An illiterate guide to classical music

Music has always been a big part of my life. I remember my first attempts to listen to music in the apartment of my mother’s best friend. I was a confused boy, ten or eleven years old. And I have vivid memories of the first times I ran into some of my favourite pieces. Those CDs were a new shiny media. I was always afraid of scratching their surface. I was an avid reader of their booklets. But there was something missing. I felt the music I was listening to was the kind of collective experience I was not fond of. I was looking for the introspective feeling you get out of more solitary activities. Reading, writing. They have been nurturing my brain since I remember myself. A couple of years later, I got into metal. And, to me, it was all about the presence of lead guitars. I started studying the guitar a bit and tried to learn how to read music. This process brought me closer to classical music again. I started listening to some famous composers. Then, I realised what I missed in my previous experience with music. Classical music had something I had never felt with any other kind of music. I felt this was the real thing. And I started a long journey in the land of classical music that’s been lasting ever since.

I know how to read music even though I am a slow reader. I can play the guitar at amateur level, but I have no formal music education. I have no map for this fantastic land. I am a classical music illiterate. Despite that, I enjoy classical music more than any other kind of music. I am aiming at making classical music less intimidating. People often asked me how to get started with it or which composer is “easy”. I aim to make it easier for you to jump on this train. If I have managed to do so formal without music education, without any help, everyone can do it!

The thing about classical music is that it looks intimidating. There’s so much of it. All the tracks have those strange and super long names. There are a lot of Italian words. To be honest, I’m with you. It’s confusing. When I got into classical music, I had a lot of questions:

  • Do you listen to specific composers?
  • What about performers?
  • And what about conductors?
  • What are all those numbers?
  • What’s a symphony? A fugue? A quartet?

And so on. The list is much longer but you get the idea. To help you find your way, I am going to share all the learnings I wish I knew about when I started this long journey.

Start easy

Classical music can get complex, there may be a lot of things going on in a composition. And most of the time, that complexity just turns out to be boring music for the listener. Therefore, my suggestion is to start with easy compositions. Of course, if you know nothing about classical music, you do not know what “easy” is and what it is not. There is, however, a way out:

What instrument attracts your ear the most?

There are tons of compositions for one instrument out there and I consider those compositions a good start. By definition, there cannot be that much going on. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the instrument that attracts you most is the piano.

OK, my favourite instrument is the piano. Now what?

Well, you play it safe by betting on the most famous composers. They are famous for good reasons. Start with Mozart, Beethoven. YouTube is a good source. My first query got me this result. It’s a “piano concerto”. There is something wrong though. There are a lot of instruments and the piano comes after a while. And that’s because it is a piano concerto. Those compositions do focus on the piano, however, they are almost always accompanied by a large ensemble, typically an entire orchestra.

This is good. We have learned something. Classical music compositions with the word “concerto” in it are not easy stuff. You can skip them until you feel the urge the explore them. Whenever that happens. Let’s try a different query: “mozart piano solo”. The first result I have got is a stunning recording by Claudio Arrau, an incredible Chilean pianist. We will talk about performers too but at the right time. We have learned something else too, we now know piano sonatas are compositions for piano solo. This is a key learning as this works well for other instruments too:

And so on. If you have a look at the wikipedia pages I have linked so far, you will notice something very useful. Pure gold! I wish I had a list of [noted piano sonatas] twenty years ago. I would have found out about Sonata Pathétique by Beethoven a long time ago. It is the most beautiful composition I have run into and this version leaves me speechless every single time I listen to it.

Time to recap. We have learned:

  • Sonatas are good for starting out. There is only one instrument involved.
  • There are sonatas for a lot of instruments.
  • Wikipedia has a long list you can use to explore.

This is quite some homework. You could probably go on your entire life only exploring sonatas. There are so many. But things may get boring at some point with one instrument.

