Classical music has blessed us with timeless musical motifs, many of which have inspired later innovations — like the trill technique in heavy metal and groovy synth-pop beats. So many of the greatest pop hits, from Elvis Presley’s “Can't Help Falling In Love” to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” have sampled classical music. But tell people that you’re a fan of the genre and you’ll likely get an eye roll and be labeled a snob (or at best, a bore).
The genre has long been associated with the palates of high society. The alienating nature of classical music jargon certainly doesn’t help — what’s an opus, a sonata, or a crescendo? With the synth-heavy bops that we’re digging right now, it may come as a surprise that classical music is making a comeback.
In recent years, more budding classical music enthusiasts have been dipping their toes into this instrumental treasure trove. The trend intensified amid the pandemic, as classical tunes provided soothing quarantine companionship. Rather than scrutinizing every piece with astute musical literacy, people are now listening to classical music to help them relax, focus, or go to sleep.
So it’s official. Classical music is no longer a snobby pursuit for highbrow aficionados. It isn’t just limited to soulful armchair rumination and pompous imaginary baton-waving. You can simply plug in for a productive study session or a sweaty workout — heck, you can even mix it up with your gangsta rap Spotify playlist — there are no rules.
But for a genre that has been around for centuries, classical music may still appear inaccessible and somewhat intimidating for the curious. In fact, “classical” is just a broad label for what is really a wide range of musical forms and styles. So here’s a primer to get you started. Organized according to three musical eras — Baroque, Classical, and Romantic — and including both instantly recognizable tunes and lesser-known pieces, allow this guide to accompany your foray into the fascinating world of classical music.
So you want to get into… super posh Baroque period music?
Spanning the 17th and 18th centuries, the Baroque period saw the formation of the first modern orchestras as musicians experimented with combinations of different instruments. Music in this era was pretty much a lavish affair, mainly performed for exclusive networks of elite patrons in royal courts and churches. Think of it as Clubhouse, IRL.
Known for its structured sound and arrangement, Baroque music typically features a regular tempo, the liberal use of musical embellishments, and an air of heavy grandeur. Case in point: the signature repetitive melody of “Prelude” in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1,” or the dramatic organ opening of his “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.”
Other key Baroque composers include Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel.
Baroque music is big on religious themes — with religious hymns and stories making their way into compositions — a legacy from when the church reigned over socio-political life in Europe before the 17th century.
Another key feature of Baroque music is the use of polyphony, a type of music composition where independent melody lines are played at the same time. This often resulted in complex sounds with densely packed notes. Despite these unbridled musical ornamentations, Baroque scores contain minimal instruction about the mood and style of the piece. This creates room for creativity, opening Baroque compositions to various interpretations by later musicians.
During the Baroque period, one of the dominant philosophies underlying music composition was music as a form of communication. This led to the rise of genres such as opera (a drama that is sung with instrumental accompaniment) and the redefinition of pre-existing forms like the concerto (pieces featuring instrumental soloists and an orchestra).
Listen to this when you’re… brewing a cup of afternoon tea and feeling like a proper aristocrat, or when you’re at a wedding (“Pachelbel's Canon” is basically the anthem of the modern wedding.).
Playlist: “Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007: Prelude” - J.S. Bach / “Pachelbel's Canon” Johann Pachelbel / “Air on the G String” - J.S. Bach / “Sonata In B Flat Major, K.545” - Domenico Scarlatti / “Violin Concerto No. 1 in E Major, Op. 8, RV 269, Spring: Allegro” - Antonio Vivaldi / “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” - J.S. Bach / “Messiah (HWV 56) Part 1: Symphony” - George Frideric Handel / “12 Violin Sonatas, Op. 5, No. 3: V. Allegro” - Arcangelo Corelli / “Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 8, RV 315, Summer: Presto” - Antonio Vivaldi / “Dixit Dominus (HWV 232) Part 1: Dixit Dominus” - George Frideric Handel
So you want to get into… the easy optimism of Classical period music?
By the Classical period in the 18th to 19th century, the Baroque-era idea of music as a form of communication had lost its popular persuasiveness. A new focus on humanistic qualities in the Age of Enlightenment meant that the ornate grandeur of Baroque music was increasingly seen as restrictive. Instead, musicians looked to clarity and simplicity. During the Classical period, the increasing prevalence of public concerts saw music gaining a wider audience among the middle class. Instead of strictly serious affairs as in the Baroque period, the role of music started to lean towards mass entertainment.
