Listening Guides

Did you see the film Chocolat? If you’ve ever been able to share that kind of experience with someone, it’s so fulfilling, to say “I bet I know what you’ll love” or “you think you don’t like X or Y, but let me change your mind.” To see someone enjoy something they’ve never experienced, be it a movie, wine, a book, a restaurant… it’s exciting. Can we do that with music?

Like anything, with music you have to start somewhere. At the time of this writing, I’ve recently come across a few people saying “I’d like to listen to/appreciate/start understanding classical music, but I’ve no idea how to get started.”

Back when I began what was to be a rather brief few years of piano lessons, my starting point with classical music was the works of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. They were, for whatever reason, the names that came to mind when I thought about music. Needless to say that’s changed, but for Chopin, it was etudes and preludes and I guess some sonatas, and concertos, and other musical terms. For Rachmaninoff, my teacher’s first suggestion was the piano concertos, specifically (surprise!) the second and third.

Now, this presented an interesting predicament.

It’s beautiful music, obviously. But presented even with the 8-12 minutes of a Chopin ballade, I had absolutely zero understanding of why things happened the way they did, why I was hearing what I heard, or anything else significant to the piece, so a ten-minute ballade, although just gorgeous at every single turn, seemed quite hefty. Then come around to a 40-minute Russian piano concerto, with a whole orchestra, and… it’s kind of like having a movie on in the background: “My goodness it’s all so beautiful! (but I legit have no idea what’s going on!)” and that’s a conundrum, I think.

So aside from knowing where to start, it’s also important to know what to look for and/or have the right expectations. Chopin and Rachmaninoff are two composers whose pieces could often stand on the merits of their sheer beauty alone. Listen to the opening of the second symphony, as the strings unfold to present what becomes a massive world of sound. Listen to the delicate music-box-like beginning of Chopin’s fourth ballade, like the beginning of a life story told in only 12 minutes. It’s all beautiful, right? Yes, but what about when it isn’t? What should you listen for based on what you’re expecting?

I think it would be kind of cool to try to present some playlist-like things here, based entirely on my opinion and how I perceive music. So below, I have tried to organize previous posts into a few basic packages based on topic or interest level or purpose, so go give them a try.

Pretty, Please– some immediately pleasing music of various kinds, some big, some small, but music that might just grab you from the beginning and never let go. It’s not  background music (classical music rarely was ever meant to be so) but hopefully you’ll find something here to enjoy.

Challenge Me– some pieces that might take a little bit of getting used to, but have their own treasure trove of little gems and beauties waiting to be discovered

Short and Sweet– no excerpts here! Beautiful, compelling, complete music, an entire idea in a small, bite-sized form

Tell Me a Story– pieces with extramusical ideas, a story, a representation of something, that can give you a cue or basis for listening

Epic– gargantuan, hefty works that build entire worlds in which you can find yourself lost, but pay attention: they all have something coherent to communicate from beginning to end, and a journey to take us on. They are well-crafted masterpieces.

The Gems– ‘favorite’ is such a subjective term, but in the time that I’ve been listening and reading and researching, these are some works that have stood out from the crowd, what I would consider unquestionable masterpieces, and more to the point, are surprisingly works most people are unlikely to know of or hear in the concert hall

Something different- do you listen to a lot of classical music, but might be looking to dust off some records or scores from a bin in the back of the store? Come check out some stuff you might just love but have never heard of. There’s nothing really too obscure here, but if you’re a more casual listener, this is a bit off the beaten path.


The above will be updated from time to time, and the links are available directly from the ‘Guides’ menu at the top of the homepage. This also gives me ideas for many other pieces I haven’t discussed that would make nice little additions to these series.

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