Pop Geneology: Orchestra Hits – From the symphony to the studio

Pop Odyssey features Jackie Goff’s thoughts, reviews and analysis of popular music.

A while back, I wrote a series of posts entitled “Pop Genealogy,” in which I took modern pop artists and detailed some of the common tropes from musical influences that they had adopted into their own sound. Estelle Caswell of Vox’s Earworm produced this amazing video about a musical trope with origins dating back to 1910, which has become synonymous to 80s R&B and pop employed in different ways throughout the decades that have followed. This video gives a stunning history of the technique, and I highly recommend watching the feel mini documentary here:


The Reader’s Digest verision is as follows: The “orchestra hit” that has become so prevalent in modern music dates back to Russian-born Igor Stravinsky in 1910. Stravinsky’s breakthrough piece “The Firebird” opens on a sharp, staccato orchestral chord. This jarring musical moment in the piece went on to cement Stravinsky’s place as a musical innovator and one of the most influential composers classical composers. So how did this one sound time travel to become a staple in music 70 years later? By complete accident as it would happen.

In 1975, Peter Vogel invented the first commercial sampling technology in the Fairlight CMI synthesizer. With this synthesizer, one could record any sound and then play it back at different pitches on a keyboard. When creating a library of sounds for the Fairlight, Vogel had a record the Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and well… the rest is history.

This sample has vast potential to a creative mind, finding places in rock music, R&B and pop, though it tends to appear differently within the context of its genre. 

The orchestra hit is used more sparingly in rock, but certainly not subtlety. In the 1984 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, Orchestra Pop is a brief moment of chaos that stirs the listener from otherwise melodic rock riffs. 

In R&B the orchestra pop smacks you in the face and is just as much a rhythmic tool as a melodic tool.

Now, fast forward to the 90s and early aughts, pop and R&B sounds start to diverge. R&B keeps it’s harsh, staccato embellishment, whereas pop orchestra hits are still widely used, but extremely affected and end up buried in the mix.

Enter modern pop music where Bruno Mars uses orchestra hits to play on 80s nostalgia.

Jackie Goff can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com or @jackiemaemusic on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: