Top Five Beethoven Quotes & Samples in Popular Music

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Chuck Berry famously demanded Beethoven “Roll Over” to help usher in a new era of rock and roll. But rather than eschewing the famous German composer, popular musicians started quoting him in their works (including the Electric Light Orchestra in its cover of Berry’s hit). In conjunction with Beethoven Awareness month this November, we’ve collected our favorite five samples of Beethoven in popular music.

1. The Beatles: "Because"

In an oft-repeated tale, John Lennon said that he wrote the Beatles’ Abbey Road track “Because” after listening to Yoko Ono practicing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He claimed to have asked her to play the piece backwards, and therein found the chord progression on which he would build his own work. However, you don’t have to listen to Beethoven’s original in reverse to recognize the similarities.

2. Deep Purple: "Exposition/We Can Work it Out"

British rock royalty Deep Purple, which once held the Guinness World Record for loudest band, was known for classically-inspired arrangements as well as its ear-splitting concerts. For example you can hear an electric rendition of the allegretto from Symphony No. 7 in the beginning to “Exposition/We Can Work It Out” from the group’s album The Book of Taliesyn. The late band member Jon Lord, a classically-trained organist, is credited with incorporating classical standards and his own symphonic works into the band’s repertoire.

3. Leonard Bernstein: "Somewhere"

Leonard Bernstein’s elegiac song, “Somewhere,” from West Side Story, has been covered by performers from the Supremes to the Pet Shop Boys. However, Bernstein’s famous theme (“There’s a place for us”) comes from the Emperor Concerto’s second movement. The following line of the song shares a familiar motif with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

4. Billy Joel: "This Night"

As the Piano Man, Billy Joel has spent a lifetime tickling the ivories. His knowledge of music written for the keyboard was put to good use when he penned “This Night,” which takes inspiration from the Pathétique sonata. Joel, giving recognition where it’s due, gave L.V. Beethoven a credit on the album, An Innocent Man, which he explained in a 2012 WNYC conversation with Alec Baldwin on WNYC's Here's the Thing.

5. Nas: "I Can" 

Without copyright fees, the classical canon lends itself to sampling, and one of the best examples comes courtesy of the rapper Nas, who co-opted the familiar “Für Elise” for “I Can” on 2002’s God’s Son. The rapper wrote the track, warning of the dangers of drug use and crime, as a tribute to his dead mother, who asked him to compose an uplifting anthem. Its endorsement of practice would also make many piano teachers happy.

Runners Up: Alicia Keys, “Harlem Nocturne” (Moonlight Sonata); Bright Eyes “Road to Joy” (Symphony No. 9)