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 Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

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.

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Richard Wagner, of course, 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. In Wagner, melody was strong, but it became very elongated, sometimes losing its shape in the massive setting it was given. 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” in pop music is the small melodic segment that is simple, easy to remember and addictively pleasant. In a pop song, the hook is stated immediately and used almost exclusively to derive the song’s materials.

Whereas “classical” music could be convoluted and complex, the modern pop song concentrates on simple, repeating figures that give pleasure to the listener in a more instant and less intellectual sense.

But it was Rachmaninoff who started creating melodies that were both long and lush, and simple enough to sing and remember. Underneath his soaring melodies he found harmonies that were far more adventurous and colorful than what had been heard before.

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 supported by dense, emotionally charged chords, or at least 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.

Far from it, his music is one of the few places one is allowed to feel completely mushy and sentimental, and feel good about it. 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.

Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press

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