The Influence of Classical Music on Taylor Swift

Hey Improvisers,

Although the marketing machine that is the recording industry likes to pigeonhole both musicians and listeners into narrow genres, the truth is that we all generally enjoy a wide spectrum of music.

Case in point: Taylor Swift

The general narrative regarding Swift is that she started out as “Country” and then suddenly switched to “Pop.” And yes, on the surface, this is true. Yet if we dig a little deeper, we soon discover other musical elements in her music as well, such as a classical influence.

I first became aware of the classical strain in Taylor’s music the first time I heard her song Christmas Tree Farm. It begins with a classical-sounding flourish and then Swift sings over a lush string section. The overall sound harks back to the string arrangements of the Great American Songbook era that we can hear on recordings by Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.

You can have a listen to the song here:

Taylor Swift – Christmas Tree Farm

Another classical influence on Taylor Swift’s music is a little less obvious, but maybe even stronger than the classic string writing we heard on Christmas Tree Farm. To get the backstory, check out this article:

Yes, you read that correctly. Taylor Swift donated the whopping sum of $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony because their recording of John Luther Adams’ composition Become Ocean reminded her of the times she had attended performances by her local symphonic orchestra as a child.

If we dig deeper into this story, however, we’ll discover a subtle and all-pervasive classical influence on Swift’s music that’s hiding “in plain sight,” as it were.

The piece that had inspired Taylor to make her generous donation to the Seattle Symphony turns out to be a wonderful yet out-of-the-ordinary composition by the composer John Luther Adams. I myself am particularly interested in his music because he lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, for many decades and I’ve been teaching and performing at The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival every July since 1999. (I’ve been there in three Januarys as well, which is like going to another planet!)

I love Adams’ music and have several friends in Fairbanks who have known him for years. His music has been inspired by many 20th century classical composers and also reflects his interest in Alaskan culture, geography, and climate.

Have a listen to Adam’s Become Ocean, the piece that inspired Taylor Swift. If you have time, I invite you to put on some earbuds, lay down on your sofa and let the amazing sounds of this piece wash over you as you sonically “become ocean.” If you don’t have time for that now, go to the 18:45 mark and listen to the overall sound of the piece for a moment or two.

Become Ocean

So what did Taylor Swift hear in Become Ocean that inspired her so much? For starters, I think she enjoyed the “water” theme. I’ve heard that she has an ocean-front home in Rhode Island, so she obviously likes being near water. 

But there’s something else too. What musical elements do you notice at the 18:45 spot in the piece? One thing we hear is a beautiful, sustained wash of sound. It’s very mellow and can be described in musical terms as “pan-diatonic,” meaning that there are many notes from the underlying scale all sounding at once. It’s not restricted to any traditional harmony. In this case, the music seems to float in the air and gives us a sense of peaceful euphoria.

Along with the sustained sounds, we also hear some tinkly harp and bell-like notes. It’s as if they’re bubbling up through the water towards the surface.

Listen to the piece at 18:45 once again and enjoy the beautiful effect these two musical elements create. The mellow, sustained sounds contrast with the faster bubbly notes, and both of these musical elements combine to create a truly magical sonic experience. No wonder Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for this piece!

To connect Become Ocean with Taylor Swift, let’s check out a bit of the title track from her album The Tortured Poets Department. Listen to what the music sounds like at the 2:15 mark, focusing on the background music.

Taylor Swift – The Tortured Poets Department

Did you hear it? The mellow, sustained pan-diatonic sounds along with the tinkly notes that bubble up?

Yep, it’s right there for us to hear. Yet without knowing about Swift’s enjoyment of John Luther Adams’ composition Become Ocean, we might not have connected it with classical music at all. Still, it’s there, and now we can’t “un-hear” it. It’s an integral part of her sound.

In retrospect, it’s perhaps not surprising that Taylor Swift, like many great pop musicians, has been inspired by a wide range of music that stylistically reaches far beyond anyone’s narrow definition of “pop.” She has brought the melodic gift she honed during her early country years into pop and, as we now see, a deep influence form classical music as well.

Let’s take her example and enjoy a wide range of musical genres ourselves, and bring the sounds we enjoy from each of these into whatever style of music we’re currently focusing on.

Enjoy the journey and let the music flow!


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