I want to start listening to more classical music, but don't know where to start

Before anyone links it, I have already checked out the “Essential Music Library” but that is a bit broad for my tastes.

I decided today in the car that my knowladge of classical music is lacking.

I know I like:

These seem obvious so, probably not a lot of help.

I also LOVE Bach and Dvorak. Bach I learned to love while I was taking piano lessons. My teacher gave me a copy of the Brandonberg conciertos, and to this day it is the only classical album that I will occasionally pull out for no reason in particular and listen to.

Dvorak is the only classical composer that I have ever stumbled upon accidentally and just fallen in love with his music. I spent weeks trying to figure out who he was because his name is spelled nothing like the way it is pronounced (I heard him on the classical radio station the last time I tried to get myself into classical music.)

I am not crazy about Shuman, or Shubert, or Mendelson. Beyond that I don’t really know.

I would also like to start listening to more Opera, I know I like Wagner, but don’t care for Puchini. Verdi I am wishy washy on. I had an ex who loved Verdi, so that may be coloring my perception.

So based on that very short list of taste, who else would I like?

Second question (and possibly more important) what versions of these compositions should I track down.

I may know more than I think I do, so if you all need more info I will do my best to help you help me.


Well, Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart wrote a lot of music - hundreds of hours, each.

Are you sure you’ve exhausted all that they have to say?

No, not at all. But I like variety.

I’d start here. A huge archive of programmes which each take you through a work in some detail, explaining what’s actually going on, and putting them in some context of period & style. Start off with some of the works or composers you know fairly well, and explore outwards from there - use Google & Wikipedia to help with any gaps in historical or chronological understanding. For pieces you like, or are intrigued by, you can then look to get decent recordings.
Programmes I’d suggest to start with:

Bach - Goldberg Variations
Beethoven - Symphony no. 7
Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique
Britten - Four Sea Interludes
Debussy - La Mer
Elgar - Enigma Variations
Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue
Mahler - Symphony no.1
Shostakovich - String Quartet no.8

Do you have a library card? When I lived in Miami, anyone with a library card could access a online classical music library, where you could listen to recommended playlists built around lots of themes. You could also make your own.

If so, the OP wouldn’t be the first to jump to such a conclusion. Mahler believed he had exhausted everything he had to say orchestrally after just one symphony, which is why all his others are chorals.

Holst’s The Planets.

Trust me on this.

Some of my favorites (you’ve already listed some): Brahms, Richard Strauss (I don’t care for Johann), Fauré, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Samuel Barber, and Benjamin Britten. That’s a rather short list, but a lot of others I like aren’t nearly as mainstream.

As far as opera, since you already like Mozart, try his operas (if you haven’t already). They’re nothing like Wagner, but fine music. Give Verdi another try, especially his juicier, later stuff (Otello, Aida). Try some of the greatest hits like Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) and Carmen (Bizet). I already mentioned Strauss; try his operas too. From the decadence and somewhat disturbing pathos of Salome to the sublime ridiculousness of Ariadne auf Naxos, it’s some of the best dramatic music ever written.

Don’t forget that Mozart wrote operas too. And Bach’s choral music is very powerful.

Handel and Haydn are conspicuously missing from your list.

My personal suggestion is to go back a bit and try some earlier music. One of my favorites is Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. We have the Philip Ledger version listed on this page:


With the small exceptions of symphonies 5, 6, 7, 9 and the unfinished no. 10. Four with vocal or choral out of 8 or 9.

I would recommend a completely different method: go to your library and just check out 5 CDs from the classical section without even looking at who they are or what they are. You’ve already decided you like some composers, and that’s great, but it’s also limiting. Try not limiting yourself that way. I love Bach, but there’s some Bach I find unlistenable. I don’t like Mozart, but I like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Use Ellington’s Law for deciding what you like: If it sounds good, it is good.

Sorry, I have checked with my source on my prior information and have had my memory corrected. He never intended to write another non-choral symphony, I am told, because he felt he had said everything there was to say, or at least everything he had to say.

My point remains: he jumped to a conclusion that was unwarranted.

When I wanted to expand my classical library, I went by instrument rather than composer. I had heard some guitar music on NPR and thought it was terrific, so I searched Tower Records (before it closed) and Amazon.com for guitar pieces, and then picked works by composers I liked.

Seems to me that he felt that he, himself, had nothing left to say. Not that there was nothing that anyone else had left to say.

When I was in this similar position a while back, I picked up the Rough Guide to Classical Music for about $15. It gives a great career overview of each major composer, details their works with evocative language, who they were influenced by and who they in turn influenced, and even goes as far as to suggest particular renditions and recordings to check out. I went in knowing I liked a few composers and wanting to know more, and it totally paid off.

You mention that you love Bach and are interested in opera–have you tried Baroque opera? In my experience, even most opera fans haven’t given it a chance, though I’ve heard it said 80% of all operas are pre-Classical.* If you ask me, Handel is the king of Baroque opera and Rodelinda is very accessible and available on DVD. I’d highly recommend watching it and see what you think.

  • From some documentary on Overture TV that’s probably wrong, like everything else their documentaries claim, so don’t quote me.

Look in your local library for an audio lecture course called “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” by professor Robert Greenberg. It covers the entire history of Western music, from Ancient Greece (very briefly) up through early modern music. He mixes lectures with many, many musical excerpts and occasionaly whole pieces. It covers the major eras, styles, forms and composers, and a little bit of basic music theory.


It’s kinda long, around 50 hours, but again much of it is music.

Rimsky-Korsakov-Sheherazade. Try and get the Leonard Berstein and NY Philharmonic version. So lush, so beautiful.

(Oh, and anyone who tells you, “I love classical music-it’s so relaxing”, is an idiot of the highest order)

I’m going to recommend going a different way that worked for me. **AudreyK **mentions it.

Don’t go by the composer. Sure, people will recommend this or that. It may work. But what worked for me was finding a type of instrument I loved.
I love string instruments. Cello, violin, viola - I adore them. So even though I didn’t have much love for classical before, I found string pieces won me over. Now I have a whole bunch of classical pieces.

I don’t necessarily agree, btw, with the people who say you should be checking out books and listening to audio recordings to find out what you like. But I am very much of this opinion: a piece of work should be able to stand on its own, without any backup or prelim material. I feel the same way about books. So just my two cents.


Hmmm… you like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Dvorak. Makes sense, all of these wrote structured, melodic music appealing to both sides of the brain. And arguably the greatest composers ever.

To expand your horizons without straying too much outside the style you like, I would try:

Schubert: give him another try with the Eight (“Unfinished”) and Ninth (“Great”) Symphonies.

Mendelsohn: give him another try with the 3rd (“Scottish”) and 4th (“Italian”) Symphonies.

Brahms: start with the Fourth Symphony and the Second Piano Concerto.

Chopin: just get a greatest hits package and see what you like.

Tchaikovsky: Fifth Symphony, First Piano Concerto.

The above will get you more into the Romantics (Bach is High Baroque, Mozart Classical, Beethoven is Classical/??? and Dvorak is Romantic)