Sunday, September 27, 2015

Classical Music 101 for the Serious


Wilhelm Furtwängler


A lot of people ask me how to get started listening to classical music. They seem to appreciate the complexity, nobleness and beauty of it, but most of time an instructive roadmap is missing which might be discouraging for some. Most quit before they even start.

I listen to 45% classical, 45% jazz, 10% others (techno, house etc.). When I was a teenager my music taste wasn't diversified like today; it was 99% classical. However I still think I have a good trackrecord introducing people to classical music. Here is some -maybe unusual- advice for newcomers.


  • It's a journey similar to language learning. You will learn a bit every time you get exposed to it but mastery takes time.
  • Prioritize the music. I suppose you are not starting this journey to increase your IQ (see Mozart Effect). You have to solely concentrate on the music. Do not try to multitask.
  • Focus especially on the background melody. Everyone can hear the primary sound.
  • Invest in a good audio-system. A good headset is a perfect and economical alternative to a costly hi-fi system.
  • Do not pause the music. No jumps, no fast-forwarding. Listen to that boring 2nd movement.
  • Try to find your era / style.
  • Listen to different interpretations. Notice the main differences.
  • Try to understand the composer. Put yourself in his shoes. Think of his time, circumstances, mood etc.
  • Don't listen to the famous Best Classical 100 (Swan Lake, 4 Seasons, Moonlight Sonata etc.). Boring stuff.
  • Go to concerts. Learn the artists.
  • Off the top of my head I brought together a list for beginners. The following list is in no particular order. It will not help you at all with impressing your date when you shazam the music playing at the café. However it might give you some real flavour:

    • Godowsky - Transcriptions on Chopin's Etudes
    • Bach - BWV1044
    • Bach - BWV582 (If I were to be executed, I would wish to listen this live during the process)
    • Beethoven - Symphony no.3 (Eroica)
    • Rachmaninov - Piano Concerto no.3
    • Saint Saëns - Piano Concerto no.2
    • Saint Saëns - Danse Macabre
    • Bach - Double Violin Concerto (BWV1043)
    • Sibelius - Violin Concerto
    • Bach - BWV849 (Listen both from Sviatoslav Richter and Glenn Gould. Gould first)
    • Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture (He composed this at the age of 17)
    • Mendelssohn - Octet (Composed at the age of 16)
    • Beethoven - 32 Variations
    • Rachmaninov - op.39 no.6
    • Schubert - Der Erlkönig
    • Rimsky Korsakov - Sheherazade
    • Elgar - Cello Concerto
    • Mozart - Requiem
    • Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition
    • Prokofiev - Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet
    • Hindemith - Symphonic Metamorphosis
    • Say - Istanbul Symphony 
    • Mozart - Oboe Concerto
    • Brahms - Sonata for Cello and Piano no.1