So you’re eager to stop reading, and start listening to some music? Here is the GetIntoClassical.com quick-start guide to getting into classical music.
The most important thing to remember: It will take many, many listens before you understand a classical piece in the same way that you do popular music. When you’re just starting out you’ll have to listen to a piece all the way through around six or seven times before you start to make any sense of it. That’s fine, it’s totally normal. It’ll probably be when you are just about to give up that a certain little run up on the strings, or a blast on the brass will stand out and actually have a consistent melody! Don’t give up!
Select some music - Obviously the first thing you need is a piece to listen to. There are several approaches to take. Some people will prefer to choose something they are already familiar with, such as Beethoven 5 (da,da,da,dum) or 9 (the Ode to Joy). You might instead decide to read up on the characteristics of certain periods or composers and choose a recommended piece. In general it’s a good idea not to try something really difficult (like the atonalists) because you’ll probably just be horribly put off classical music for another five years. A safe choice would be a solid romantic (not in the sense of gooey and girly, but in the classical music era sense) symphony, for example Beethoven 7, or Mendelssohn 4, or Tchaikovsky 6.
Choose your recording – Once you decide on the piece, you need to actually get a copy of it. Get a good performance. If it’s horrible it’ll be roughly equivalent to listening to a popular piece over bad radio reception, and with the equalizer settings randomly changing. The biggest problem is that this won’t be obvious when you first start listening because you won’t yet know what the piece is “supposed” to sound like, it’ll just be a lot blander, and it will be way harder for you to “get” sections of it because they won’t stand out like they should. Don’t fret too much though, there are a lot of excellent recordings, and price does not necessarily imply quality. For example, one of the cheapest labels, Naxos, is also one of the consistently quality ones. I’ve put together a list of recommended recordings to start with here.
Listen (a lot) and learn (a bit less) - Now that you have your recording, listen to it endlessly – at work, on your iPod while walking, in the shower, everywhere. Listen to it six or seven times before even considering giving up your classical music jaunt. Listen to it all the way through, no cheating – it’s a journey and the movements need to be heard in that order. Read the liner notes if you have them, if you don’t, Google for the name of the piece along with “program notes” which should give you examples of the pamphlets they hand out at concerts for the piece. These might go into way too much detail for you with crap like: “…he modulates to the subdominant in the exposition…” but don’t stress over these parts. Just get a feel for what kind of emotions and story the composer is conveying, and maybe what was going on in his life when he wrote it.
Gather your thoughts - Now that you’ve listened to the whole piece through seven times you’ve probably begun to understand the prominent melodies, hopefully this kind of came as a surprise. You might have noticed that instead of meandering around and doing lots of pretty-pretty stuff — which is kind of what most people expect — the music actually deliberately goes somewhere, and tends to return back to where it started. You also might notice that these long, complicated sounding movements actually just contain two big, important melodies.
Listen more selectively - Probably the tunes are finally sticking in your head in the same way that popular pieces do. Probably there are certain sections which are starting to sound good, while the rest is still a mystery. That’s awesome! Listen to the movement with the good bits by itself a few times. Then try listening to the whole thing through. You’ll probably start to like the bits you didn’t like before, and everything will kind of fill in around the sections that initially caught your attention. Don’t worry if you don’t like the whole symphony though, you’ll always like certain movements more than others.
If it sucks (but it won’t), try again - If you really can’t stand it, it if just sounds cheesy or predictable – try it once more, but with a different era. If you chose something romantic (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, for example), try Bach instead, or Stravinsky.