Recommended Classical Music

A number of studies have suggested that listening to music can not only calm you, but also boost your immune system.  The most important element in terms of what type of music works best seems to be it should be music you like.

Having said that, it is clear some types of music are more inherently “beautiful” and relaxing than others.  Is heavy metal or rap music beautiful and relaxing?  We acknowledge that some people like such music forms, but does it relax them or just zombify them?

To help you get the best benefit from this concept, we are offering up selected pieces of classical music that are hopefully both approachable and enjoyable.  We hope you’ll enjoy them at home, in the car, and generally, everywhere, as appropriate.

If you’re new to classical music, welcome!  It has been one of the most rewarding joys in our life, and to help introduce you to the topic, we have an article on how to best enjoy and appreciate classical music.

We also point out and explain how the term “classical music” contains a massive number of different types and styles of music, just like the term “passenger vehicle” can range from a tiny car to a huge bus.

If you have suggestions for additional pieces to add to this list, or for different YouTube versions of the pieces I’ve mentioned, please add a comment, below or send me an email.

  • You will probably need to scroll the table to see it all; and consider sorting by date if you want to see what has recently been added you might not know about already
  • Please see below the table for notes on the information shared and an explanation of the four button options.
ComposerPieceApprox LengthStyleLevelCommentsLinksAdded
Beethoven, Ludwig van
1770-1827
Egmont Overture10 minsOrchestral
Exciting energetic music
EasyBeethoven wrote a series of short pieces of incidental music for a play, this is the overtureWith score

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Mazur
5/14/20
Beethoven, Ludwig van
1770-1827
Piano Sonata No.21 in C, op 53, "Waldstein"25 minsInstrumental - pianoModerate - AdvancedThere's something rather compelling about this sonata that makes it one of my favorites. Not sure what!

A boisterous first movement, a very gentle ruminating second movement, then a third movement that starts of sad and becomes triumphant, but allows sadness to seep in.

Like most of Beethoven's piano pieces, it gives more each time you listen to it.
Claudio Arrau5/19/20
Beethoven, Ludwig van
1770-1827
Piano Sonata No.32 in c, op 11125 - 40 minsInstrumental - pianoUltimateBeethoven's last piano sonata is at a different level to any piece of music written before or since. It isn't even in classic three or four movement sonata form.

Its mysteries are impossibly deep, but hint of things unknown and unknowable.

This is a piece of music that will demand the ultimate in study and focus on your part, and is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. But if you ever get to sense its profound content, it will change you forever.
Good discussion
Daniel Barenboim
5/14/20
Beethoven, Ludwig van
1770-1827
Piano Concerto No.5, "Emperor"42 minsConcerto
Typically fierce emphatic and overwhelming Beethoven, triumphant and positive
ModerateThe last of his five piano concerti. In three movements. You'll end up loving all three, but to start, you might find the 3rd movement easiest and the 2nd movement the slowest (in both senses of the word)Bernstein & the VPO, Krystian Zimerman5/14/20
Binge, Ronald
1910-1979
Elizabethan Serenade3 minsOrchestral - lyrical, tuneful, beautifulVery easyOriginally simply called "Andante Cantabile" was renamed as an inspiration for the new reign of Queen Elizabeth II (not, as is often thought, in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth I).YouTube5/14/20
Elgar, Sir Edward
1857-1934
Enigma Variations32 minsOrchestral - rich varied tunefulModerateA fascinating and mysterious piece of music - variations on a secret theme. Well worth reading the notes (see first link) on each variation.

The Nimrod variation is very famous - try that first, but warning, it may bring tears to your eyes.

Well worth repeated listening and becoming familiar with the different variations, all short and fairly easy.
Good commentary and analysis

St Petersburg Phil, Temirkanov

Philharmonia, Barbirolli
5/14/20
Elgar, Sir Edward
1857-1934
Pomp and Circumstance Marches26 minsOrchestral - rhythmic, inspiring, richEasy to moderateA set of five marches, the first four written between 1901-7, the last in 1930. They are in "A-B-A" form, starting off blustery, brassy, and bold, and with a quieter ruminative middle section.

The middle section of the first is known as "Land of Hope and Glory".

Try the first march, then the fourth, then perhaps the fifth. The other two are not so memorable.

Britain was at its absolute grandest - Edward VII had just ascended the throne, the "sun never set" on its Empire, and the country was brimming with positivism, confidence, and certainty. All of this is proudly conveyed in these pieces.

There were also sketches for a sixth march that have been "imagined" into a complete piece.
Notes about the piece

Royal Phil, Previn
5/14/20
Handel, George Frideric
1685-1759
The Messiah2 hrs 30 minsChoral - oratorio, baroque style
Uplifting, joyous, inspirational
ModeratePossibly the most popular choral work. There's a lot in this, and you'll probably find you like some parts more than others to start with. But stay with it, and keep listening to it, and you'll find it gloriously profound and inspiring.

