Let’s face it: the average high schooler doesn’t like classical music much at all. The sounds of horsehair on metal, blowing through a bent tube, and felt-tipped hammers hitting long chords of copper aren’t exactly the sounds of the 21st century. VH1 doesn’t have a show on the classical masters of the 1800s, the radio is dominated by AT40, and Kanye West’s latest album alone has sold more copies than anything the master composer Debussy recorded in his entire life. But we seldom consider everything that our music in the 21st century owes to the classical greats like Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. From the structure of the modern rock band down to the concept of sampling found so often in rap songs, our music today owes a lot to the music of the classical era.


Four has always seemed to be the magic number in terms of musical ensembles. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, U2, Coldplay, and The Killers are just a few bands in the last 60 years to have utilized this ensemble structure. This design was indubitably derived from the string quartet, the most intimate form of classical music that became a popular outlet for the likes of many composers.


The traditional structure of a string quartet includes two violins, a viola, and a cello in order to produce a well-balanced sound. The first violin is often the instrument carrying the melody throughout the piece and has since been replaced in the modern rock band by a vocalist or lead guitarist. The second violin and viola both carry the inner voices to the composition, a trait now filled by a rhythm guitar and/or bass guitarist. The cello typically holds the bottom of the sound and sets the inner pulse of the ensemble the same way a drummer would in a band. This structure is only the simplest form of a quartet and by no means is a seen in every composition. However, in every quartet, four voices cover the whole range of sound at all times. The same way no rap record is produced with all bass, hi-hat, keyboard, or ad lib, the whole spectrum of sound is covered at all times by a string quartet.


Today’s pop music owes much of its remixing and sampling habits to the great composers of the classical genre as well. Kanye West took samples of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” and played it in the beginning of his hit record “Blood on the Leaves” in 2013 the same way Johannes Brahms wrote a melody from Joseph Haydn’s “St. Anthony Corale” into his piece “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” in 1873. At the time, Brahms was one of the first people to use this technique of sampling in his music, but nearly everybody in the music industry, from Miley Cyrus to Eminem, includes this practice in their records. Without composers like Brahms, this common practice in the music industry might not have taken root.


Music has always been a tradition that shapes itself over time and without classical music, some of the most notable features in our music today wouldn’t have been established. The concept of writing music for a small ensemble of musicians was taken to new heights during the classical era and the custom can still be seen in our music today. We build on the sounds created by those before us and regardless of whether they fit our individual tastes, their contribution to our music can’t be overlooked.