Muse tracks use Rach

In my previous post, I likened the usage of a tune from a classical work in a popular song to a translation of a story into a different medium. Forcing a Saint-Saƫns melody over a duple time reggae beat is like taking the plot of Little Women and setting it on Neptune and making Meg actually be Beth from three years in the future. It may seem cool at first until you realise that the story doesn't actually work anymore.

Borrowing from a piece of music doesn't always mean telling the same story. In this article, I'm going to show some examples of elements taken from classical works and incorporated into a completely new story. Because the original story is discarded, there is much more freedom in how to use the borrowed element to its greatest effect without needing to be faithful to its former function.

This is the opening of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 2. If you're a fan of Muse you might be able to hear parts from three of their songs just within these first two minutes!

Let's hear the beginning of the melody played by the orchestra as it comes in to join the piano.

Here's a simplified reduction of the bassline and chords (corresponding to the first half of the audio excerpt):

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no. 2

Now let's listen to a verse from Muse's Megalomania.

Muse: Megalomania

The similarity is not obvious to hear, but if the Rachmaninoff is played at about half the speed and transposed from C minor to E minor, then the harmonies are almost identical. The basslines match exactly save for one note, and the chord progressions differ only in details. However, the two melodies are completely dissimilar (apart from the fifth bar where they fleetingly dovetail).

On the one hand, the harmony of the verses of Megalomania is unmistakeably lifted from the Rachmaninoff; but on the other hand, the music is independent enough that someone familiar with the piano concerto wouldn't necessarily immediately pick it as the source upon hearing the Muse song. It's clear that the band did not simply take the Rachmaninoff passage and try to turn it into a song. Rather, they took one element from it that they liked, recognised it as a versatile device, and sculpted a new story which could utilise it.

Let's see what they do with the next passage from the concerto.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no. 2

Again, Muse has taken the harmony from this passage and repurposed it for one of their songs. It can be heard in the chorus of Ruled by Secrecy, with an even slower tempo.

Taken out of context as they are here, these two snippets seem even more similar than the previous example. The basslines are note for note, and the chord differences are very minor. Even the melodies have the same shape, both walking around a scale that climbs from F up to D in the case of the Rachmaninoff, stopping instead at C in the case of the Muse song.

However, within their larger contexts, these passages could not be more distinct. The clearest indication of this comes from the fact that, while the chord progression has not been transposed (for example, both instances have F minor in the fifth bar), the two works are not even in the same key!

The piano concerto is in C minor, and the eight bars excerpted are just a chunk taken from the middle of a sprawling 28 bar phrase which takes a wild harmonic journey starting from the dominant and trying to find its way to the tonic. The climax is reached in the last bar of the excerpt, from which the harmony winds down in a convoluted path to eventually land back in C minor. In no way do the start and finish of the excerpt feel like the beginning or end of a phrase, but instead smooth points along a logical flowing curve.

Ruled by Secrecy is in F minor, and those eight bars constitute the entire chorus. Here, the first bar marks the beginning of a new section, which builds up and seems to resolve in the fifth bar where the tonic is reached — but instead of stopping, the chorus keeps pushing further and eventually reaches the D dominant seventh chord which is so intense and out of place that the chorus gives up on even trying to resolve it, and just ends on that strange unanswered chord.

It's really quite amazing how these eight bars have been cut out of the piano concerto and used in a way which is almost antagonistic to their original meaning. This is something like looking at a drawing of a walrus, and realising that if you cut out part of its torso and flipper and turn it at some oblique angle, then it looks like an umbrella.

Okay, there's still one more from the opening of this concerto.

And here's the corresponding section from Muse's Space Dementia.

This is the most direct quotation that Muse has used. Here the passages actually function somewhat isomorphically: a circle of fifths winding down to the tonic, with a nice harmonic twist at the end to conclude the phrase. However, in the Rachmaninoff, the circle of fifths is the culmination of an elaborate journey towards home, whereas Muse have used it to perform a tricky modulation away from the home key into the dominant minor. Because of the suavity of the harmonic progression, the listener may not even notice the modulation until the relaxed B minor turns into an urgent B dominant seventh and it all crashes back into the original key.

Wow, that sure is a lot of Muse songs drawing from the same piano concerto. But wait, there's more! Here's the beginning of the main melodic theme from the third movement of the concerto.

And here it is in the cadenza of Muse's Butterflies & Hurricanes, hidden in the low strings underneath the brilliant piano arpeggios.

Here the reference is so short and subtle that I could have missed it if the other three Rachmaninoff songs hadn't tipped me off. After all, if there's going to be another piano concerto reference around, surely it's going to be somewhere in the song with the bombastic piano solo.

Just to prove that Muse have heard more than one classical work, here's a final example which draws from Schubert's Ellens dritter Gesang (commonly known as Ave Maria).

And now, from near the end of the short Muse song, Soldier's Poem:

Listening to the lyrics, I wonder whether this a deliberate ironic allusion to Schubert's song. "And do you think you deserve your freedom? No, I don't think you do."

7 comments:

Will said...

Wow! This is the most amazing thing I've read all year!

Ellie said...

Wow! Me too.
I knew there was a reason I want to have Matt Bellamy's babies.

Anonymous said...

well matt bellamy does say that Rachmaninoff is one of his favourite composers...and the thing is he's given a whole generation of fans the opportunity to investigate amazing classical pieces that they would normally have written off (I'm one of those fans btw)

Anonymous said...

I can't believe it !! OMG!!
It's Georgeous !!
I already play your version of United States of Eurasia
Can you give me all your pianosheet of Muse please??
Thank you very much

Anonymous said...

really cool

Anonymous said...

...plus, to continue from my last post....

"he's given a whole generation of fans the opportunity to investigate amazing classical pieces that they would normally have written off"....

How sad that you think people would normally 'write off' Rachmaninov without it being nicked and plagarized by a band.

Anonymous said...

"he's given a whole generation of fans the opportunity to investigate amazing classical pieces that they would normally have written off"....

How sad that you think people would normally 'write off' Rachmaninov without it being nicked and plagarized by a band.

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