Need to know
The number of musical genres is bewilderingly vast and, thanks to digital technology, music of every sort is available to you with a few clicks or taps. So why, in this sea of sound, should you get to know more about classical music?
Well, there is no form of music that you need to know. Listening to classical music is not a duty, though well-intentioned advocates have sometimes made it seem like one. But there are good reasons you might want to explore classical music. Classical music can be exciting, absorbing, emotionally moving, inspiring, challenging, thought-provoking and often simply astonishing. Why wouldn’t you seek out all that? And, if you found it, wouldn’t the want feel like a need?
In this Guide, I invite you to discover all these qualities for yourself. The recommendations I’ll offer can help enrich your experience of classical music, whether you are a newcomer to the genre or a long-time listener.
I fell in love with classical music a long time ago, as a teenager growing up in New York. One of my happiest memories of that time involves trips to the library to borrow vinyl records in the company of others doing the same, people of all ages, ethnicities and races, bound together by a shared desire for those enthralling sounds. The feeling of spontaneous community prevailed. Preferences passed from person to person in library whispers. It just felt good to be there.
Today, as back then, classical music suffers from a public image of stuffiness, staidness and a general failure to rock. But, while the stiff decorum of classical concerts may have once deserved that reputation (I’m glad to say that they’ve lately been loosening up), the stiffness has nothing to do with the music, which deserves better. In my view, classical music is far more effective at breaking down limits on thought and feeling than it is at enforcing them. In the summer of 1989, the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing set up makeshift loudspeakers to broadcast the choral finale, ‘Ode to Joy’, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as government troops rolled in with weapons at the ready. The music resounded across the square and also on a bootleg radio network. People sang along. If that didn’t rock, I don’t know what could.
A very brief roadmap
‘Classical music’ is a catchall term for music written down in musical notation since roughly the 14th century, originally in Europe but ultimately worldwide. Traditionally, the performance of this music closely follows the composer’s written score, though exactly what that means has varied over time. It is probably better to speak of ‘early music’ prior to about 1600, followed by ‘Baroque’ music through the mid-1700s, and ‘classical’ music from the 1770s on.
Classical music features numerous types of compositions, each of which draws in different ways on a common stock of expressive resources. Here are brief sketches of some of the main types, to help you navigate:
- A symphony is an extended work for an orchestra consisting of string instruments, woodwinds, brass and percussion. It typically has four segments, based on four different tempos: 1) fast; 2) slow; 3) moderate to lively; and 4) fast to very fast. These four segments, or ‘movements’, are associated, respectively, with drama; expressivity and sensibility; physicality; and conviviality.
- A string quartet is an extended work for two violins, a viola and a cello. It is commonly organised into the same sequence of four movements found in symphonies.
- A concerto is a multi-movement work for a soloist and an orchestra. Usually, the number of movements is three rather than four.
- A sonata is a multi-movement work for a piano soloist, or for a soloist playing a different instrument and accompanied by piano.
- An overture is a symphonic introduction to an opera, ballet or play. A tone poem is a shorter, free-standing work for orchestra. These tend to follow the dramatic pattern typical of symphonic first movements.
- Preludes, études (studies) and character pieces are short compositions, typically for piano.
There are countless ways to realise these types – and countless ways to modify them. As you become more familiar with the repertoire, hearing the creative transformations that composers bring to the types and the sequences of movements can eventually become second nature.
Classical music brings together knowledge and pleasure
Like most art, classical music activates a dialogue between pleasure and knowledge. The formula is an ancient one; the Roman poet Horace wrote that the task of poetry is to delight and instruct. The combination of something to learn with something to enjoy heightens the impact of both. Classical music has a special take on this process because, unlike art forms based on text or images, the music does not depict knowledge but embodies it. Instead of showing or telling us something, the music simulates a vital experience. The result can feel almost shockingly firsthand, as if it were happening to you.
The feelings and ideas involved in classical music are typically left unidentified or are identified only in loose general terms. When the music has no lyrics, which is the norm for the classical types listed above, it can neither say nor show anything, but it turns this lack into a virtue. The music makes something understood by its means of giving pleasure. For the listener, this often means coming to feel what it is like to understand something important – even if one cannot always say just what that something is.
In addition to breaking down constraints and embodying experience (and in part because it can do those things), classical music, like art forms from classical Greek drama to Italian Renaissance painting to classic Hollywood movies, occupies a significant place in Western history. Anyone interested in that history, or in the history of the arts, has further reason to listen to this music.
