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Classical Music Basics: Orientation Tips for Listening, Concerts, Free Music & More

Lyndon Henry is a writer, journalist, editor, and writing-editing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @LHenry_rch

Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Mikko Franck, with  Hilary Hahn performing Sibelius's Violin Concerto.

Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Mikko Franck, with Hilary Hahn performing Sibelius's Violin Concerto.

This article has been written mainly with classical music neophytes in mind, but hopefully it will be helpful to anyone with some level of interest in the art. If you're just getting introduced to classical music, possibly this discussion will help orient you at least a little to some aspects. But even if you've been enjoying classical music for a long time, or at any rate have more experience, this article may help answer some questions or tell you something you didn't know.

►Types of classical music

For those less familiar with the ways of the classical music sector, one of the first things to understand is that it involves much more than just symphonic orchestras. As the Washington Post's chief music critic Anne Midgette explained in 2018, "The term 'classical music' is an inaccurate catchall for everything from solo piano works to Gregorian chant to contemporary instrumental sextets with electric guitar." [1]

More specifically, the website [2] delineates most classical works into four basic categories:

Orchestral (symphonies, concertos, suites, overtures, serenades, etc.)

Chamber (piano trios, string quartets, wind quintets, etc.)

Keyboard (piano sonatas, organ works, harpsichord works, etc.)

Vocal (opera, lieder/song, oratorios, sacred choral music such as masses and motets, etc.).

In terms of instrumental music, besides symphonic orchestras, classical music involves a wide variety of other ensembles and instrumental soloists. Although there are many different combinations, some of the most common include:

• Pianists

• Soloists on the violin, cello, woodwind instruments (all typically with piano accompaniment)

• String quartets (two violins, viola, cello – often just called a "quartet")

• Piano trios (violin, cello, piano)

• Piano quintet (string quartet + piano)

• Wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn)

But it's the symphonic orchestra, of course, that predominantly seems to represent classical music in the minds of most of the population. There is just something powerful, majestic, and awesome in the sound and sight of a full orchestra of 75 to more than a hundred expert musicians playing in perfect coordination to render a great masterpiece, making it sound as if it came from one gigantic multi-voiced instrument.

►Stylistic periods of classical music

In dealing with classical compositions, it's useful to understand that classical music is commonly categorized into a series of historical periods, generally following designated periods of art history. Here's

For classical music enthusiasts, here are commonly designated historical periods, with approximate date ranges, and examples of a few major composers identified with each (keep in mind that some composers may overlap into two periods):

Medieval Period (800–1400) — Hildegard von Bingen. Guillaume de Machaut

Renaissance Period (1400–1600) — Johannes Ockeghem, Orlande de Lassus, Claudio Monteverdi

Baroque Period (1600–1750) — J.S. Bach, G. F. Handel, Antonio Vivaldi

Classical Period (1750–1820) — W. A. Mozart, Joseph Haydn, C. P. E. Bach

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Romantic Period (1820–1910) — L. von Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert

Modern Period (1910–present) — Sibelius, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Barber, etc.

(Note that the "Classical" period and "classical music" are not synonymous!)

Why are these periods useful to know? As the website [3] explains, "Although any such groupings are at best arbitrary, it may help you to associate composers with the predominant styles flourishing during these periods, and thus make it easier to find music that you will like that for now may be unfamiliar."

Messiaen Trio (piano trio) in a 2021 concert.

Messiaen Trio (piano trio) in a 2021 concert.

►Special tips for listening

From casual to concentrated, there are many different modes of listening to classical music. For some listeners, it can just be pleasant background music while they're at work or doing other tasks. However, classical music can improve your well-being, too. As Irish journalist Kym Duignan points out, "Many people also find listening to it to be a very calming experience that's beneficial for their mental health. " [4]

But there are even greater benefits to more focused listening. In a 2017 article published in The Pacific Symphony Blog [5] writer Timothy Mangan emphasizes that

The first thing you have to know about listening to classical music, and probably the single most important, is that it demands your full attention, like reading a book or watching a movie. ... But classical music, to be understood and appreciated, must be foreground. ... It is a narrative in notes. You must follow it, to hear what happens; you must participate in the experience.

In my own article [6] "The Transformative Power of Great Classical Music", I stressed this with a particular focus: For those willing to listen more closely and intently to a work that especially seems to "resonate" with them, they might feel a powerful connection.

And listening over and over to a piece can reveal more and more aspects, emphasizes Duignan: "Listen to it more than once ... Often there are many different layers to classical music. Therefore to fully appreciate it you need to listen to it multiple times...."

While intense, focused listening is recommended, nevertheless, in the appropriate situation – like when you might listen to background music as I described earlier – there are some direct music-related benefits of casual listening:

• Reviewing composers/pieces — Listening to a classical radio station, or perhaps some recordings you found in the library and are curious about, is a way to explore and possibly discover new compositions and composers that appeal to you.

• Familiarizing yourself with a piece — I've found that playing a recording of a new or less familiar composition multiple times, often in the background while I'm doing something else, is an effective way to better familiarize myself with at least the basic contours of the piece. This is especially useful if you're planning to attend a concert or recital and are aware beforehand of such an unfamiliar piece on the program.

