How Can I Learn To Appreciate Classical Music?

Learning to appreciate classical music is probably just a matter of time. If you spend the time to listen to classical music and search for the classical music tunes you’ll most enjoy, you’ll start to appreciate the craftsmanship and imagination which goes into great classical music. Classical music sells itself, if you choose to listen to the sales pitch.

I said in the article “How Can I Learn to Appreciate Classical Music?” that people tend to dismiss music they don’t like or appreciate by saying “It all sounds the same”. That’s because music we aren’t used to hearing is often strange and jarring to us, or we don’t listen to it as closely or with as discerning of an ear as we do musical genres we know. If you like rock music and are familiar with it, when you hear a new rock song, you’ll naturally compare and contrast it with some other song in the genre. But if you aren’t familiar with a genre of music (like classical music), then you have nothing to compare the classical music piece to. It all ends up sounding the same.

Finding Doorways Into Classical Music

So learning to appreciate classical music begins with familiarizing yourself with the music in some way. Find classical music songs you enjoy, then begin to compare and contrast that classical music with selections that are new to you. It’s called finding “doorways” into classical music.

Buy A Classical Music Guide


Buy a Classical Music Guide – Buy two or more of them, if you want. In fact, I would suggest it. Like any musical form, classical music tastes are subjective, so you don’t want to rely on any one author’s impressions and criticisms to guide your own classical music tastes. These books help you gain a rudimentary understanding of classical music theory, an overview of the different types of composition, a history of the evolution of classical music and who influenced whom, as well as historical insight about the great composers and how their music was influenced by their times. When you start to learn a little bit about why a composer wrote what he did, you’ll gain a better appreciation for the thought process behind the music you’re listening to. While you don’t need such insight to appreciate classical music, there are some people that will connect with the music better if they know the whys and wherefores of classical music.

If you want a concise overview of classical music, try buying a book like “Classical Music For Dummies” or “Classical Music 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Classical Music”. Another good book is “The Vintage Guide to Classical Music”, which I got as a gift about ten years ago and still go back to occasionally. Since I didn’t buy the book myself, I’m not sure how available it is these days, but I would recommend it as a resource about the lives of the famous composers and a ready guide to their best or more essential works.

The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection: The Essential 350 Works

Along those lines, if you want to start building a classical music CD library of your own, an invaluable resource is “The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection: The Essential 350 Works”. This book not only gives you the classical compositions you’ll want to know about, but the best versions of them. That’s very important. You’ll walk into a classical music CD section and notice ten versions of the same piece of music. You’ll either ask yourself why one version won’t work, or suffer paralysis-by-analysis in choosing the best option. The NPR (National Public Radio) Guide solves that problem, because it gives you insight into at least one music lover’s suggestions. I’ve found that I don’t always agree with these suggestions, but I’ve also noticed dozens of times that some of my all-time favorite classical music performances made it into this book. So this should help a new classical music collector save some money and find good selections of music without a lot of the trial-and-error a lot of us have gone through.

Listen To Compilation CD’s

If you want to start to learn about which composers you like, buy a few compilation CD’s, “best of” albums and anthologies. These will give you a glimpse of different composers or classical music eras. Get a “best of baroque” or “Beethoven’s greatest hits” and see if certain songs stand out. Once you start to get an idea which composers or eras you like most, start to explore those subjects in greater depth. The idea is to get your foot in the door.

Figure Out “Your” Classical Music Favorites

What is your favorite type of classical music? Do you like longer or shorter pieces? Do you enjoy operas or instrumental pieces? Do you enjoy large orchestras or smaller arrangements? Do you like loud or soft, fast or slow tunes?

Once you start to figure out which type of classic music you enjoy most, you can seek out that type of music. The variety is so large that you’re certain to find the kind of music you’re looking for.

Find A Favorite Classical Music Composer

Select a composer whose work you admire and then work from there. Read about other works about that composer which seem interesting, or search for other composers who are thought to have similar styles. Once you find a doorway into classical music, you’ll find other doorways.

For instance, look at a composer like Tchaikovsky. Many consider him a doorway composer, even though many classical music lovers consider his compositions lacking in technical quality. Still, Tchaikovsky had a talent for catchy tunes and works of his like The Nutcracker Suite, Swan Lake or the 1812 Overture are among the most recognizable selections in the classical music repertoire. The Nutcracker has five or six songs itself you’ve probably heard one place or another, and people often come to classical music through the songs they are familiar with and enjoy.