One thing you will not find in this Guide is a checklist of musical forms and structures that you absolutely must listen for. Who would tell you that you can’t understand a pop song unless you hear this or that formal feature? The same principle should apply to classical music, but a bad idea that refuses to die is that understanding classical music requires formal training; that you have to earn your way to enjoyment. You don’t.
What’s most distinctive about classical music is not how you listen, but what can be heard when you do. The music is multifaceted and richly detailed, which means that there are many ways to listen to it. It changes as your listening does; even the same work can be heard differently many times over. I don’t presume to say here how you should listen, only how you could listen. To that end, I will offer some advice for seeking music that you find compelling, as well as suggestions based on what I call ‘angles of hearing’ – informal orientations toward a piece of music that can help you listen with greater pleasure and understanding.
What to do
Find music that catches your interest
Given its long history, the classical repertoire is unsurprisingly huge. In navigating it, one can’t go wrong with the big names. Beethoven and Mahler, Debussy and Stravinsky, Mozart and Chopin are all well known for a reason. But the repertoire is also filled with music by many other brilliant composers – including composers who, until recently, have been neglected because of their race, sex or both. Fortunately, this rich body of music is now being rediscovered.
But where to start? Thanks to the internet, it is easy to access public radio stations that specialise in classical music, no matter where you live. A few that broadcast from my area, and that I’d highly recommend to readers in any part of the world, are the stations WMHT, WQXR and WSHU. Tune in at random to any of these and you’re sure to hear interesting and attractive things that can form the basis for further exploration. Similarly, music-streaming services commonly offer curated playlists that can serve as introductions to classical music or to particular composers. The New York Times runs a feature entitled ‘Five Minutes That Will Make You Love…’, highlighting various kinds of (mostly) classical music. Each entry includes audio clips along with short paragraphs by the contributors explaining why the music they’ve chosen moves and enlightens them.
Once you’ve found music that moves you and captures your imagination, a simple online search of the composer and/or the type of composition (string quartet, symphony, etc) will bring up further performances and an abundance of other works of music to explore.
Choose ‘angles of hearing’ to listen more deeply
Just as an angle of vision shapes what you can see, an angle of hearing shapes what you can hear. Hearing in general becomes focused when we listen for something. You take up an angle of hearing by the simplest of means: by listening with something especially in mind. The ‘something’ can be a musical quality or detail, an idea, an image, an impression, or an evocative word or phrase. Some angles can be used for listening to many or most works; some are available only for one. Trying out different angles on the same music is one of the pleasures of classical music and also one of its means of discovery.
Although most classical works have lacked titles until recently (they were commonly identified as numbered instances of a type, such as Symphony No 9 or Piano Concerto No 1), those works that do have titles use them to invite particular angles of hearing. When Antonio Vivaldi, circa 1723, named a series of four violin concertos The Four Seasons, in the sequence ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’, he provided an angle that still works 300 years later.
If you listen to the four concertos with their titles in mind, the experience can feel like witnessing or discovering something about natural cycles and the passage of time. The slow second movement of ‘Summer’, for example, juxtaposes a mournful solo violin melody with violent rumblings from the full ensemble.
The summer we hear is not a welcome season but a time of anxiety and discomfort. Vivaldi published The Four Seasons with a series of four descriptive sonnets. The lines accompanying this movement read:
The fear of lightning and fierce thunder
Robs [the shepherd’s] tired limbs of rest
As gnats and flies buzz furiously around.
What the music and the poetry convey, each in its own way, is a feeling and a knowledge of vulnerability, even of helplessness, before the nature on which human lives and livelihoods depend.
Of course, there is not always a sonnet to rely on. As you listen to a piece of classical music, you may or may not be able to say exactly what the music is making known. The feeling of what it is like to understand something important may take precedence over the content of the understanding. Later reflection may enable you to say more, expanding both understanding and pleasure. (My comment about vulnerability to nature comes from that sort of reflection.) But, either way, the feeling of knowing, discovering or recalling something is there, and its medium is the pleasure the music gives.
The features that give the music meaning, whatever meaning it assumes for you, are all on the surface. All you need to do is listen with your imagination, not just with your ears. Find an angle of hearing and listen for what happens. Everything follows from that.
