In the present age, someone such as Adele is an original singer because of her voice, her attitude and her style. But the chords and sequences she and most pop writers are using have been around for a very long time. Perhaps the originator of the three-minute pop song was John Dowland, way back in Shakespeare's time, but I think the modern pop song was created by Schubert.

Schubert was a remarkable talent. Melodies poured out of him. He wrote 600 songs, and, like today's songwriters, his intention was to write music that would be instantly enjoyable. There's not a moment where he is trying to catch you out or where you have to listen 10 times before you get your head around a song. He wants you to get it first time; there's verse-chorus, voice and piano underneath, and he wants you to remember the chorus”.

There are famous songs inspired by Classical music and the influence is clear. The problem I have is either artists are not aware they are influenced by Classical music – that or they keep the influence hidden. It seems Pop is the biggest proponent of Classical music: songs that hark back to centuries-old music; the same dynamics and structures that delighted audiences so many years ago. That is pleasing to hear and proves you do not need Classical instruments in order to reproduce the sounds and sensations of the genre.


It can be a particular phrasing or a similar melodic progression; the way the song unfolds and the key changes employed. We know the mental and spiritual benefits listening to Classical music. It can release dopamine and open receptors that make one happier. It calms and soothes; it promotes intellectual growth and has been shown to increase the I.Q. In terms of new musicians; we know Classical has played an important role for years now. I feel we can go further and take a more overt approach to Classical. Its benefits are numerous, and so, if you want more people to respond to your sounds and stick with you – it makes sense Classical music is the way to go, right? At the moment; it seems like Classical is being heard here and there; it is more theoretical and supposed than proven and evident. I would like to see the genre take more ground and feed into the mainstream more effectively. If we can do that; we can create a richer scene and one that goes deeper and improves the body and mind. It would compel younger listeners to listen to Classical and, in the process, take up some of the instruments they hear. The benefits are numerous, and so, let’s get a lot more Classical instruments/strands into music – in a more obvious, strident and cross-genre way. I am excited seeing where music can go this year and what trends emerge. My greatest hope – although it might not happen this year – is seeing Classical music play a much bigger role…


IN the sounds of today.