Famous composers in this period include Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Schubert (whose music straddles the late Classical and early Romantic periods).
Like in the Baroque period, harmony in Classical music was mainly diatonic, where the notes played are often in the same key. This gave Classical music a congruous, predictable sound that’s easy on the ear.
But in contrast with Baroque music, Classical compositions were more simple and melodic — or what we may now consider “catchy.” Homophony was used often, featuring a distinct melody line over subordinate harmonies — much like how vocal parts work in today’s pop songs. In contrast with the steady majesty of Baroque music, Classical music demonstrated an effortless elegance that also contained more variation in dynamics.
Together, these features gave Classical music its characteristic optimism, eliciting imagery of blooming nature running through a lush field of flowers — think Snow White, bird-on-finger and all.
The symphony, an orchestral work usually consisting of four movements, was standardized as a popular format of musical composition during the Classical period. These musical works, typically spanning an hour, would feature a range of moods and tempo across the movements, and were written to be played in concert halls.
Listen to this when you’re… feeling excited about the endless possibilities of life, or simply need an instant mood boost (It’s been scientifically proven that 9 minutes is all it takes for classical music to make you happy.).
Playlist: “Eine kleine Nachtmusik: I. Allegro” - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / “String Quartets, Op. 33 No. 2, “The Joke”: IV. Finale. Presto” - Joseph Haydn / “Cello Concerto in A Major Wq. 172, H. 439: III. Allegro assai” - C.P.E. Bach / “String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11 No. 5, G. 275: III. Minuetto” - Luigi Boccherini / “Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, Op. 6 No. 2, K. 331 “Alla Turca”: III. Allegretto” - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / “Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D Major: III. Rondo all’Ungarese: Allegro assai” - Joseph Haydn / “Violin Concerto No. 9 in G Major, Op. 8: I. Allegro” - Joseph Bologne / “Piano Sonata No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 12: I. Presto” - Muzio Clementi / “6 Moments musicaux, Op. 94, D. 780: III. Allegro moderato” - Franz Schubert / “William Tell Overture” - Gioachino Rossini
So you want to get into… the melodramatic soap opera of Romantic period music?
Many believe that the music of Ludwig van Beethoven heralded the start of the Romantic period, which lasted from the 19th to early 20th century. Where music from the Classical period often created harmonious poise, music from the Romantic period strove to agitate this very balance. Romantic music is shrouded in an air of unnerving eeriness punctuated with outbursts of passion — I mean, just listen to Beethoven’s signature Da-Da-Da-Duuum.
Most notably, the emotionality of music was emphasized in the Romantic period. This meant greater extremes in musical expression — from the dramatic midsections of Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3” to the suspenseful melancholy of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan.”
While Romantic composers mostly abided by Classical rules in music composition, many sought to push the boundaries of these formats. This resulted in lyrical melodies with some dissonance, which is produced when two tones close in frequency are played at the same time. Dissonance has the effect of making people physically uncomfortable — like dry nails on a chalkboard or screeching smoke detectors. But this precise ability to unsettle human ears was a big reason why dissonance was frequently used by Romantic composers to intensify the emotionality of key parts in a piece.
Romantic music is also known for the characteristic use of rubato, where the music is played at a somewhat irregular speed — imagine the unstable bouncing of the ball in a competitive two-player racquet game. This seemingly temperamental tempo adds emotional intensity to the music, an important way Romantic music distinguished itself from its predecessors.
Listen to this when you’re… feeling like the tragic main character in your personal soap opera, or when you need help getting pumped for a hardcore gym session.
Playlist: “Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral”: II. Molto vivace - Presto” - Ludwig van Beethoven / “The Blue Danube, Op. 314” - Johann Strauss II / “La Campanella” - Franz Liszt / “Carnival of the Animals, R. 125: The Swan” - Camille Saint-Saëns / “Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2” - Frédéric Chopin / “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”: I. Adagio sostenuto” - Ludwig van Beethoven / “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D-Flat Major” - Franz Liszt / “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From The New World”, Op. 95, B. 178 : IV. Allegro con fuoco” - Antonín Dvořák / “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30: I. Allegro ma non tanto (excerpt)” - Sergei Rachmaninoff / “The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Act 2: No. 14: Pas de deux” - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky / “Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66, No. 4” - Frédéric Chopin / “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” - Edward Elgar