Classical music: where to start

9 August 2012, 14:05 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45

What is 'classical music'? And which pieces are best? Listen and download some of the greatest works with Classic FM’s guide.

What do you think when you think of ‘classical music’? It’s easy to imagine a concert lasting for hours, where everyone knows when to clap and what to wear. But classical music isn’t about ivory towers or stuffy private jokes, it’s about great tunes, written to entertain. You can still fill your iPod with music for any mood – it just so happens that some of the pieces were written over 100 years ago… Here's our speedy journey from 'simple' to 'symphony' in a few musical steps.

Getting started: music with a programme

If you’re worried about classical music being difficult to understand, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is helpfully split up into sections: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. It’s easy to imagine the different characteristics of the seasons, from birds singing in spring, to the chilling winter, all represented by different musical effects. If you like the cheery sound of this, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have a similar feel – try No. 3 for some more springlike strings. Playful violins and lilting tunes are also a feature of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. It was written 169 years later, so the style is slightly different, but the mood is equally playful.

Add the wind section

Wonderful string music is all very well, but that’s only one half of the orchestra. Adding the flutes, oboes, and the rest of the woodwind section opens even more musical possibilities. You might not immediately recognise the name of Czech composer Smetana, but you might recognise his tunes. Má vlast depicts the flowing course of the Vltava river – the music starts with just the flutes, conjuring images of the burbling stream flowing through the mountains. Or what about ‘Morning’, from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite? The sunrise-inspired music wakes up with a peaceful flute tune, which is passed to the oboe.

Now for a soloist?

We've built up to a full orchestra, so now it's time to add a soloist and turn our performance into an instrumental concerto. Listen out for the way the cello interacts with the orchestra in Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1: first, the instrumentalists take the tune, and the cello replies by playing the same music as a solo. Getting more complicated, you might recognise the music to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, where virtuosic piano playing meets powerful orchestral music.

Symphony: the full orchestra and more

Large orchestral forces, and music attempting to represent the entire cosmos in the space of an hour: it's no wonder the word 'symphony' can sometimes turn people off classical music. But symphonies are far from impenetrable. To ease yourself in, Mozart's symphonies are impressive and accessible in equal measure: you might recognise the iconic opening of Symphony No. 40. If you want to take the next step on your symphonic journey, don't let the nickname of Schubert's 'Great' Symphony No. 9 put you off. Musical genius doesn't have to sound complicated. And talking of musical genius... Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, viewed as the most groundbreaking symphony of all time, is perhaps the most intimidating of all. It needn't be. Yes, Beethoven grapples with massive ideas like the universal brotherhood of mankind, but the uplifting feel of the music is relevant to everyone - it's one of the reasons it's so popular to this day. Try the fourth movement and listen out for the choir, who sing the well-known 'Ode to Joy' tune.