In the examples below, I will begin by suggesting a possible angle of hearing, and then model what one might hear when listening from that angle. But I do so fully expecting that listeners will find other angles from which to listen – and, likewise, will find individual ways of reflecting on the results. Experiment with different angles of hearing, and listen imaginatively, allowing for as many associations and images and memories as you like.
- Angle: follow the melody and its transformation
The essential elements of Western music are melody, harmony and rhythm, but their prominence varies from one type of music to another. Rhythm often takes pride of place in instrumental jazz, for example; melody, especially when it is improvised, arises in dialogue with the music’s rhythmic vitality. While classical music can give rhythm a similar role at any time, its primary driver is melody. More particularly it is the variation and transformation of melody, the formation, combination and breakdown of melody – melody as a principle of drama.
To follow the melody, keep in mind its simplest form, which is usually its first, and then listen to what happens to this expressive premise.
Let’s look at the example of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No 9 (1808), which affirms the value of melody by first exploring what happens if you do without it. The quartet begins with a slow, strange introduction: a seemingly random series of chords that somehow intimates an underlying sense of direction. When the direction is found, melody bursts forth and flourishes throughout the first movement. But there is more to be heard on the subject.
The second movement starts arrestingly, with a single, loud pizzicato (plucked) note from the cello.
Then, a brooding melody rises and falls over seven more such notes, now played softly. And there it is, an angle of hearing, almost demanded by the music, a melody that is mysterious, hypnotic, a little ominous: where will this melody go? Where can it go? You can hear the question in the swelling and ebbing of the music and its low-lying sounds.
The question is soon answered. A new sort of melody arises (at 2:48 in the recording above), and it is strikingly different from the first: light, graceful, delicate. It’s a return to the comforts of familiarity. The melody suddenly seems charmingly old-fashioned and elegant, which might strike you as a little suspicious since it seems to come from such a different world than the earlier melody. At this point, having attended to the stark change in melody, you might feel precariously poised between contrary forms of allure – one coming from something that’s hard to fathom, and one from something you don’t need to fathom. But the poise does not last. Later in the composition (at 5:16 in this version) the second melody returns, only to break into fragments. The music gets stuck. And then the melody returns again in a startling new form, fluid and ecstatic. It sheds its familiarity and becomes the first melody’s companion in strangeness.
All you need to do is to notice the qualities that the music calls to your attention, and permit yourself to think freely about them. Does the second melody’s transfiguration seem to come from the influence of its mysterious partner? Might the melody, travelling so far from its original self, embody a spirit of repudiation, escape or self-renewal? The questions that might arise while listening, and the answers, will depend on the listener. And the questions may not even need an answer. The abundance of possibilities is part of the point, and you may – surely will – have different interpretations of the music upon different hearings.
- Angle: seek meaning in the qualities of the sounds
Just as painters mix colours on a palette, classical composers mix sounds so that the combination has expressive or dramatic meaning in its own right. The composer decides how the available sounds are to combine and when to let unmixed sounds stand out, and on what instrument(s). Timbre is the ‘tone-colour’ of a sound, which is distinct for each instrument and varies depending on how the instrument is played; texture is the quality of the sound arising from the way instruments are combined or isolated. Both are essential to classical composition. They also provide an angle of hearing. The most famous sounds in classical music history, the four notes that begin Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808), owe part of their impact to their timbre and texture. They are played at top volume, without harmony, by all the strings plus an isolated pair of clarinets. Their sound is pure, stark and uncompromising.
You can also hear the impact of timbre and texture in the eerie and disturbing slow movement of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (1888). It starts with a tune that most listeners, then and now, would find familiar, known best under its French title, ‘Frère Jacques’. But the tune has a wretched fate, and it has suffered it already. It is played on a whining muted solo double bass; it moves too slowly, as if the glum bass were weighing it down; and it’s in a minor key. Its only accompaniment is a heavy tread on the timpani (kettledrums). These features are impossible to miss and they supply – insist on – an angle of listening. The music sounds bizarre. It sounds funereal. It sounds fascinating.
Adding to the disquiet is the simple fact that ‘Frère Jacques’ is a round. Most of those who know it will have learned it as children singing in groups. The words mostly mean nothing, but singing them immediately creates a feeling of social cohesion. Mahler conveys the need for that cohesion by embodying what the loss of it feels and sounds like. He breaks down the cohesion into a heap of lost connections. Everything we know about the tune – its innocence, its association with childhood, its collectivity – turns into a sinister opposite.