Explore by different dimensions

It is time to move away from the solo composition. Here is a list of all musical forms, grouped by era. Of course, there are way too many forms. My suggestion is to try with “a few instruments”:

You can apply the same technique we have seen in the previous section. Searching for “string quartet” on youtube gave me “Razumovsky”, a beautiful string quartet by Beethoven. Relying on youtube suggestions may be a good idea too.

So far, as you probably already noticed, we have explored only one dimension: the musical form. And I think this is enough to get you started with classical music. If you really like what you are listening to, chances are the following dimensions are going to help you find new pieces too. It took me a while to come up with this list, so I hope it will help you as much as it helps me now.

Composer

This may sound obvious - of course, listening more to a composer you like is a good strategy. There is a fair chance that if you like one or two piano sonatas by Mozart, you will like all Mozart sonatas. But here is the trick:

Find an album with all the compositions of the given form and composer.

Example: search for “complete piano sonata Mozart”. And then listen to all of them in sequence. It took me a while to figure out this was a good way of exploring a composer, and I was happy when I discovered it. Your relationship with a composer becomes more intimate. It will create a special bond to some composers. Then, at some point, the connection will become magical. You will have your favourite “piano sonata” composer. And your favourite “string quartet” composer.

Performer

This one comes with time. Some performers are really famous. And, as for composers, there is probably a very good reason why they are so famous. One general rule:

Most performers are especially good at one composer

For example, a piano performer may be very good at Bach and not so good at Chopin. This is pretty normal: it is a matter of their taste, focus, sensibility and many other factors. Performers are going to have very similar properties to composers. You are going to have your favourite Bach piano sonatas performer (mine is Glen Gould). Or a favourite Bach cello sonatas performer (mine is Mischa Maisky). It is not rare for me to listen to the very same composition by different performers. It took me some time to start doing so but now I am very happy and methodical about it. The main reason is: performers have a huge influence on the way you are going to perceive a composition. And it happened to me a few times: I started liking a composition only after I ran into a version I really enjoyed. My best example is the overture of La gazza ladra - a very famous composition by Rossini. It never really impressed me, but I can still recall exactly how I felt the first time I ran into an incredible version directed by Claudio Abbado. An important thing to note: when it comes to orchestras, directors act as performers in a solo composition. This is the reason why being a director is such a big deal.

Record labels

Because of labels, I still think about Rdio every day. It was very easy to browse music by companies there. And when it comes to classical music, this is a very relevant feature. I found a lot of interesting compositions or performances on Rdio because I could follow the trail of the publishing company. I use Apple music now and it is much harder to search this way. Still, this is something to take into account in my opinion. Good record labels work like a good newspaper. They have some sort of editorial line and produce very good albums.

Find your ensemble

Took me the longest to find. And to be fair, it changes over time too. Here you can see a good list of group types. The thing with ensembles is that they come with specific constraints. And those constraints give composers each time a different framework to express their ideas. You will find yourself liking a specific kind of ensemble more than others. And I suggest you try to explore your taste as much as possible. I can provide an example based on my experience. In 2009, I came across a very beautiful string quartet on Rdio. I remember being in my car and feeling the need to pull over to focus on the music. It was a melting quartet by Mozart. It took me over a year to figure out the name of the composition. I was obsessed by the main theme and really wanted to know which composition it was. This experience made me explore string quartets a lot. Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn produced incredible string quartet compositions and I love all of them now. In my case, I think the reason I love string quartets so much is:

There is a lot going on but not too much for me to get lost

Chances are some kind of ensemble will fit your taste better and it is really worth figuring it out, so you can explore the ensemble by composer, performers, labels and so on.

How can I help

I am very happy if you made it till here. It was a long article and it made me realise how much I like sharing my experience with classical music. Now, I would like to keep sharing what I am learning. It is a never ending learning process, so I am sure I will discover new things we can talk about. I would like to keep some sort of database of recommendations, maybe grouped by the dimensions we have just discussed. But I am not sure what is the best format yet. Please do write to me on twitter or email me with suggestions if you would like me to maintain such a database.

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