4 Tips for Getting Started with Classical Music

I was recently asked to help someone get started with Classical music, and I needed to write this for some of my students so I thought I’d share this here. There are plenty of links throughout (mostly to YouTube) so have a listen. There’s probably so much editing to do here, but it’s useful now and I’ll have to come back to it.

Classical music (in the Western tradition) is the only music I have every really known. Before elementary school I wandered around the house with a portable tape recorder. In middle school, I asked for French Horn as my top choice but all they had left were cellos; an outcome I don’t regret. I bought my first CD (Dvořák’s New World Symphony/ String Serenade/ Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony) in high school before I had a CD player. At orchestra rehearsals I’d open the doors before class so people walking by might hear. I went to college for science rather than music, but my application essays included clips and explanations of my favorite pieces. In my adulthood you’ll still find me blasting Classical in the car. At a genomics conference in San Diego I rented a really nice Land Rover and was blasting the Carter Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano on my way to In-and-Out Burger — a 70’s flower child panhandler reading her book in the traffic island gave me a thumbs up and I gave her a $20.

So, when I am asked to share my thoughts on Classical music, or provide an introduction it’s a task I can never do justice to. That said, we all have to start somewhere, so here are 4 tips to get started.

1. Give Yourself Time

I mean this a few ways. The most important way is that Classical music takes a lot of time to appreciate. It’s important to know this because it might be disappointing if you are trying to start listening but there are things you don’t seem to get, or don’t like. This is normal for everyone. This does not mean you can’t instantly like something you listen to (how can you not get drawn in to Martha playing Ravel?).

There are a lot of things I think will be exciting right away. The opening theme from Beethoven’s 5th is probably the most widely known tune in the world. But, how many people would recognize the other 3 movements? Have you even listened to the whole of the 1st movement? Music (and fireworks) are “the only temporal art forms” (Adorno I think?). Think about it. A musician — especially a conductor — is literally controlling time, controlling what moments come into existence and when. This may explain some conductors with reputations for being ego maniacs.

Classical music is background for many; tunes heard in a commercial or cartoon. There’s nothing wrong with this (although I hate badly cut classical music in commercials). It’s only that if any of those pieces caught your ear, you may not know what they are or all of the great music they are likely extracted from.

To be truly understood, you can’t just listen to a piece for a few minutes and be done with it. Most classical — especially pieces that you don’t like or don’t get, usually have a lot to offer if you keep listening! I’ve bought plenty of CDs for just one song, or one phrase of one song that captured me. Then, after months of listening to that phrase or song I’ll start to venture out, listening to other movements of the piece.

When you give yourself time, when you listen over and over to a piece, you are doing what musicians do. Music — Classical pieces especially — are about details and choices. A pianist might play hundreds or thousands of notes in a piece. Where should something be emphasized? How loud should this be? Where would slowing down make a difference. I love hearing musicians talk about this and was blown away by Mitsuko Uchida explaining one time in an interview that after trying for 25 years she’s finally got a piece right (not sure if she was describing Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques or the Mozart in that concert). Give yourself time when listening, even if you never get beyond one or two pieces you like it will be worth it.

2. Listen for the Forms

It can be difficult to get into classical because there is just so much of it; so may kinds and so many shapes. Here are a few of the forms that might be used to categorize Classical music. You wouldn't have the same experience (emotionally or in time investment) watching a two hour horror film vs. a half-hour sitcom. If you know the forms, you will know what you expect and if one appeals more to you.

This is an incomplete list of the major forms (I am leaving out vocal music/Opera which I know basically nothing about — more on that later). I am simplifying and generalizing but these are the ones you are most likely to encounter and I provide some examples.

These are “studies”, pieces that meant to emphasize a skill or technique a performer should master. A music student will work on lots of etudes, but that does not mean these are simple pieces or that they are just technical. Because they are about helping the performer to master a skill, these will be for a single instrument.

Example: Rachmaninoff: Études-Tableaux, Op. 33 №4

I really love this piece, it has lots of character and feeling, it practically dances off the keyboard in Russian. After you listen to this 3 minute piece, take a look through this 40 minute tutorial by Paul Barton. I’d love for you to listen to all of it, but at least skip through a few sections to see the skill required to play this.

Quartets (or sometimes trios, sextets, or septets) for string instruments are a very popular form. You will usually have two violins, one viola, and a cello. I’ve heard it said and have come to believe that composers save their most intimate thoughts for this form. I don’t know where to start on explaining how special they are. Connecting with a small group of jazz players at a smoky, nearly empty night club comes closest to conjuring up some feelings I am trying to capture.

