RACHMANINOFF AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE POPULAR SONG
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.
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.
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"
melodies from the beginning showed a unique feature that would
become a hallmark of the pop song yet to come: 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
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
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.
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
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