►Finding free classical music to listen to

Whether you're a novice or a more experienced classical listener, you'll probably want to find ways to expose yourself to more classical music compositions you're unfamiliar with, and hopefully find more and more pieces you strongly like (which you can then seek to have your own recordings of). The website (see note [2]) provides some suggestions for doing that:

Many college and community libraries have very large collections of classical CDs that can be checked out. Also, listening to classical radio can be a good source.

And let's not forget all the music accessible from the Internet! Writing on the website, Emily Hughes suggests "10 of the Best Websites for Free Classical Music". [7] Several that I've found especially helpful are:

• Musopen (

• Classic Cat (

• Chosic (

And there's always Google and YouTube, where you can search for video recordings by composer or a specific composition.

Concentrated listening is important, but casual listening of classical works can also be helpful.

Concentrated listening is important, but casual listening of classical works can also be helpful.

►Attending live concerts

While recordings obviously offer convenience and other benefits, the value of attending live concerts must not be underestimated. As the renowned music critic Anthony Tommasini [8] has observed,

Recorded music is widely accessible, and that's an incredible resource. Still, classical music is a performing art best experienced live. In our wired, amplified world, concert halls and opera houses are essentially the last places we can hear music in a natural acoustic, where we can savor the richness of an orchestra's string section or the ping of a tenor's voice.

Midgette [9] points out that

Classical music offers something on a large scale. Not many art forms offer you something as big as an orchestra concert: 100 people playing pieces that can last half an hour or more.

Certainly one of the best online resources promoting the unique benefits of live classical concerts, and providing helpful guidance, is a paper titled "How to Effectively Listen and Enjoy a Classical Music Concert", available from the website of Ouachita Baptist University. [10] This emphasizes that

Hearing live music is one of the most pleasurable experiences available to human beings.

The music sounds great, it feels great, and you get to watch the musicians as they create it.

No matter what kind of music you love, try listening to it live.

Even for many classical music devotees, the nominal ticket prices of some major performances can be daunting. However, free concerts are occasionally offered, and lower-price tickets may be available for students and through special group rates. The website [11] acknowledges that concerts can be expensive, but suggests other alternatives:

Many colleges have free recitals and very low cost concerts available, and community music groups often have low-cost concerts throughout the year. Experiencing live music will help to familiarize you with what real music sounds like and help make you a better judge of recording and performance quality.

In a live concert, here are a couple of issues to keep in mind:

• Audience quietness is important, except of course for moments where applause is appropriate. Even small noises can tend to be disruptive and distracting to others in the audience as well as to the musicians themselves – and some concerts may even be recorded. Make sure your phone is turned off or switched to "airplane" mode. And definitely refrain from talking! During the performance, try to suppress sounds like coughing, sniffling, or clearing your throat. Using a handkerchief, Kleenex, or other item to muffle your mouth will significantly reduce the decibel level!

• Most classical compositions (especially symphonies, concertos, suites, sonatas, etc.) have multiple parts or movements, but it's not appropriate to applaud until the entire multi-part work is finished. Some people in the audience may not know this, and sometimes you might hear a smattering of hand-clapping at the end of a movement or other intermediate section, but most of the audience will typically refrain from this. If you've been given a printed program, that will probably indicate the separate movements/parts of each work in the performance, so you can follow along and know when the piece actually finishes.

►Additional resources

More additional resources, particularly for beginners, are available on the Internet. The following are several I've found that seem especially helpful:

The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Classical Music

Particularly good, readable explanations of some basic classical music issues, with a particular focus on the Baroque, Classic, and Romantic eras.

Category: Beginners Guides

A collection of online guides to various composers as well as individual classic works.

Talk Classical

A lively online classical music forum providing interactive discussion of classical music issues, including current topics in classical music, historical issues, new recordings, and much more. Excellent source of links to online recordings that can be sampled.

A Beginner's Guide to Classical Music

Talk Classical discussion thread particularly aimed at providing neophyte listeners with suggestions of repertoire and recordings.

Hopefully, the information in this and the other sections provided in this article will help you toward more complete and transformative musical experiences!

Audience listening intently and quietly in concert of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer in 2015.

Audience listening intently and quietly in concert of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer in 2015.

Reference notes

[1] Anne Midgette, "A beginner's guide to enjoying classical music. No snobs allowed." Washington Post, 10 August 2018.

[2], "How to Go About Finding Classical Music You Like", website, accessed 2022-02-02.

[3], "Musical Periods", website, accessed 2022-02-02.

[4] Kym Duignan, "How to listen to classical music - a beginner's guide", RTE website, 14 July 2020.

[5] Timothy Mangan, “5 Tips on How to Listen to Classical Music”, The Pacific Symphony Blog, 27 September 2017.

[6] Lyndon Henry, "The Transformative Power of Great Classical Music", HubPages website, 1 February 2022.

[7] Emily Hughes, "10 of the Best Websites for Free Classical Music", website, 14 September 2021.

[8] Anthony Tommasini, "Curious About Classical Music? Here’s Where to Start", New York Times, 2 August 2018.

[9] Midgette, op. cit.

[10] "How to Effectively Listen and Enjoy a Classical Music Concert", Ouachita Baptist University website, accessed 2022-02-06

[11], op. cit.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Lyndon Henry

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