An illiterate guide to classical music

Published in music on December 28, 2016 last edited on April 4, 2022

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. I have vivid memories of the first times I ran into some compositions that are my favourite to this day. The CDs were a new shiny media, I was always afraid of scratching their surface. But there was something missing, I couldn’t explain what.

A couple of years later, I got into metal and lost my interest for classical music. But metal to me was all about guitars. So 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 finally 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, classical music had become introspective as reading or writing were to me. I could lose myself into these compositions for hours. That’s how I started a long journey in the land of classical music. A never-ending journey.

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. And I’m writing about it because I’d like to make classical music less intimidating for you too. 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 does look intimidating. There’s so much of it! The tracks on an album have those super long names. There are so many Italian words, why?

To be honest, I’m with you. It is 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? Also what do they do with their hands?
  • What are all those numbers?
  • What’s a symphony? A fugue? A quartet?

And so on. The list can go on much longer but you get the idea. To help you find your way, I am going to share what I wish I knew about when I started got started.

Start easy #

Classical music can get complex, there may be a lot of things going on in a composition. That complexity just turns out to be boring music for the listener unless they have context. 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 is a large of compositions for a single instrument out there; Those compositions are a good start entry point. By definition, there will not be that much going on.

Now let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that the instrument you’re attracted the most to is the piano. “OK, my favourite instrument is the piano. Now what?” Well, you play it safe and bet on the most famous composers. They’re so famous because they’re that good. Start with Mozart or 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. That’s because it is a piano concerto. Those compositions focus on the piano but they are almost always accompanied by a large ensemble, typically an entire orchestra.

This is good. We learned something, right? Classical music compositions with the word “concerto” in it are not the easiest 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 this. We have learned something else too, we now know piano sonatas are compositions for piano solo. This is a key learning because it works well the same way with other instruments:

And so on. If you have a look at the wikipedia pages I 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 piano composition I know. It version leaves me speechless every time.

Time to recap. We have learned the following:

  • 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 find sonatas.

This is quite some homework eh? You could probably go on your entire life only exploring sonatas! There are so so many. But things may get boring at some point with one instrument so let’s try something else.

Explore by different dimensions #

Let’s 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 just “a few instruments”:

You can apply the same technique we used 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 we explored only one dimension: the musical form. That’s probably enough to get you started. 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 to more music from 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”. 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. Your relationship with the composer becomes more intimate and it will lead to a special bond with some of them. Sometimes the connection will become magical. Then you will have your favourite “piano sonata” composer, your favourite “string quartet” composer, and so on.

Performer #

This one takes time to fully grasp. Some performers are really famous. And, as for composers, there are 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. Their taste, focus, sensibility and many other factors play a part. 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 back to back. It took me some time to start doing so but now I am very happy and methodical about it. The reason is that performers have a huge influence on the way you are going to perceive a composition. I often clicked with a composition only after I ran into a version I really enjoyed. My favourite example is the overture of La gazza ladra - a very famous composition by Rossini. It had not really impressed me for a long time, but everything changed when I ran into an incredible version directed by Claudio Abbado. Now it’s my favourite overture!

An important thing to note: when it comes to orchestras, conductors act as performers in a solo composition. Which is the reason why being a conductor is such a big deal.

Record labels #

I still think about Rdio every day. It was very easy to browse music by record labels there. 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. Good record labels function like a good newspaper. They have an editorial line and you will like some more than others.

Find your ensemble #

It took me the longest to understand it. Here you can see a good list of group types. The thing with ensembles is that they come with specific constraints. Those constraints give composers different frameworks to express their ideas. You will find yourself liking a specific kind of ensemble more than others.

I can provide an example based on my experience. In 2009, I came across a very beautiful string quartet on the radio. 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 with the main theme and really wanted to know what 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 enough for me to get lost

Chances are some kind of ensemble will fit your taste better than others. It is really worth figuring it out.

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 reach with suggestions if you would like me to maintain such a database.