Poster Fantasia

Classical music you didn't know you knew

Da da da DUM! DA DA DA DUM!

Ask a random group of people if they recognize the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th, and most will likely say yes. A good portion of them might even be able to tell you the name of the piece. Even people who claim they "know nothing about classical music" actually have a large repertoire memorized — without knowing it. Here are some immediately recognizable classical music pieces that have permeated our culture — even if their names have not.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Für Elise

Five or six notes is about all it takes to immediately recognize Beethoven's classic piano piece, which, along with the 5th symphony and Ode to Joy, can be found on many Beethoven compilation albums. A staple of childhood piano lessons, Für Elise is always a popular piece to teach and learn, and part of its charm may rest in the fact that the signature main theme in A minor is relatively easy to play (the same can't be said for the "darker" segments later in the piece!) and, with practice, can be made to sound pleasingly close to recordings. Beethoven's clever interweave of minor and major themes keeps Für Elise interesting and fun to listen to.

Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra

With its opening sequence of brass fanfare followed by a burst of exciting percussion, Also sprach Zarathustra is an immediately recognizable piece of music. It's probably one of the best examples of a small section of classical music that makes people say "Hey, I know that!" but the name of which they have no idea (even I was one of those people until recently). The famous opening of Richard Strauss's Nietszche-inspired tone poem is titled "Sunrise" and has become iconic in pop culture since film director Stanley Kubrick used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King

The tip-toeing-creep-along sound of Edvard Grieg's classic incidental piece In the Hall of the Mountain King (from the Peer Gynt suite) has cemented its place in our collective mental music repertoire, thanks to its use in countless films and TV shows. The slightly comical feel of the piece means it sees plenty of use in comedies and cartoons, often in association with a villain — in fact, the piece was originally written for a theatrical scene featuring trolls.

Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries

With its shimmering strings and three-beat "carousel" feel, The Ride of the Valkyries is a well-known and popular segment from the third act of the opera Die Walküre. Like In the Hall of the Mountain King, this piece has had its fair share of exposure via movies and TV, despite composer Richard Wagner's opinion that abridged performances were "an utter indiscretion."

J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Have you ever listened to Toccata and Fugue in D minor? What? You don't think so? Of course you have — you've heard it every Halloween. It's the classic piece of organ music that has been overused by TV commercials and movies until it has become a stereotypically "scary" sound. Once barely surviving extinction (it might have existed only as one manuscript copy at one time in history), it is now one of the most famous pieces of organ music — though you might also be familiar with Leopold Stokowski's orchestrated version, as heard in Fantasia.

A few others you might know by heart

Tchaikovsky's "Lake in the Moonlight" from Swan Lake

Vivaldi's Four Seasons — one of the most-often recorded pieces of classical music

Bizet's "Les Toreadors" from Carmen

Rossini's William Tell overture

Daniel Johnson is a Wisconsin-based photographer and writer, and the author of several nonfiction titles. You can see his photography work (he does a lot of animals!) at He's a longtime piano and guitar player, and Nocturne in E-flat Major Op. 9, No. 2 is his all-time favorite piece of classical music.

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