Before we get into the list, let's answer a few questions!
What is classical music?
Classical music is "art" music. Art music is generally created from an understanding of elements such as pitch (how high/low a note is) systems, pitch relationships (which notes go together) a.k.a. harmony, musical notation (written musical symbols), and musical structures (how the musical themes are used and developed). A composer uses these elements and combines them to create specific aural effects for the listener.
Classical music is an umbrella term that covers many subgenres, such as opera, symphonies, concertos/concerti, and many more. Many cultures have their own classical music traditions. When we refer to "classical music" as a genre, we are usually referring to Western classical music - music which has developed from European traditions, beginning in the Medieval Era.
Sign up as a site member for a FREE Classical Music Crash Course guide (link opens in new tab)! You'll also get access to our Freebies and Learning Hub pages and more:
When was classical music composed?
Classical music is still being composed today - many composers live and work all around the world, and you have probably heard their music in contexts such as movies, television, or games, even if you have never been to a concert featuring contemporary classical music!
We usually consider the beginning of Western classical music to have coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD. The timeline below gives a general idea of the classical music era divisions:
What makes a classical music piece good for beginners?
Well, nothing in particular, actually, as tastes vary hugely! However, listening lists for good classical music works for beginners often include pieces with qualities which will be familiar to listeners. For example, they may be classical music pieces which people are likely to have heard before, pieces based on a famous story such as Cinderella, or pieces which use familiar systems of pitch/harmony/structure/etc.
This isn't one of those lists.
We believe that good music is good music, and we're here to share some of our favourites with you, and we hope you'll love them too! No Vivaldi's "Four Seasons", Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5", or Mozart's "The Magic Flute" here - though they are great works, you'll get those on other lists!
While we're breaking down stereotypes, want to know the TRUTH about classical music?
Let's Get Listening!
As you listen, you may find that you prefer one piece to another - that's great! You're already figuring out your tastes! Which instrumental "colours", which sounds, which styles capture your attention?
These selections are in no particular order. Happy listening!
1. Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8
This piece is in five movements, or sections. Our favourite is the second movement, which you can find at 5:10!
This piece is also included in our Press Play series - specifically, our post for teens: click here to read!
2. Puccini: Tosca
Drama, brilliant music, one of the greatest operatic heroines and also one of the greatest villains - everything you need in an opera!
Did you know...that many opera performances have the text displayed above the stage in the local language (sometimes even in multiple languages)? The surtitles are displayed line-by-line above the stage, helping you to follow the story! In the YouTube link we have included, there are English subtitles at the bottom of the video. Note also that operas have been composed in many languages - including English! Here are three English-language examples to get you started:
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
John Adams: Doctor Atomic
Opera continues to be a popular form of classical music in the 21st Century. Take our quiz to find out which 21st Century opera you are!
3. Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Mahler's "Symphony No. 5" is divided into three parts, with five movements in total. It begins with a funeral march, and is mostly complex and dense, except for the tender third movement.
Visit our "Inspired By Love" listening list post (link opens in new tab) to find out more about the third movement (Adagietto) - a love letter to Gustav Mahler's beloved Alma (a composer in her own right)!
4. Monteverdi: Lamento della ninfa
Monteverdi was one of the most important composers of the late Renaissance/early Baroque eras. "Lamento della ninfa" is a madrigal - a type of song for several voices. This particular madrigal is almost like a mini opera, with a principal character and a "chorus" of voices commenting on the action.
Learn more about Early Music (music of the Medieval and Renaissance) with our online course!
5. Piazzolla: Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas: Otoño Porteño
This piece (sometimes performed alone, sometimes as a part of Piazzolla's "four seasons") was originally for Astor Piazzolla's quintet of bandoneon, violin, piano, electric guitar and double bass. It is the "autumn" piece of the complete suite.
Sound Garden Products
We offer classical music products for all ages: workbooks, activity books, online courses, and more! Visit the shop to learn more!
6. Reich: Different Trains
This piece is an example of minimalism, where one idea is taken and repeated continuously. It is for string quartet and tape (recorded speech).
Steve Reich is one of many living composers. Read our Living Composer features, and learn about some of the people behind the classical music of today!
7. Shankar: Symphony
When East and West meet! Ravi Shankar was an Indian sitar virtuoso and composer. He combined the music of his native India with Western classical music traditions.
We believe classical music is for all people of all cultures and demographics, and that our musical traditions can and do combine to create amazing things! Click here to learn more about what we're all about!
8. Schubert: Der Erlkönig
An example of German "art song" - songs for voice and (usually) piano, known as Lieder. Many countries have their own art song traditions, such as the French "mélodie", English art song, and many more.
In this song/Lied by Schubert, he sets to music a dramatic Goethe tale. A father and his desperately ill and distressed son are riding swiftly on horseback to a farm. The child is being pursued by the evil "Erlking", but the father cannot see him. The child dies as they reach their destination.
Want to learn more about Schubert's Lieder? Click here!
9. Bonis: Cello Sonata
This piece by French composer Mel Bonas was originally composed for cello, but we think it works great on double bass, too! Click here to learn all about it!
10. Richter: Sleep
This 8.5-hour total piece was composed in consultation with neurologists. It is designed as a lullaby, connecting music and consciousness!
Find out more about this piece through our product "Classical Sessions for...Calm"! Learn about the science of calm, accompanied by carefully selected classical music works.