Beethoven and Mozart are also good doorways into classical music, for obvious reasons. You’ve heard a lot of their songs, too, and probably enjoyed a few of them. I came to love classical music through J.S. Bach, but his music is from an earlier period, and I would not necessarily recommend it as a start (though Bach is still my favorite).

Listen To Movie Soundtracks

Classical music makes it into a lot of movie soundtracks. If you heard a particular song you enjoyed in a movie, search the credits and write down the name. Find a good recording of this selection and enjoy.

Watch A Pops Concert

“Pops” concerts generally involve shorter classical music compositions, medleys and pop music given the orchestral treatment. This is another doorway into classical music. While some purists might look down their nose at pops performances, we aren’t trying to give purists tips for appreciating classical music.

Read A Little About Classical Music Terms

Don’t call it study. Just read a little about some of the classical music terms. I’m not talking about anything complicated, but basic stuff like “melody” and “harmony”. This will give you a rudimentary understanding about which are the most important instruments in any given orchestra or composition.

You might move on to terms like counterpoint, eventually, as well as the types of songs: fugues, canons, suites, cantatas, sonatas, overtures and so on. These aren’t essential, but they help you get an idea what you’re getting yourself into and what to expect when buying a CD.

Be Patient

The final thing is that you have to be patient and willing to learn a little bit. If you’ve read this far, you’ve shown you already have the patience needed. Modern people are on the go more and have less free time (or seem to) than people in a less hectic time. Maybe we just have more distractions. Whatever the case, a lot of us (include me) don’t always have the patience to appreciate something which requires a little bit of effort, like classical music.

The small amount of patience and effort required to buy classical music CDs and listen to them will be well worth your time. Classical music is some of the most beautiful, most intricate music ever written. You owe it to yourself to learn to appreciate classical music on some level, or else you’re missing out on one of the finer things in life.

So try not to be bored. Try not to be intimidated. Not everyone who loves classical music is a musician, composer or patron of the arts. Most of us (like myself) just like the music and want to know a little more about it. So find some classical music songs you enjoy and see where it goes from there.

Classical Music 101

If you’re going to start learning about classical music and want to gain an appreciation, it might help to get a basic overview of what makes classical music. So below is a cursory look at the main eras of classical music and the most famous composers associated with those eras.

People who think of classical music probably are thinking of European classical music after 1600, though it’s proper to place Renaissance Music (where Baroque Music branched off from) in the same classification. I’ll start our quick guide to classical music with the baroque era, though. This should help you start to fit together the who, when and why of classical music.

Classical Music Eras Overviews

For those wanting the briefest of overviews of classical music, here’s a quick snippet or two about the general categories of classical music. This will probably be longer than I originally intended, but way too short to cover the subject. Remember, I’m an amateur collector, so my information will be incomplete and unofficial. Don’t take my word for the gospel of classical music. Read some of the books above to get a better understanding of basic classical music. Here’s hoping my vaguest introduction to classical music will help a few music listeners on the way to a greater appreciation of classical music.

Baroque Music Era

Baroque literally means “bizarre”, so this should give you an understanding the disparate nature of the music you’ll be listening to in this classical music era. The era lasted about 150 years, from around 1600 to around 1750, which explains why the music is so multi-faceted. I’m certain a lot of these composers would have found it strange that you group them all together.

Baroque music broke from Renaissance music and took European composition towards the concepts we know today. The Baroque Era saw the invention of opera and homophony – that is, music with a single “voice” or melody that is supported by a range of harmonies. In the previous years, polyphony and counterpoint characterized music. While polyphony had a major place in baroque music, we see music evolving into the melody structures we know today. The clash between these two ideas give baroque music an richness and variety which continues to fascinate us to this day, because the baroque music period was a time of great transition in classical music.

Baroque music composers generally wrote for a particular church or nobleman, and the arrangements were for smaller numbers of musicians than much of the later classical music. Musical forms like opera and the symphony were still being fine-tuned into the forms we know today. Most of the musical selections were for more intimate, more aristocratic tastes.

Composers and musicians were performing for patrons, so they had to produce a lot of songs and they had to adapt those songs to the needs of their latest patron. Musicians were sometimes expected to improvise on the themes of the songs, and composers sometimes borrowed ideas from other composers. While a lot of this music sounds archaic to our ears, because it conformed to 17th and 18th century aristocratic forms and because it uses sometimes defunct instruments, a lot of it sounds incredibly fresh, because it is so different than the classical music you’re probably familiar with. Because baroque pieces (like fugues) would pose a theme, then move to freeform along that theme, and because musicians were sometimes expected to improvise songs, some Baroque tunes, such as those of Bach, have even compared to jazz. The parallels can quickly be taken too far, but those who enjoy jazz might start out listening to baroque music.

