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.)

Resonant Thoughts: Mark Fell’s “Structure and Synthesis” (2022)

“I want to promote a description of creativity as a process of attunement to the material environment, not an isolated or inward journey further into one’s thoughts or mind or soul. In this sense, the description I want to promote is one driven by a critical curiosity rather than a thing called inspiration…which I know nothing of.”

“When creative practice is understood as an attempt to explore how materials and processes interact under certain conditions, like some scientific activities, it becomes situated in something–materials, processes, conditions–rather than somehow impossibly floating outside the material world.”

Mark Fell, Structure and Synthesis: The Anatomy of Practice (2022), pp. 14, 21

Lessons From Running

I spend as much time running as I do making music, which is to say that most days I’m outside training. Last October I ran the Boston marathon—which was delayed in 2021 after having been cancelled twice in 2020—and over the past four months I’ve been training for the April 2022 edition. 

My first Boston was a learning experience. First of all, I had no plan as to how I wanted to run the race. Runners are, generally speaking, goal-oriented people—or more precisely: they’re goal-oriented people who find that the routine of doing one thing over and over fits their disposition. While we were waiting on the buses to take us to the starting line, I overheard conversations between veteran runners comparing their race strategies, goals for splits, and hoped-for finish times. It was then that I realized I hadn’t thought about how I would run, except carefully and steadily. On the hour-long bus ride out to Hopkinton, I chatted with a woman who was also running her first Boston. She told me she was worried about how she would feel at each stage of the race and uncertain about how she would do. I make an analogy to music, suggesting that she “find the tempo” that suits her in the moment. “What’s your goal for the race?” she asks. “I guess just to see how it goes.”

A second lesson from running Boston is learning how difficult the course is. It starts with a long downhill, which everyone flies down excitedly, as if this is a 5k and not a marathon. The problem with downhills is that, no matter what tempo you take them at, they beat up your legs. Later in the race you encounter the Newton uphills at miles 16 through 21, positioned at the precise point where you’re fatiguing. The end of the race is mostly downhills again, but unlike the ones at the start of the race, traversing these ones hurt because of what you’ve been through. 

Once the race began I decided I wouldn’t look at my GPS watch to monitor pace, and this was the third part of my learning experience. The problem with this strategy was that it led me to run slower than maybe I could have. I didn’t push anything: I didn’t fly down the opening downhill, I took a selfie by Wellesley College, high fived some fans, and generally kept it together. For a while I settled in behind a few guys who seemed to be moving at an agreeable clip, using them as pacers. In other words, I took it easy for most of the race, thinking, I’ll just turn on the jets after mile 20. But the thing about Boston—and any marathon—is that you don’t have much left in the tank during the last six miles. Since I had no jets to turn on, I maintained my pace all the way to the finish.        

After last year’s race I made some adjustments to my training. I increased my training volume (more miles at pace) and added training specificity (more hills, up and down), trusting that what I’ve been doing is adequate preparation go beyond last year’s race performance. But as I write this is occurs to me that you can’t train away your personality, and a see how it goes and take it easy mindset is one of my default way of being. Bursts of intensity (e.g. sprints) help get projects done, sure, but most of the time I work slowly at a pace I can sustain (e.g. long easy runs). In running, as with writing or making music, it’s thrilling to push the pace and feel how your mind-body finds another level of synchrony. But the everyday joy is moving at a tempo where effort and enduring are in balance. Since our goal is to endure and keep going, preparing for a race is an excuse to train for much longer miles.

Resources on running: 

• A philosophical talk by the running GOAT, Eliud Kipchoge:

• Michael Crawley’s Out Of Thin Air.

• Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

• Adharanand Finn’s The Way Of The Runner.

• Shane Benzie’s The Lost Art Of Running.

• Alex Hutchinson’s Endure.