Are Pop Songs Full of Thieves? 3 Expert Opinions

pop songs theft

Pop songs share an interesting place in the world of music education. 

There are many differing opinions on if they belong with music teaching or in motivating students. 

An interesting event happened to me the other day, and it got me thinking. 

You see, I was going along and minding my own business teaching in the middle of a pandemic, when a student told me I needed to check out the song “Memories” by Maroon 5. 

Well, as a child of the 90s and early 2000s, I have a soft spot for the group, so I rushed figuratively to check it out. 

Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the song, but it sounded familiar to me, and then it clicked! 

“Memories” borrows heavily from the harmonic structure and melodies of Canon in D! 

This sparked a thought. 

Even if it’s not true theft (public domain on a 300-year-old song): 

  • Is it good or bad for pop musicians to heavily borrow from classical songs? 
  • What would the composers think of this “honoring” of their work? 
  • Does popular music like this serve a purpose in our schools? 

As you’d expect, I have my own opinions on this issue in regard to the first and third questions, but I don’t have the musicology knowledge to form a valid opinion on the second. 

I decided to reach out to different experts in the field of musicology and history and get their takes on the topic. 

The answers shocked me (in a good way). 

Let’s see what they had to say. 

First: The Case For “Memories”

For those who haven’t heard the song by Maroon, check it out. 

It’s an excellent example of modern popular music (radio music, as I call it with my students) borrowing from classical pieces. 

Check out the official video below: 

As you listen, you likely noticed the same chord progression as Canon in D by Pachelbel. 

The progression is as follows: 

I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V

It repeats on and on from this. 

This is possibly the most famous chord progression in all of Western music. 

Maroon 5 follows the progression exactly. 

This is pretty clear, but honestly, there are many songs using the same progression or variation of it. 

  • Parts of “Starships” by Nicki Minaj
  • “Graduation (Friends Forever)” by Vitamin C 
  • “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis
  • “Basket Case” by Green Day

The parts about “Memories” that make it more blatant is the common tempo AND the melodic borrowing. 

The initial chorus uses paraphrases of the exact melody from the original source material. 

This video superimposes the two over each other, and it works perfectly. 

So, this begs the questions I listed above. 

For this one, I decided to reach out to people other than me with more experience in this area. 

What follows is what they had to say. 

3 Expert Opinions

In this section, I’ll include the answers of my three experts as they appeared in our email correspondence. 

I asked them some form of the three questions I mentioned at the beginning of the article. 

I’ll include their answers first and then their bio (with links to their websites, so you can check them out. 

Watch for commonalities in their answers and where they differ (if they do). 

Note: The opinions are presented in alphabetical order. 

Jessica Duchen, Music Journalist

“There are so-called ‘purists’ around who would take the attitude that connecting classical music to popular music cheapens it – but I’m not one of them! I think anything that can open up the world of music for youngsters has to be good, especially nowadays, and I have no problem with it whatsoever. I reckon most composers would be delighted to see their work reaching such a big audience.”

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and author. 

She has served as a classical music correspondent for The Independent from 2004 to 2016 and has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, BBC Music Magazine, and the JC, among others. 

Her blog covers fascinating classical music and historical topics. 

She also has a book releasing in late October of 2020 called Immortal, a study and theory on who Beethoven’s “Beloved” was. 

Check it out here.

Greg Sandow, Music Critic and Composer

“I hadn’t heard that Maroon 5 song, but I listened to it after getting your email, and I like it a lot. Very expertly done, and very touching in what it’s about. I thought it does good things with the chord progression from the canon, and also with the melodies it borrows. And the instrumental accompaniment is deftly played and conceived, just the right sound, I thought, the right rhythm, and the light density of the sound, to accompany the voice and give it a flowing rhythmic cushion, while giving it lots of room to bloom. 