Example: Very hard to choose, but Johannes Brahms Quartet in A minor

Skip ahead to the last movement. Quartets, like all the other forms I’ll list are divided into sections called movements. Quartets and concertos usually have 3, and symphonies 4 (the rule on numbers can always be broken). Another reason why Classical music is so great is that these movements will usually have very different moods and energies, but they usually have themes that string them together. Those themes are often twisted, hidden, reversed, or otherwise transformed. This isn’t done to trick you, but it does usually provide a sense of harmony and unification. This layer of complexity is brilliant because it’s one of the things that makes the music more human. A pop song is 5 minutes, maybe with a single beat and one topic. But a human being, has moods, feelings, variations, heights, depths.

These are larger pieces, usually featuring a soloist and orchestra. Sometimes, the composer opts for balance, sometimes a battle. Both are exciting! A concerto is a great place to start if you already know there is a particular instrument you like (Just Google “Tympani Concerto”).

Example: Elgar Cello Concerto

Obviously I am biased, but what a great concerto. I’ve started the link in the last movement. I think it’s easy to follow the back-and-forth between soloist and orchestra.

Bonus example: I’ll give another recommendation to prove I am not totally cello-biased. One of the other reasons for a concerto is to show of the technical brilliance of the soloists. Can it get better than Martha Argerich playing Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto? The hand-over-hand coordination is unbelievable when you get to 7:10 from this section of the first movement. (Stopping to watch all these clips is making this take a lot longer to write). This is also a good time to mention that movements also have titles like “Allegro” or “Scherzo.” In much of Western music these notations are from Italian, and they normally tell you something about the mood/speed/energy of the section. Here is a list of these common terms that can prepare you for what you are about to hear: Music Glossary (not all of these are purely markings for the tempo of a movement, but I haven’t found a list with just those so may have to make my own).

This is the largest of the forms. There could be 100 or more players, and pieces may be 30 minutes or more. Symphonies are amazing for so many reasons. To choose a single reason — a symphony belongs to everyone — it is inherently a collaboration. A single performer can create a dance. A painter can create a painting. An author can write a book. But no one person can make a symphony.

The composer has to think about music and time in a way that comes together. Imagine an ordinary conversation between you and a friend. You have to agree on a topic, follow where the topic goes, and coordinate who speaks about what an when. Now think about trying to do the same thing for dozens of instruments, for thousands of notes, where everything must work together. Even when you have produced the score (the written music), a conductor must interpret, every player must make choices, must listen, must look. Despite these challenges, symphonies exist. They are usually in four movements. The first is usually somewhere in the middle tempo-wise: not extremely fast or slow. It sets the stage and introduces themes that usually come back again and again. A second slower movement is contemplative. A third movement may be a dance, or even a joke (scherzo). The final movement usually tries to bring everything back together.

Example: I’ve chosen Brahms’ 4th Symphony.

Not only is this near and dear to my heart, but I’ve chosen it because there is a wonderful introduction to this symphony by Leonard Bernstein (I’ll come back to him in tip 4). Make sure to listen to all 5 of his videos on this topic if you want to understand what a symphony is. Bonus: if you want to jump straight into the deep-end of complexity: Messiaen — Turangalila-symphonie

3. Listen for the Style

Not only do we have the forms above (which haven’t always existed in Western classical) but we have different styles, really different periods in Classical music (Here is a timeline). Again this is a vast topic, but if I can give you some landmarks you might realize that one appeals to you more. I won’t capture everything well, but if you listen to the examples and think of what kind of movie or setting you would expect to hear this music playing in — now you have a name for the style.

Baroque

Starting in the 1600’s, this might be what many would think of as Classical music. Here you will not find symphonies, but a lot of what we call “chamber music.” Music for a few performers — larger than a quartet, but not a full orchestra. Pieces will be shorter and they will stick to some “formulas” — I don’t mean this in a bad way at all. Here we find not only music that is very expressive, but you will find later composers always borrowing from what they heard from this time period.

Example: Although he was somewhat lost to history for a while, Johann Sebastian Bach is considered the “Grandfather” of classical music. Here is his concerto for two violins. This period was before the piano was invented so you will often hear harpsichords such as in the Bach Concerto for three harpsichords in D minor BWV 1063. Now is the time to mention, you will often see pieces list the musical key they are written in. Here is a really cool explanation of keys and changing keys (modulation) from a video on the most feared song in Jazz (listen for the Beyoncé example). Also, many pieces have letters and numbers (e.g. BWV 1063). These are catalogue numbers. Usually this means someone has figured out all the pieces a composer has written and given them a number.

