Stealing from Classical Music to Write Your Next Song

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Violin and MusicThere’s a theory that not a lot has changed since the early days of what we call “Classical music” (i.e. the year 1600 through to the present). In fact, you’d be fairly safe in estimating that at least 90% of the difference between J. S. Bach and Bob Dylan really amounts to differences in performance style, not compositional style. Though the sound of today’s pop music is radically different from the sound of a Beethoven symphony, the compositional structure, the “rebar”, if you will, is very much the same. The constructional elements you find in the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are pretty much the same elements you’ll find in the music of Dylan, Bowie and Springsteen. And beyond.

Chord progressions work the same because the rules of harmony haven’t changed. Dominant chords still want to resolve to tonic chords.

It may surprise you (maybe even disappoint you?) to know that Classical composers were not usually very innovative with their choice of chords. In fact, if you strip Bach’s counterpoint down to its basic chord structures, you’re looking at something that might be considered downright dull: lots of I-chords and V-chords, with ii-chords and IV-chords thrown in for good measure. What complicated things harmonically was that he visited many keys within the same work.

Classical progressions were simple because Classical composers knew that most of their innovation had to happen in other elements within their compositions. If they innovated too much with regard to the way their chord progressions worked, the music would come crashing down.

It was later on, during the later Romantic era (mid-1800s through to the 20th century) that composers started to elongate and expand their chord progressions, and take listeners on longer “musical journeys.” But even in those musically complicated days of composers like Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, their chord progressions still worked, just with more twists and turns that made journey more interesting.

So that should mean that if you take a Classical era symphony and condense it to its basic chord progressions, those same progressions should work in pop music, right? Yes!

A good example would be “A Lover’s Concerto”, sung by 60s pop group The Toys. The writers, Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, simply took Bach’s “Minuet in G”, changed the time signature, and of course the performance style, and delivered a song that was not only something that sounded original, but reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.

But what about taking original chord progressions from Classical works and constructing entirely new songs? It’s easy to do; simply analyze those original works, and you’ll discover how beautifully they’ll accompany anything you’re writing today in the 21st century.

Here are a few progressions to get you started. A simple YouTube search of the original Classical work will show you how the composer used the progression:

Pachelbel: Canon in D:

D  A  Bm  F#m  G  D  G  A  D

Mozart: “Laudate Dominum:

E  F#m7  E/G#  Aadd9  B/A  E/G#  B7  Esus4  E

Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Cellos in G minor:

Gm  Cm  Gm  Cm  D  D/C  Gm/Bb  A  Dm

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7: ii. Allegretto:

Am  E/G#  E  Am  (Am)  C/G  G  C

C  B  Bm  [A  Am]  Am  [E/G#  Am]  E  Am

Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 7:

F  Gm  C7  F  Gm/Bb  C  F

G  C  G  C  G  C  G   C  (return to beginning)

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 1:

C  G  C  F  C  G  C

And here’s a sample of the complicated way Russian composer Igor Stravinsky used harmonic progression:

Stravinsky: Le Baiser de la Fée: Scene III.1

Am  F7 F#dim  F Fdim  Amaj7  F#m

And one other technique for borrowing from the classics is a bit like “modified stealing.” The story goes that Adler and Ross, who wrote the musical “Pajama Game”, took the opening bars of Mozart’s Sonata in C (K.545), slowed the tempo massively, and turned it into the blockbuster ballad, “Hey There.”


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. “If you strip Bach’s counterpoint down to its basic chord structure, you’re looking at something that might be considered downright dull.”

    Nothing like dimishing the father of western music theory’s work down to crap in one sentence.


    I’ve been studying theory over 40 years so I understand your point about chord progressions, but that sentence… ha! That’s quite like saying, “If you take away all of Ted Greene’s magnificent chord voicings you’re left with a dull guitarist.”
    Take away the things that make ANYONE’S art great and unique and you’re left dull.

    • Thanks for writing. First, I would question your supposition that Bach is the “father of western music theory,” but that’s not important here.

      When you quote-mine, as you’ve done in your comment, practically any statement sounds silly. That’s why instead of writing one sentence, I write many. I kindly suggest reading the article again, and making an attempt to see that sentence in its proper context. There is a more important concept being discussed here.

      Thanks again,

      • Bach is…
        The idea of Bach as the Father in this Trinity is well placed. Beethoven himself called him the “original father of harmony” and he is generally considered the greatest composers of all time, at least in the Western tradition.

      • Wow… check your ego at the door, buddy.

        As stated, I’ve been playing for 43 years and studying music and music theory for just as long. I’ve played with the best and learned from the best.
        I read your article.

        Address your errs through learning the facts of chronological music history (yes, Bach is known as the Father of Western Theory due to his breakthrough in the usage of the seven diatonic modes. This is music history 101. He expanded on the church modes like no one before him.)

  2. Pingback: 12 Chord Progression Characteristics that Music History Teaches Us | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  3. Once, when I needed to jam, I just stole the entire progression from Mozart’s 40th Symphony. I can never seem to come up with something as magnificent. But I use a lot of diminished chords and seem to mess around a lot with them, so much that I seem to be abusing them, even while accompanying an unsuspecing singer( one particular singer detested the diminished chord as he said it sounded “ugly”).

  4. This is a great post. I had a piece that used a i-iv chord progression in A minor that I needed at touch of inspiration for. I basically used the Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Cellos in G minor progression (transposed the key to A minor) and got a flood of ideas for it, all loosely based around that and with a bit of a Stravinsky idea to finish it off!

    Taking inspiration from classical chord progressions is something that can instantly improve a typical pop or rock piece yet not many do it.

    Thanks for a great lesson!

    • Thanks for writing, Dan. And as you say, one of the best uses of tried & true progressions is to let them serve as an inspiration for something new you’d create.


  5. Pingback: 12 Chord Progression Characteristics that Music History Teaches Us | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog

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