On “Going Classical”: String Arrangements Of Pop Music In Bridgerton

“Bridgerton matched Victorian morality with enlightened heroines, and progressive attitudes with a lavish regency aesthetic. And nowhere was the blend of old and new more evident, than in the music.

– Maddy Shaw Roberts,
Bridgerton Season 2 soundtrack: every pop song with a classical cover

“Nobility, warmth, and equality of tone from one end of the scale to the other are qualities common to all stringed instruments, and render them essentially superior to instruments of other groups.”

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Principles of Orchestration (1873/1964).

The Netflix drama series Bridgerton uses string arrangements of pop music to startling effect. The show’s score incorporates hit songs from the past forty years into its signature ballroom dance scenes, inviting the viewer into a game of recognition. Am I hearing Madonna’s “Material Girl”, Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, and Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times”? Yes you are. The music’s familiarity and simplicity—which, to a lesser or greater extent, depends on your age and knowledge of pop—makes the show’s otherwise over the top Victorian aesthetics appealing and contemporary. You think, I can relate to what she’s thinking because I too have listened to Rihanna. You think, I always thought the F major to d minor chord progression in Harry Styles’ song was melancholy and so do these characters. As you watch, you think, I feel what they feel because we listen to the same music.  

Bridgerton’s use of string arrangements of pop reimagines and reframes how the Regency period (early 19th-century England) sounded. Developed in the 1750s by the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, the musical form and ensemble line-up of the string quartet balances the sounds of two violins, viola, and cello. As a form, the quartet is considered prestigious because of the difficulties of writing for four similar-sounding instruments. On Bridgerton, the string quartet sound is key because it’s a quintessentially “classical” signifier. Historically, strings were a gossamer, transparent, and gentle timbral marker of upper class identity and social life. Because of this association, it’s hard to not hear them as elevating any musical repertoire into a higher social strata by creating a “serene environment” as an article describing the use of classical music in New York’s Penn Station puts it. In Bridgerton, the sound of strings is the perfect underscore to the characters’ verbose conversations in which they constantly deceive one another, talk obliquely at one another, and fail to say what they feel in the moment they’re feeling it. The privileged sound of strings fills in the missing details. Like the form-fitting empire waist gowns worn by Bridgerton women, string arrangements of pop music prop up familiar songs to help create a beautiful fiction that makes us all feel more refined. 

(I first wrote about “Going Classical” in 2011, here.)

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