How do I pick classical music to listen to?

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The number one thing people ask me when I explain that my mission is to bring people back to the fine arts is something along the lines of, “great, but where do I start?”. And very often, these conversations include a story about “trying to listen to classical music.”

Oof! Nothing breaks my heart like a story about trying to like art and failing/not continuing/giving up on it despite being interested/liking what you heard/saw. THAT IS THE SYSTEM FAILING YOU!

So let’s talk about listening to classical music and the age-old “where do I even start?” question. Let me help you help yourself, friend. 

Here are a few reasons you don’t know how to pick classical music to listen to, and the answer to your problem. You’re welcome in advance. 

PROBLEM: It’s overwhelming. I absolutely acknowledge that it looks like there is so much music – so many composers, so many pieces, so many conductors, so many soloists, so many ensembles… and no top 40 list of what’s currently “good” to guide you.

ANSWER: Yes, the entire catalogue of classical music is crazy ginormous. Like, unfathomably massive. But you aren’t going to listen to 99% of it for a while – you’re going to focus on the really beloved 1%. And lists of that stuff are easy to find (*hint hint – I’m gonna tell you what to listen to for a while, then you can branch out from there).

PROBLEM: It’s confusing. Instead of having catchy titles like pop music, classical pieces are largely organized with numbers, like “Symphony Number 9”, or “Opus 78”, and that seems really hard to keep track of.

ANSWER: First off, there are catchy nicknames for lots of the most famous pieces, so screw the numbers for those ones. But! The number systems are actually super helpful and easy once you understand them. And again – you only need to know a handful of them for the time being, and I’ll coach you through it. Breathe, friend!

PROBLEM: There’s a ton of crap out there. Like, a ton. Mediocre (and sometimes outright terrible) soloists and orchestras, bad composers, and quasi-classical music (think: someone “singing opera” or playing the cello on a TV talent show). Crap crap crapola clogging up shitty premade playlists and making things more complicated than they need to be.

ANSWER: Just like you know that pretty much anything by Beyoncé is gonna be amazing, you just need to learn things like: The Berlin Philharmonic is literally always incredible, and you can’t go wrong with anything by Bach. It’s easy once you know just a few names to look for.

PROBLEM: You know dick all about classical music history. Like, you recognize the names Beethoven and Mozart, but you don’t even really know anything about them. And, you don’t know if you even need to even know that stuff, and whether you’re smart enough to get it anyway.

ANSWER: Another opportunity to say: the system has failed you! For one thing, there’s no such thing as “smart enough to appreciate something.” That’s something you might have been told by parents who also think they’re not smart enough for classy things like art and music. Or by a teacher who said something hurtful to you about how smart you are or aren’t. And it’s bullshit.

PROBLEM: You don’t get the appeal. You’ve tried listening to some pieces of music or a playlist or two, but you just. Don’t. Get it. Maybe it seems boring as hell to you, but you know it must be good because people have been alllll up on it for centuries, so, you think, “fine – what am I missing here?!”

ANSWER: What you’re missing is how to listen to classical music. It’s actually a skill – a skill you can develop easily and quickly. Bet you didn’t know that! Just like learning how to watch a baseball game and actually understand how the rules work (or, like, The Voice, for that matter). If you feel like you don’t get it right now – you don’t. That’s okay! All you need to know is if you’re curious about it.

Hope that gets you a little less nervous about learning about classical music. As ma girl Marie Forleo says, “it’s all figureoutable.” To get a head start, you can click here and read the classical music section of the Fine Arts Primer I wrote just for awesome peeps like you. It’s a super short, funny, easy-to-read introduction to the history of classical music (and the other fine arts!) and what you need to know to get started on your classical music-lovin’ journey.

Until next time!