Pop vs. Classical: You Love Classical Music (You Just Don’t Know It)

Lisa Witt  /  Styles  /  UPDATED Jan 16, 2023

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This mini-lesson in music history and culture is for all you pop music fans out there. Guess what? You secretly love classical music…you just don’t know it yet!

Surprised? Here’s why.

Pop music takes chord progressions from classical music

Pop music actually draws a lot from classical music. You might not hear it right away, but there’s a simple piece that explains everything. Listen to the first song I play in the video and see if you recognize it!

…That’s right, it’s “Canon In D” by Johann Pachelbel! This is a familiar piece to many people because it’s popular at weddings.

Why is this piece so important? Well, it’s arguably the birthplace of pop music.

I know that’s a bold statement to make, but just listen as I play the chord progression used in Pachelbel Canon and sing some songs over it. As you’ll hear, we can sing Maroon 5’s “Memories” right over these exact chords and it fits like a glove.

Let’s take a closer look

To see exactly what’s going on, let’s take a closer look at the chord progression used in both Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” which is in D major:

“Canon in D” Chord Progression:

D Major (I)
A Major (V)
B Minor (vi)
F# Minor (iii)
G Major (IV)
D Major (I)
G Major (IV)
A Major (V)

If you’re wondering what’s up with the Roman numerals, they describe the chord’s relationship to the D major scale. Since D is the first note of the D major scale, the D major chord is our I-chord (or “tonic chord” if you want to be technical).

Sidenote: We use capital Roman numerals to name major chords and lowercase Roman numerals to name minor chords. Using a numbers system helps musicians quickly play chord progressions in any key.

“Canon in D” uses this chord progression: I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V. And as I demonstrate in the video, you can play “Memories” right over this! The melody Maroon 5 uses even borrows from Pachelbel’s melody.

Most pop songs use a simplified version of this progression, like I-V-vi-IV. Check out our lesson on pop chord progressions if you want to learn more and write your own pop progressions!

🎹 Get a Head Start on Classical Piano ✨

Love classical music but not sure where to start? Head over to Classical Piano Quick Start, four free lessons designed for beginners taught by Victoria Theodore. Victoria is a classically trained pianist with degrees from Oberlin College and Stanford University, and has played with Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder. Start your classical journey with Victoria today!


Other classical influences hiding in your pop music…

Maroon 5 aren’t the only ones paying homage to classical music. Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” also uses a similar chord progression: I-V-vi-iii-IV-V.

Nicki Minaj also uses a similar progression in “Starships”!

One of my favorite songs of all time draws from Bach’s classic, “Air on a G String”. Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” also uses Bach’s chord progression. Listen to how I play “Air” and the intro to “A Whiter Shade of Pale and see if you can spot the similarities!

The takeaway: music is built on chords

When we put chords together a certain way, they make a chord progression. How we mix and match chords in chord progressions is how we make music, and this method is timeless. Just like pop and classical, jazz uses chord progressions too.

While chord progressions may seem similar, the creative potential for making melodies and harmonies with them is boundless! So next time you need some fresh inspiration, look back a few hundred years or listen to music you don’t normally listen to. Pull from different sources of inspiration, see what you love about them, and make it your own.

Next time you think you don’t like classical music, think again! While they may be long gone, old-timey musicians like Bach and Pachelbel are still influencing us today.

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for more than 20 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others. Learn more about Lisa.

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