So those are things, especially the last, that I’d admire classical composers for doing. No way I won’t admire them in a pop band. In any case, the canon has been adapted over and over in pop songs. And in classical music! I read the Wikipedia entry on the piece, and was interested to see that the first modern recording of it — the one that made it famous — was by a respected classical group, but added things that Pachelbel didn’t write. 

Classical pieces in any case have been adapted into pop songs so many times, for so many years. You can think of Kismet, the great Broadway musical, with the songs adapted from Borodin. Nothing wrong with that, as far as I can see. An uncle of mine, long deceased, was a songwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and he used to tell me how he used obscure passages in classical works as the basis for melodies in some of his songs. 

In those days, I think those adaptations followed from the great popularity of classical music. Now maybe they speak to the continued vitality of it, whether it’s popular or not. 

Maybe the most stunning and unexpected modern use of classical music was Aretha Franklin singing three Puccini arias, most notably Nessun Dorma. You can find that on YouTube. I thought she did it brilliantly, whether or not it was exactly what Puccini wrote. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.) 

I don’t think any of that demeans the composers. Their work continues to exist in its original form, and (maybe repeating myself) I’d say that if people keep drawing on it, that testifies to its power. 

My own judgment of any adaptation would always be based on the adaptation itself. Just as I’d appraise all the many cover versions in pop, where one artist does a song associated with another one. Do I like the use of the original version? Purely on its own terms, what do I think of the new version?… 

…I tell my Juilliard students that the most effective advocacy isn’t to say that classical music is superior, or even special, or that it’s essential to civilization. What really works, in my experience, is for them simply to say — in a vivid, personal way — why they love it. People respond to that. While if you tell them that classical music is in some way necessary, they may feel cowed, as if we’d told them they’d failed to understand something they ought to have known.”

Greg Sandow is a respected music critic and composer known for his consultant and speaking skills. 

He’s currently a professor at Juilliard where he serves as a Graduate Studies Faculty. 

Greg is a composer and advocate for classical music in the world. 

Check out his blog here

Wendy Stevens From ComposeCreate

“My thought is that since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s a real compliment to the original composers when someone borrows part of their idea in their composition. It also gives more attention to the original tune, provided the person using it gives attribution. So I really don’t think it cheapens the tune. It just demonstrates that the idea was a good one to begin with and that others are building on that idea. Creativity is not creating something brand new out of thin air – no one can do that! It’s recombining things that already exist into new combinations and for new purposes. Obviously, it’s not creativity if you just copy someone’s work (and it’s illegal too), but it’s creative if you take a chord progression (like Pachelbel’s Canon in D) and create something new over the top of it. 

Now, you have to be careful of course, because if a tune is still under copyright, then you could only borrow a very, very little bit legally. If people recognize it from a copyrighted tune, you’ve probably borrowed too much. So you can’t really borrow main ideas or motives. But classical music in public domain is a different story! And I think if you are learning how to compose, it is very helpful to start with something familiar – like the rhythm from a piece, or a chord progression, or a little hook – to create something else.”

Wendy Stevens received her Bachelor’s in Piano Pedagogy and Masters in Theory and Composition from Wichita State University. 

She’s won numerous awards and joined various music education groups before starting her website, ComposeCreate

It’s here she offers resources for inspiring music composition love in piano and music students of all ages. 

The Bottom Line?

After listening to these three awesome and kind experts, I was overjoyed. 

Their thoughts seemed to align with mine on these three topics. 

My takeaways from these conversations, combined with my own opinions, are: 

  • Is it good or bad for pop musicians to heavily borrow from classical songs? – It’s great for them and for classical music. It’s a testament to the staying power of classical music. 
  • What would the composers think of this “honoring” of their work? – Most of them would probably be pleased to see their music used by practitioners for centuries after their death. 
  • Does popular music like this serve a purpose in our schools? – Oh my, yes! It bridges the gap between classical music and the music of today. Anything music teachers can use to broaden kids’ minds is great. 

Again, I have to thank my experts and say what an honor it was to speak with them. 

Music is a fascinating world, and it truly is a wonderful art to teach and share. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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