Too much happens after this to cover briefly, but one thing to reflect on is the later outbreak of raucous, rustic music whose colour and melody may or may not evoke the Jewish style known as klezmer, and thus allude to Mahler’s Jewish lineage. Does this turn of events embody liberation, nostalgia or something else? Once again, the answer is up to the listener and/or the performers, who may or may not hear the music in the same way.
- Angle: let the sounds conjure sights and sensations
Traditional accounts of classical music often advise listeners to engage with the music purely as music and to avoid giving too much credence to so-called ‘extramusical’ associations with other kinds of experience. The caution even applies to music that explicitly invites such associations – so-called ‘programme music’ (of which there is quite a lot). According to this view, when Claude Debussy writes a piece for orchestra entitled ‘Nuages’ (‘Clouds’), the clouds are not supposed to matter. But why shouldn’t they? Listeners associate the sounds of classical music with other things – images, memories, moods, fantasies – all the time. The associations are nearly impossible to avoid.
It can be enriching to bring your own associations to the music and listen for what happens when you do. Take two brief examples, starting with Debussy’s ‘Clouds’ (completed in 1899). Debussy was quite serious about the title. The music, he wrote, ‘renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.’ What might a listener experience when listening to the music with this connection to nature in mind?
Most of the piece consists of slowly undulating, falling or static chords, with little discernible melody. The English horn does have an expressive little scrap of melody that comes and goes with scarcely any variation. Eventually it dissolves away into static sounds layered over a continuous, soft roll on the timpani, Debussy’s grey tones tinged with light. Listeners who ‘translate’ the music’s hazy chords into the imaginary sight of solemnly rolling clouds will be well rewarded.
If melody is the heart of classical music, you might welcome the returns of that tiny, plaintive English horn theme, just a phrase, really – the minimum of melody that a listener needs. But perhaps you can also welcome its disappearance into the musical haze. Perhaps there are times when you want to float free of the definiteness of melody, even if that leaves you, well, with your head in the clouds. The angle of hearing brings the question alive.
A second example is the finale of Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, Op 74, No 3 (1793), known as ‘The Rider’ or ‘The Horseman’. The nickname did not come from Haydn; it represents an ‘unauthorised’ association brought to the music by listeners over many generations – one that has stuck for obvious reasons. The movement begins with a jagged, propulsive melody over a pounding, galloping accompaniment.
You can feel this music jolt. It is not music for the casual rider, but for one with a mission or an urgent message, one who rides furiously on and on. A subsequent, contrasting episode seems to have the aim of calming whatever situation is at hand, but the urgency then returns with fragments of the ‘rider’ melody. It keeps returning even after it should have stopped, at the very end. If you are looking for a wild ride, this piece will provide it.
It would be hard to listen to this music without experiencing mental images and sensations, and that is likely to happen whether a piece of classical music has an evocative title or not. As in these examples, you can deepen your experience by allowing and exploring whatever comes to mind for you.
- Angle: listen for repetition with difference
Another way to get absorbed in the music is to simply listen for an ‘event’ that it dramatises. Just listen for what happens; the feeling that something is happening is basic to classical music.
A good way to do this is to listen for repetition with difference. We have already had one example in Beethoven’s transformation of an elegant melody into a mysterious version of itself in the slow movement of his String Quartet No 9. Another occurs at the close of Debussy’s ‘Clouds’, when the fragment of melody that has returned unchanged throughout splits into pieces and disappears, almost as if it had been an illusion.
Sometimes, the repetition crosses over from one movement to another. Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No 3 (1883) begins with an almost swaggering proclamation on strings, trombones and drums.
More than a half hour later – at almost the last moment of the fourth and final movement (36:06) – that opening melody returns. But this time, it is soft rather than loud, heard on murmuring strings against static winds, no trombones, no drums. Is this reappearance tranquil, chastened, content, defeated or something else? Each listener will decide individually, and each performance will make its own suggestion. But, in every case, the return asks us to reconsider everything we have heard up to that point. To understand where we have come, we must revisit everywhere we have been.
Listen for differences between performances
When you’re ready to revisit music that you have enjoyed, listen for the difference that performance makes. The ‘same’ music can sound astoundingly different in different renditions. The pianist Shelley Katz offers a literally resounding demonstration of this with his recordings of 10 very different performances of a short keyboard piece by Johann Sebastian Bach – played each time without changing a note.
