One of the most common questions people ask me is this: “I want to get into listening to classical music. Where do I start?”
I’ve covered this topic in a general manner in the past (like here), but sometimes it’s most helpful to get actual, concrete advice for starting a smart hobby. Classical music is incredibly vast – that’s what makes it seem intimidating to people who are new to it. It can seem like there are so many composers, and each composer wrote so many pieces… where would someone even begin listening?
I’m going to let you in on a secret. Yes, there are tons and tons and tons of classical music composers, both living and dead. TONS. And yes, the particularly prolific dead ones wrote hundred and hundreds of pieces of music. But here’s the secret. If you wanted to learn about, say, The Beatles, you wouldn’t start with the deep cuts, right? You’d start with the greatest hits collection.
To get into listening to classical music, you start with the greatest hits.
This is actually a pretty controversial opinion at the moment. See, lots of music academics and advocates are doing really great work to break down the patriarchal and colonial walls within music history, and make room for more diverse voices – not just now, but from all of history. Amen to that – I am 100% here for it. And a lot of those people think you should start with less appreciated/less well-known composers and works in order to rebuild that system. To that I say, it’s a great idea, but if you would like to start enjoying classical music today, it just makes good sense to start with the most beloved/celebrated/cherished pieces of music. It just does. So let’s do it.
Some notes about my list
I’ve pieced the following list together from several sources, including published lists of the most commonly performed orchestral repertoire (translation: which pieces of music symphony orchestras play the most), arts publications’ lists of “starter” or “essential” classical music, and a list of my own personal favourites.
I’ve excluded art song (that’s classical music for a singer, usually with piano), opera, and choral music, since the integration of text and music requires a different type of listening (as a singer, trust me, this exclusion pains me!). I’ve also left out Early Music (that’s music written during the Middle Ages and Renaissance) as well as most 20th and 21st century music (much of which is experimental, experiential, or avant garde in nature, which also requires a much different type of listening and definitely a different mindset). Those are the areas one would expand their musical journey into based on their interests, but I don’t think they’re the place to start.
I’ve tried to hit the biggest names, and also not repeat composers. I also tried to stick to a short-ish list, so I’ve gone with 30 works. Unfortunately, this results in a GLARING problem that I would like to acknowledge up front…
There are no women on the list, and no people of colour.
This is clearly, CLEARLY a huge problem – the type of problem musicologists are working to remedy (as I explained above). But I really, sincerely want you to start with the basics – what you’re likely to hear if you go to a concert or turn on classical radio. So I’ve made two lists: 30 essentials, plus 10 “should be essentials” by composers from historically underrepresented groups that are quickly getting much-deserved concert time.
How to Listen
I’ve written before about tips and methods for listening to classical music (here, here, here), but for present purposes, let me say this: there is no wrong way to listen to classical music. Listen however you listen to popular music. Listen in your car. Listen in your headphones on your commute. Listen at work. Put it on in the background at home. Put it on and close your eyes and listen intensely. Watch on YouTube. Literally, whatever. There is no wrong method.
My Playlist for Getting into Classical Music
So without further ado, here are the 30 pieces of music I would tell a friend to start with if they want to start listening to classical music. Every musician or music lover would make a different list, so once you’re through with this, keep exploring. And as soon as you can, go see some classical music live. Nothing – and I mean NOTHING – compares to live music. Each has a YouTube link to a great recording, but since these works are super popular, you can find all of them on your streaming service of choice if you’d like to listen away from YouTube. Onward!
30 Essential Works of Classical Music for a New Listener
Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Mussorgsky
The Firebird, by Igor Stravinsky
Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (“Pathetique”)
Mozart Symphony no. 40 (the “Great G Minor”)
Beethoven Piano Sonata 106 (“Hammerklavier”)
Schubert’s 8th Symphony (“Unfinished”)
La mer, by Claude Debussy
Pines of Rome, by Ottorino Respighi
Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin
Shostakovich String Quartet no. 8
Appalachian Spring, by Aaron Copland
Grieg’s Piano Concerto
Schubert String Quartet no. 14 (“Death and the Maiden”)
Chopin Nocturne op. 9 no. 2
Symphonie Fantastique, by Hector Berlioz
Haydn String Quartet op. 73 no. 3 (“Emperor”)
Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (which you know as “Ode to Joy”)
Adagio for Strings, by Samuel Barber
Mahler’s 2nd Symphony
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto
Brahms’ Violin Concerto
Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto
The Four Seasons by Antoni Vivaldi
Elgar’s Cello Concerto
Liszt’ Piano Sonata in B Minor
Concerto for Orchestra, by Bela Bartok
Dvorak String Quartet op. 96 (“American”)
J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations
10 Works that Should Also be Essentials
As a note, since many women and people of colour were denied access to musical training, or to professional work, many of the finest composers from underrepresented groups are from the modern era. This means that many of their works are in the experimental/avant garde category I promised to avoid for now. As well, many of the finest contemporary composers from these groups are composers of vocal music and opera, which I’m also omitting for this post. Nevertheless, here are 10 GREAT works that either are at the fringes of the classical canon, or neglected completely, but all of which should be squarely thought of as classics.
Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, by Joan Tower
Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano
Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio op. 11
Florence Price’s 1st Symphony
Gaelic Symphony, by Amy Beach
Suite de “La Remambaramba”, by Amadeo Roldán
Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Nonet in F Minor
Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), by Missy Mazzoli
Lilacs, by George Walker (ok, I cheated… it’s for singer and orchestra)