Some of the most famous or lasting baroque composers are Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi and Domenico Scarlatti. You’ll find a great song or two from composers like Johann Pachebel and Tomaso Albinoni on baroque composition CDs, as well.

Classical Music Era

This is the term not just for this broad type of music, but also a period of classical music lasting only a couple of generations – from 1750 to around 1800. This classical music period is characterized by the refinement and elegance of the music, and is typified by the works of Mozart.

Classical music continues to be written for aristocratic tastes, for salons and court rooms. Take note these are the years just before the French Revolution, where it can be said that European aristocrats were enjoying their final years as the unchallenged masters of European society. In music as in society, the pomp and decadence of this age would lead to violent revolutions in the next.

If you think of classical music (as a whole) as effete, sophisticated and somewhat emotionless, you’re probably thinking of the work of the classical era composers. In a lot of ways, these are unfair words to describe the works of Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Hayden. In comparison to the romantic works of Beethoven and his romantic age followers, though, these words have some merit. Opera was further developed by men such as Mozart, who also wrote over 40 symphonies.

Romantic Music Era

The Romantic Period of classical music was heavily influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, and no one’s ideas on music were more influenced by the egalitarian principles of the revolution than Beethoven’s. This was a time when the old system of Europe was being challenged, and composers began to write not for single patrons or for the church, but for “the people”. Music was produced not necessarily for the banquet halls of a noble’s home, but for the concert halls of the local city.

Romantic music appeals to the emotions. It trumpets the idea that a lone man can change the world through heroic actions, and it stokes the flames of patriotism, national spirit and idealism. Sometimes dramatic, sometimes bombastic: romantic music was music with a point, music meant to inspire and evoke.

The opera came into full force in the romantic period, championed by men such as Guiseppe Verdi in Italy and Richard Wagner. It was no coincidence that Verdi was often invoked by the “republicans” and “nationalists” of Italy who were trying to unite Italy in the face of Austrian imperialism, or that German nationalists were similarly inspired by the works of Wagner.

The symphony also came of age in the 19th century, as Beethoven added a fourth movement where before there were three. Symphonies became the medium by which 19th-century composers showed the full range of their abilities, and these compositions were large enough to give full scope to their artistic visions. In fact, Brahms, who waited to compose his first symphony until relatively later in his career, was underrated as an artist because some feared (wrongly) he was not up to the challenge.

Because the romantic period lasted for the better part of a century during Europe’s greatest artistic period to date, the number of romantic composers of note are too many to list here: Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Mendelsohn, Mahler, Mussorsky, Tchaikovsky — just to name a few.

20th Century Classical Music Era

The romantic period actually extended into the 20th century by about a decade, but when it came to an end, it stopped abruptly. Many point to the year 1913, when Igor Stravinsky unleashed his unabashedly un-romantic ballet, Rite of Spring, on the audiences of Paris (and the opening night audience in Paris unleashed a riot). 20th century composers broke with most of the forms of classical music, much like their contemporaries in painting, prose and poetry. Classical music became atonal and dissonant, and conspicuously deviated from previous convention to shock their audience out of its complacency.

Stravinsky in many ways anticipated the 20th century, because the true break with 19th-century romanticism came in the years 1914 to 1918, during the Great War (or World War I). Citizens of Europe began to ask how the greatest, most cultured society in the history of man could tear itself apart in such a suicidal, tragic conflict. The number of lives shattered by the Great War were beyond anything seen in the history of man, and it was natural for this kind of cataclysm to force people to doubt every previous assumption about civilization and question even sacred truths. If people could question civilization itself, then it was no stretch they would question their assumptions about art, and music was no different. The early 20th century composers were people like anyone else, living to see the seemingly natural order shattered into chaos, and their music mirrored their joy, sorrow and outrage at the breaking of the order.

Much of 20th century music tries to avoid many of the conventions of the classical and romantic periods, though classical music was fracturing in the ways that society was fracturing in this time. You’ll find radical experimentation, but you’ll also find neo-classical attempts to capture some of the beauty from the past. You’ll find classical music, more than ever, attempting to sway public opinion with the ideas they contain. But you’ll find music that is itself influenced more than ever by the art forms around it, even those modern art forms like movies.

Again, you’ll find a large collection of “important” or famous composers in the 20th century, such as Stravinsky, Claude DeBussy, Maurice Ravel, Dimitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and even a few American composers, like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. Since this music is closer to us in time, it’s harder to know who are the important artists and who are the merely popular, but you can listen and make your own conclusions.