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The fascinating history of the “orchestra hit” in music

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2018

I’m a big fan of Estelle Caswell’s Earworm series for Vox, and this most recent one might be my favorite. It’s about the “orchestra hit” sound that became super popular in the 80s…but which has its origins in an unauthorized sample of Igor Stravinsky included with an influential digital audio workstation invented in the late 70s.

If you listen to the first few seconds of Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” (hint: listen to the Cardi B remix) you’ll hear a sound that immediately creates a sense of 80s hip-hop nostalgia. Yes, Cardi B’s flow is very Roxanne Shante, but the sound that drives that nostalgia home isn’t actually from the 1980s.

Robert Fink and the inventor of the Fairlight CMI, Peter Vogel, help me tell the story of the orchestra hit — a sound that was first heard in 1910 at the Paris Opera where the famed 20th century Russian composer Stravinsky debuted his first hit, The Firebird.

Here’s the isolated sound from the original sample:

I love that all these musicians in the 80s got excited about a bit of classical music composed for a 1910 ballet, to the point where it became perhaps the signature sound of the decade.

The popularity of the orchestra hit is also a good reminder about the power of default settings. The musicians and producers who used the Fairlight CMI could record and sample any sound in the world but they ended up using this one included with the machine. Even the heavyweights — Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaataa, etc. — went with a default sample.

Caswell made a playlist of songs that feature the orchestra hit, with songs from Keith Sweat, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, U2, and The Smiths. Not included is the song it was sampled from…you can listen to that here.