10 pieces of classical music you didn’t know you knew

Think you don’t know anything about classical music? Think again.

Without even realising it, you probably know a few famous pieces of classical music, thanks to their appearances in films, television shows and adverts.

Here are just 10 of the most memorable pieces in pop culture. How many do you recognise?

Listen to O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff

The X Factor - O Fortuna (Carmina Burana)

For years, it was the sound of Saturday nights. As the X Factor judges strode across the stage, their entrance was heralded by this dramatic choral piece.

In fact, Carol Orff’s O Fortuna is one of the most widely heard pieces of music in history. You may also have heard it in TV shows like Brooklyn 99, How I Met Your Mother and Glee, as well as at the start of some American football games.

Orff was inspired by a 13th-Century Latin poem of the same name, which talks of Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of Fortune, and the fickleness of fate.

Quite apt then, for a TV talent show.

The Apprentice - The Montague and The Capulets (Romeo and Juliet)

This rather dark and intimidating piece of music is perfect for such a competitive show, full of ambitious individuals. It’s also known as The Dance of the Knights.

In this section of the ballet, the foreboding nature of the music gives us a hint at just how much the Montagues and Capulets dislike each other. Not too dissimilar to The Apprentice really.

Keen football fans might also recognise it as the former pitch entrance music for Sunderland AFC, changed two seasons ago after 20 years of use at the Stadium of Light.

Listen to Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet, played by the New World Orchestra, composed by Sergei Prokofiev

Alton Towers - In The Hall of the Mountain King (Peer Gynt Suite)

For years, Alton Towers has made use of this music in its TV adverts and around the theme park. It’s become a sort of unofficial theme tune.

Early on in the music, you get a sense of someone cautiously exploring their surroundings, tiptoeing around. It then builds up to a crescendo of excitement, not unlike the experience of riding a roller coaster.

Edvard Grieg’s composition is based on a Norwegian folk tale, in which a young boy must escape from a troll king.

Listen to In The Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt, composed by Edvard Grieg

2001: A Space Odyssey - Sunrise (Also Sprach Zarathustra)

Most film scores feature music specifically composed for the film, rather than relying on pre-existing classical music.

However, director Stanley Kubrick chose to try something different.

The epic and rousing nature of Richard Strauss’ Sunrise made it perfect for the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the Sun rises over the Earth and the moon, the brass instruments herald the dawn of a new day with an impressive fanfare.

Throughout the 1960s/70s, the BBC used Sunrise during its coverage of the Apollo missions to the moon.

Listen to Sunrise, from Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed by Richard Strauss

The King’s Speech - Overture (The Marriage of Figaro)

One of the most memorable scenes in The King's Speech is when King George VI, played by Colin Firth, is able to successfully recite from Hamlet. With the overture of The Marriage of Figaro blaring in the background, he is able to overcome his stammer.

The film is based on the true story of how speech therapist Lionel Logue worked with King George VI to help his public speaking.

Composed by Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro is a comic opera.

If you listen carefully, you’ll also catch a quick snippet in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), as the doors of the chocolate factory are opened.

Listen to The Marriage of Figaro, composed by Mozart

Torvill and Dean’s perfect routine - Boléro

On 14 February 1984, over 24 million people in the UK watched ice dancing duo Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean win gold at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. It was a perfect artistic score which has become Olympic legend.

They skated to a shortened version of Ravel’s Boléro.

Torvill and Dean are now judges on Dancing on Ice, in which many contestants have performed their own take on the Bolero routine.

Listen to Boléro, composed by Maurice Ravel

Mr Bean’s Holiday - O Mio Babbino Caro (Gianni Schicchi)

When Mr Bean, played by Rowan Atkinson, is in need of money in France, he turns to busking to try and get some cash. The classical music he hilariously lip-syncs to in a French market is another operatic piece, by the composer Giacomo Puccini.

It can also be heard in the Oscar winning film, A Room With A View, starring Helena Bonham-Carter.

Listen to O Mio Bambino Caro, sung by Hayley Westenra, composed by Giacomo Puccini

Fantasia - A Night On The Bare Mountain

Disney’s Fantasia is an animated film divided into eight parts, each with a corresponding piece of classical music.

One of the darkest segments uses Modest Mussorgsky’s A Night On The Bare Mountain to underscore the emergence of various evil spirits on Walpurgis Night, including ghosts and demons.

A sequel, Fantasia 2000, was released in 1999, using another eight classical music pieces.

Listen to A Night On The Bare Mountain, played by Eugene Ormandy, composed by Modest Mussorgsky

The 1973 Hovis advert - Largo (New World Symphony)

Directed by leading Hollywood director Ridley Scott (who also directed Alien and Gladiator), the 1973 Hovis advert featured a young boy pushing his bike up a cobbled hill to deliver bread before free-wheeling back down. It is so well-loved that it actually returned to our TV screens in 2019, fully digitally restored.

Each version of the advert features a different generation of the Ashington Colliery brass band playing Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

Listen to Largo from Symphony No. 9, played by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, composed by Antonín Dvořák

Weddings - Wedding March (A Midsummer’s Night Dream)

If you’ve ever been to a wedding, seen one on screen, or acted one out on the primary school playground, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Mendelssohn’s iconic Wedding March.

It's typically played in celebration as the happy couple leave the ceremony.

Listen to Wedding March from A Midsummer Nights Dream, played by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, composed by Mendelssohn

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Danse Macabre

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is something of a cult classic, known particularly for its more experimental episodes. In the episode Hush, the characters are robbed of their ability to speak.

Instead of dialogue, music has a massive role to play in this otherwise near silent episode. That includes the rather sinister ‘Danse Macabre’, or the Dance of Death, by Saint-Saëns.

Listen to Danse Macabre, composed by Saint-Saëns
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