‘Summerland’ for piano, one of the ‘Three Visions’ (1936) by the Black American composer William Grant Still, is a musical vision of paradise. As performed by Mark Boozer, the opening minute begins with tranquility, then eases into fluid ripples that add vitality without disturbing the calm:
As performed more slowly and more freely by Henry Kramer (no relation), the beginning is less tranquil than it is reflectively searching. The rippling passage includes a strain of longing that is not evident in Boozer’s version:
The differences thus established inflect everything that follows in each performance. The music is the same but the meanings are different. You can find such differences in performances of nearly any piece of classical music. The music is designed to reveal its full depth and power in the differences from one performance to another (which reflect different angles of hearing by the performers).
Key points – How to listen to, and enjoy, classical music
- Listening to classical music opens a well of possible experiences. The music can be absorbing, exciting and challenging, helping to break down limits on thought and feeling.
- Classical music brings together knowledge and pleasure. One of the rewards of listening is to feel what it is like to understand something important, without the use of text or visuals.
- Find music that catches your interest. You can’t go wrong with big-name composers like Beethoven or Mozart, but classical radio and playlists can help you find various other jumping-off points.
- Choose ‘angles of hearing’ to listen more deeply. Your listening experience can become richer and more focused when you listen for something – whether that’s a musical quality (such as the evolution of the melody, or the overall texture), an idea, an image or anything else. Listen with your imagination.
- Listen for differences between performances. A single piece of classical music can give very different impressions depending on how it is played by musicians. Try out different versions of your favourites to appreciate the fullness of the work.
Watching a live classical performance
One of the most rewarding ways to learn more about classical music is to attend some live classical concerts. These come in three main varieties:
- orchestra concerts, usually featuring a symphony, a concerto and a shorter work;
- concerts for string quartets or other small-ensemble compositions, which are called ‘chamber music’ because, historically, the pieces were performed in the rooms of houses rather than in public auditoriums; or
- concerts for a solo pianist, called ‘recitals’ because the person who invented the format, the composer and virtuoso Franz Liszt, conceived of the soloist as ‘speaking’ to the audience.
Many classical concerts supply their audiences with printed programmes that identify the works to be heard and provide some information – ‘programme notes’ – about the music, the composers and the performers. In many cases, today’s performers will also speak to the audience, breaking a longstanding tradition of proceeding in silence. Programme notes can be quite informative, especially when they avoid unhelpful descriptions of form and technique that amount to overly specific instructions on what to listen for. The notes I find most useful connect the works at hand to the composers’ life and times, and offer brief, evocative characterisations of the music that listeners can take as hints rather than directions. (The notes from a Pacific Symphony programme tracing the legacy of the pianist and composer Clara Schumann offer a positive example.)
Classical concerts are inherently exciting. Most of them feature music in which there is little or no room for error, music that must be produced without amplification and that is hard to play – though not hard to listen to. These concerts dance on a tightrope.
One way to tap into the energy and suspense that result is to watch as the music is being made. Chamber performers communicate to each other with their bodies as well as through the sounds they make; you can see as well as hear them pull together or apart. Soloists, too, use their bodies expressively: the ways a pianist leans over the keyboard, sways or keeps still, emphasises or restrains arm movement, all have a contribution to make to the way the music sounds. And orchestra leaders (‘conductors’) – whose job it is to coordinate the performers, balance their sound, shape the music’s pace (‘tempo’), and choose what to emphasise – vary from those who barely move to those who throw their whole bodies flamboyantly into the work. Live classical music has an element of spectacle that is an important part of its artistry.
Links & books
The brief book Music: A Very Short Introduction (2nd ed, 2021) by Nicholas Cook covers classical music in an accessible way and explores its relationships to other kinds of music.
For general histories of both early and classical music, look into the six-volume Western Music in Context (2012-14), a book series edited by Walter Frisch.
The documentary film Following the Ninth (2013) directed by Kerry Candaele examines the global legacy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, including its appearance in the Tiananmen Square protests and other contexts in which it has served as what the filmmakers call an ‘anthem of liberation and hope’.
The book The Sight of Sound (1993) by Richard Leppert explores, with extensive illustrations, the visual dimension of classical music from the 17th through the 19th centuries.
The book Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (2000) by Susan McClary shows how musical forms are platforms for negotiating social conditions and identities.
The online book Challenging Performance (2020) by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson questions virtually every conventional idea about classical music and its performance. No one will agree with everything in it (I certainly don’t) but it is thought-provoking throughout and admirable in its advocacy of creative freedom.