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Rachmaninoff and the Evolution of Pop Songs

Rachmaninoff and the Evolution of Pop Songs

The great composer Rachmaninoff and the evolution of pop songs in the modern era are inextricably linked. We would not have film music, musicals and popular songs in the forms we hear today were it not for the melodic and harmonic innovations introduced by Rachmaninoff.

As Close To Heaven As You Can Get


Starting around 1900, Rachmaninoff began composing melodies that modern ears would find quite contemporary. Previously, melodies had evolved from simple, folk song like constructions. Obvious, limited chords dominated. For example, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star uses only three basic chords, and represents the simplistic level that melodies had attained by the 18th century (1700s.)

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The Modern School

Richard Wagner had done much to expand harmonic and melodic language in the years preceding Rachmaninoff's rise. But Wagner's melodic style would not survive the beginnings of the modern age. While it soared at moments, it always had to conform to the shape of the drama, rather than the form of the "song" itself.

Rachmaninoff's melodies, from the beginning, showed a unique feature that would become a hallmark of the pop song yet to come: the hook.

The Hook

The "hook" in pop music is the small melodic segment that is simple, easy to remember and addictively pleasant. Think of the opening guitar riff in the Rolling Stones "Satisfaction." That is a hook.


b3 (flat three) is the black key in between 2 and 3


| 1 * 1 * | * 1 2 b3 | * * * b3 | b3 2 2 1 | 1 * 1 * | * 1 2 b3 |

A Lush Harmonic Language

Rachmaninoff's lush harmonic language soon became the language of film music, and is to this day. You can't have a big film climax musically without his type of simple song-like melodic movement. It was supported by dense, emotionally charged chords. Film composers haven't found any better way yet. And big pop ballads wouldn't exist without the influence of his elongated melodic style.

Lushness in pop music is due to Rachmaninoff's harmony and his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve. But Rachmaninoff's heart, when displayed, always had a poetic dignity that kept his excesses from seeming out of place.

He was the master of stirring and resolving those kinds of feelings musically while elevating such outpourings to the level of "High Art" at the same time. He was the first to find that vein of emotional supercharging that is synonymous with a lush "orchestral" sound today. His style has yet to sound dated, and always sounds perfectly modern, for he was the first to find the musical emotional voice of modern people.

If you hear his music, you won't say, "It sounds like old stuff," you'll say, "Wow, that is really wonderful, full music! How long ago was that written? Is that from some film?"

But it's the films that are stealing from Rachmaninoff, not the other way around. 


Music History

What Killed the Golden Age of the Piano

Carl Tausig Cooks His Cat

I Meet Aaron Copland

George Sand Killed Chopin

Why Brahms Must Have Been Fat

Artur Rubinstein Was A Vampire

Igor Stravinsky Loses His Cool

Vladimir Horowitz Goes To The Racetrack

Beethoven Was No Beauty

The World’s Largest Blue Danube Waltz

Was Mozart Murdered?

Beethoven’s Rage Over A Lost Penny

Franz Schubert, The First Bohemian

Chopin’s Singing Piano Tone

Stravinsky’s Good Luck

Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Fan

Hector Berlioz and the Orchestral Train Wreck

Piano Lessons with Papa Bach

Piano Lessons with Frederic Chopin

The Great Piano Craze of 1910

The American Piano Wars

Why Hugo Wolf Went Insane

Musical Feuds

Piano In The Past Was Better

The Master’s Hands

Einstein’s Piano

Einstein’s Violin Improvisations In Gypsy Style

A History of Piano and Numbers

Ryan Seacrest’s Piano Concerto #2

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