Classical

Here is where we actually get the name classical from. This is a transitional period where composers were exploring, creating, and enlarging the styles I mentioned in tip 2. This is where you will find Mozart and also Beethoven. It’s said that Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was the end of the Classical period and the beginning of the Romantic which I will mention next.

Example: I find classical and Baroque a bit hard to distinguish in just a few words. Classical will have larger pieces that develop their ideas more. Not sure you can get more classical than Mozart Symphony 40. Tip: This a repertoire piece, something the orchestra knows very well. This means you will often also see the conductor directing without the music. Not that they can’t work without a score elsewhere, but its a chance to really have fun and also demand that orchestra get every detail right. See this master class for example (more in tip 4 on master classes).

Romantic

This doesn’t have anything to do with love per se (Of course Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is from this period). Composers really played around with developing “stories” not just abstract themes. They also started to do a lot more rule breaking with the forms mentioned above. If you feel like you can think of a lot of imagery while listening, you may be listening to a piece from the Romantic period. Brahms referenced a few times before is also from the Romantic, as is much of Beethoven.

Example: Debussy: Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune

Modern

Modern is often considered everything from about the beginning of the 19th century on. This lumps together a lot of things. Here we have both composers who twisted the rules to new extremes or who really broke the rules (and created new ones). This music is often considered much more difficult to listen to, but I assure you that much of it is very worth your time (although this period may not always be a good starting place).

Example: I have to choose two, because there were some really large changes in this period. Stravinsky pushed rhythm and harmony to new extremes in his Rite of Spring. Schoenberg obliterated the system of keys and notes and wrote music that was in every key at once (pantonal) such as in his violin concerto.

4. Learn from the Music Communicators

Finally, and most important. You have to keep learning. I have given a few examples from things I’ve learned and listened to over the years, but what we have now is thousands of hours from excellent experts who have so much to teach. Here a few “required” people to listen to and some excellent educational clips.

Bernstein’s Norton Lectures

These are 6 lectures of about 2 hours each. There isn’t anything else out there quite like this. Watching these is a complete musical education. Some parts are a bit slower but at least browse — especially when he is at the piano revealing secrets to be in awe of. Here is just one example give yourself at least 5 minutes just for this clip on the diminished 7th chord.

Bruce Adolphe’s Inside Chamber Music Series

Bruce Adolphe is probably the most important music explainer today. Just listen for at least five minutes on him explaining what is going in in Stravinsky’s Petrushka. He is using a lot of terminology (remember Classical takes time to learn), but he also puts things into everyday examples.

Listen to Musicians who explain their own music

It’s so wonderful to listen to a musician explaining what’s going on. Here I love Uchida explaining the tone rows in Schoenberg piano concerto — she can barely finish her sentences and has to let the music explain for her.

Listen to master classes

I’ll show my bias here. But master classes are when a musician — even very advanced ones learn from other performers. I think master classes allow you to see the music and its challenges in new ways. It also helps me reach new levels of respect. Here is Brendel giving advice on Liszt.

Listen to why this is all important

If you have made it this far, listen to this TED Talk, it’s a really wonderful and personal explanation by Benjamin Zander on the power of this music.

Conclusion

That’s it. My first stab at a minimal set of things to get you started in Classical music. It’s not all you need, but hopefully a start. I haven’t gone into what a melody is, or a passacaglia does. But maybe those are future posts.

Bonus

A wildly incomplete lists of things I think people should listen to. Yes many of the greats will be missing, but I bet you will find them on your own.

Also, since most of these are taken from YouTube , as above I don’t necessarily start them at the beginning, but a moment when a note or a sound is just completely captivating.

Comment: Those low rich notes on the violin!, 2nd clip: The look the soloists have (27:39)— “about to finish this.”

Comment: That baseline.

Comment: This is a violin concerto.

Comment: Organ against orchestra is amazing, must be listened to at full volume. 2nd clip: That footwork.

Comment: The sound of prayer. This recording is also amazing because this would credibly be a group of the people in the top 10 classical performers playing a “simple” Bach piece.

Comment: One of the few chamber pieces I have listed and a favorite to play.

Comment: Ok, I have to have a voice piece, listen to that note.

Comment: That technique; my fingers hurt

Comment: A “modern” piece that explores the spaces between the keys on the piano

Comment: From a collection of music videos on this famous vocal work of Schoenberg. A set of 21 poems

Comment: A concerto not for a single instrument but an entire orchestra. Wonderful filmography.

Comment: Yuja makes the piano roar at 26:46; impossibly brilliant playing as always.

Comment: Where else in music do you have chords like this last one at the end?

Comment: Read about her — Tatiana Nikolayeva. She played these preludes and fugues all her life and they are part of her story. She died playing these on stage. This clip starts at one of my favorite passacaglias.