Poster Eugene Concert Choir and Orchestra 2
Instrumental and choral music is all part of the classical canon.
Classical Basics

How do I understand classical music?

Do you want to understand classical music but don’t know where to begin? The first thing to know is that you are not new to it — it’s all around you. Movies and television, weddings, commercials, video games: You’ve been absorbing (and appreciating it) without knowing just what that music is.

But if you want to get serious and intentional about listening, it helps to understand the different kinds of classical music. Listening to a variety of each will help you determine what resonates with you. Here’s a rundown of the main genres.



This dominant genre in Western music between 1600 and 1750 is known for its grandiose and ornamental style. Think of Johann Sebastian Bach’s intricate melodies and George Frideric Handel’s innovative and robust masterworks. Classic forms such as opera, cantata, concerto and sonata were established during this period. Here’s the “Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music.

Handel: Water Music Suite No. 2 - Alla hornpipe

More: Learning to listen to Baroque music


This movement shifted toward simplicity, yet with a more powerful sound that corresponded to increased orchestra size. Ludwig van Beethoven’s music — darker and heavier than the Baroque masters — symbolized this shift. One of the most famous works in classical music, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, epitomizes the period.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 - 1st movement


This sound defined much of the 19th century, when compositions became increasingly expressive and took inspiration from art and literature. Early Romantics such as Franz Schubert and late Romantics such as Richard Wagner shared a lush and sometimes bombastic and dramatic style. Here’s Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, also known as the Unfinished Symphony.

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" - first movement

More: How is romantic music different from Romantic music?


This early-20th-century movement reacted against the unrestrained emotionalism of the Romantic period. Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde yet still melodic works interpreted the past through a more modern lens. His most famous work, the ballet The Rite of Spring, famously caused the initial audience to riot because it was so different from anything that had come before.

Stravinsky: Rite of Spring - Finale

Here’s an illustrated, narrated primer to that groundbreaking piece.


This movement, a cousin of the Neoclassical style, is characterized by experimental and often atonal concepts. Modernist adherent Arnold Schoenberg, who advocated for the “emancipation of the dissonance,” is credited with inventing the 12-tone technique that ensures all notes are played equally in a given piece. A prime example is his Piano Concerto.

Arnold Schoenberg: Piano Concerto
Performed by Alfred Brendel, with the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden, conducted by Michael Gielen


Between World Wars I and II, a national fervor arose and with it the popularity of a deliberately accessible style of American music. Consider the jazzy stylings of George Gershwin or the sweeping yet folksy compositions of Aaron Copland, whose “Hoedown” from the ballet Rodeo is conducted here by Leonard Bernstein (himself an acolyte of the musical style). 

Copland: Rodeo - Hoe-Down


Chamber music is performed by a small number of musicians; originally, it was defined by the instrumentalists that could fit into a royal chamber. Many sonatas, trios and quartets are written in this genre, which relies more on strings and winds than brass and percussion. A chamber ensemble produces a more intimate sound.

Top 20 playlist of chamber pieces.

Listen to YourClassical’s Chamber Music stream


Opera is dramatic music that tells a theatrical story through instrumental themes, choruses and recitative (which serves as sung dialogue). Some of classical music’s most recognizable works come from opera (for example, “Anvil Chorus” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore). Here’s the sublime “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

Puccini: Gianni Schicchi - O Mio Babbino Caro



This is music sung by a choir, with voices representing each part. With its strong origins in the church, it comprises madrigals, hymns and gospel as well as more secular compositions. Choral music packs a double emotional punch through words and music. It can be as rousing as Handel’s “Hallelujah!” or as quietly moving as Stephen Paulus’ “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” which was sung at two presidential funerals.

Stephen Paulus: Pilgrim's Hymn

More: Listen to the YourClassical’s Choral stream


What would movies be without their music scores? The best ones channel classic composers to create their own evocative stories. Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, among others) credits Claude Debussy and Gustav Mahler as influences. John Williams, whose “Raiders Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark is heard here, has said he was shaped by the music of Stravinsky, Wagner and Gustav Holst.

Williams: Raiders of the Lost Ark - Raiders March

More: Listen to Saturday Cinema, our weekly film music program


The Great White Way has spawned some of the world’s most accessible music, much of which has transcended theater into film and the pop charts (“Hello, Dolly!” “People” and “Send in the Clowns” among them). Composers such as Richard Rodgers (The Sound of Music) and Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady) were influenced by composers such as Victor Herbert and Franz Lehar. Here’s the ballad “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables, by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer.

Les Miserables: Bring Him Home

More: Listen to YourClassical’s five-part series “Regarding Broadway.”
Part One - The Early Days
Part Two - The Golden Years
Part Three - Broadway Comes of Age
Part Four - The Sondheim years and Beyond
Part Five - The Future of Broadway

How do you listen?

Another way to determine what music is right for you is to figure out how you like to listen to it. Do you use it for inspiration while exercising or while doing household chores? Here’s some music to fuel your workout and a playlist to accompany bicycling, spinning or running.

Would you like music to help you study or just relax? Have a look at this curated playlist for studying and stress relief. Here’s the best classical music for studying. And here are activities that benefit from listening to classical music.

Finally, check out YourClassical’s Curated Streams for more ideas and to further narrow your classical preferences.

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