Some of the easier parts
O thou that tellest good tidings
For unto us a child is born
His yoke is easy
All we like sheep
Hallelujah chorus
I know that my redeemer liveth
Amen
YouTube5/14/20
Handel, George Frideric
1685-1759
Music for the Royal Fireworks18 minsOrchestral, baroque style
Rhythmic
Easy - moderateOften paired with his earlier and longer piece, the Water Music.YouTube with score and great notes5/14/20
Handel, George Frideric
1685-1759
Water Music60 minsOrchestral, baroque style
Rhythmic
Easy - moderateA collection of three suites, sometimes not all suites are included, or not all pieces in all suitesA complete version (I think!)5/14/20
Holst, Gustav
1874-1934
The Planets48 minsOrchestral, wide range of styles and moods for a large orchestraEasy to moderateSeven pieces depicting the classical meanings of the planets.

Jupiter and Mars are best know, then perhaps Mercury then Venus.
BBC SO, Boult A 1945 recording; Boult premiered the work in 1918 under the composer's guidance.5/25/20
Holst, Gustav
1874-1934
St Paul's Suite13 minsSmall string orchestra,Easy to moderateWritten for his students when Holst was teaching at St Paul's School in London.

Four easy movements. Note the appearance of Greensleeves in the final movement.

Try the last movement first, then maybe the first movement, then the second, then the third.
New York Classical Players5/25/20
Mendelssohn, Felix
1809-47
Concert Overture - The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave)11 minsOrchestral
Rhythmic, melodic
EasyWritten after he visited Scotland and took a boat tour to Staffa, the site of Fingal's Cave. He said he was immediately inspired to think of the opening theme of this lovely light piece.Wikipedia information

London SO, Gardiner
5/14/20
Mendelssohn, Felix
1809-47
Incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream55 minsOrchestral
Rhythmic, melodic
EasyIn total, 14 pieces of music for orchestra including a couple with women's voices.

Amazingly, he wrote the overture when he was 17, then 16 yrs later wrote the rest of it.

The Wedding March is very well known. All the pieces are lovely and light.

Often presented in an incomplete set of pieces rather than the full 14 pieces.
Wikipedia entry
Berlin PO, Ozawa
5/14/20
Mozart, Wolfgang A
1756-1791
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K.52519 minsString orchestra
Very rhythmic
EasyA popular (perhaps Mozart's most popular of all pieces) and easily enjoyed brief four movement work, similar to a miniature symphony, perhaps.

Originally written for 2 violins, viola, cello, and optionally double bass, now usually performed by larger string groups.
Vienna PO strings, Karl Bohm5/21/20
Mozart, Wolfgang A
1756-1791
Overture to The Marriage of Figaro4 1/2 minsOrchestral,
light, mercurial
EasyThe entire opera is probably Mozart's most approachable and easily enjoyed opera, and his overture sets the scene.

It is an easy bubbly piece that rushes along.
Vienna PO, Mariss Jansons5/21/20
Mozart, Wolfgang A
1756-1791
Symphony No.40 in g, K.55028 minsOrchestral, symphonyEasyThe second to last of his symphonies, this was made into a piece of popular music in the 1970s.

Chances are you'll recognize the first movement main theme as soon as you here it.

A traditional four movement symphony.
Boston SO, Bernstein5/21/20
Mozart, Wolfgang A
1756-1791
Symphony No.41 in C, K.551, "Jupiter"33 minsOrchestral, symphonyEasy - moderateMozart's final symphony pushes the envelope of his classical style, and clearly provides a springboard for later composers. It was his longest symphony, and is generally considered as one of the greatest of the entire classical period.

It is astonishing to compare its much richer harmonies (especially in the final movement) and fuller orchestration to that of one of his much earlier symphonies.

You might have to build your way to conquering this piece, picking out first your favorite movement, then adding another, another, and then getting all four under your belt.
Vienna PO, Wolfgang Sawallisch - A conductor not often associated with Mozart. What an amazing classical and precise German style "stick technique" though.5/21/20
Parry, Sir Hubert
1848-1918
Jerusalem3 minsChoral
Uplifting, triumphant
EasyHymn-like tune, one of England's most treasured songs full of bold national pride, almost an alternate national anthemYouTube5/14/20
Prokofiev, Sergei
1891-1953
Classical Symphony No.1 in D, op 2514 minsOrchestral - short symphony. Loud, exuberant, boisterous.Easy to moderateThere's a raw edginess and freshness - almost but not quite dissonance - to Prokofiev's music that makes it stand out.

This piece was written "in the style of Haydn" and for a classical sized orchestra, but with very modern harmonies, and almost as a caricature or joke. It is hard not to break out laughing.

It rushes along at a breakneck speed (the 4th movement in particular is sometimes taken at max speed), but is "jolly good fun".
London SO, Gergiev - Gergiev in a hurry in the last movement.

Munich PO, Celibidache - a fascinatingly slow rendering, interesting in contrast.
5/28/20
Ravel, Maurice
1875-1937
Bolero15 minsOrchestral, very rhythmicEasyWell known hypnotic piece with a single tune repeated with different instruments, with greater accompaniment and lushness.Excellent notes
London SO, Gerviev (conducting with a toothpick?)

Munich Phil, Celibidache - slower but still hypnotic. Celibidache is sadly a much overlooked conductor.
5/14/20
Ravel, Maurice
1875-1937
Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartetChamber music
Unusual instrument group, slightly unusual and ethereal sound and harmonies, made so rich by the harp
ModerateThis is an interesting piece of music that you sort of just listen to to hear the tonal qualities; it doesn't have any great tune that you leave humming or whistling to yourself.

Maybe you'll like it, maybe you'll find its tonality a bit off-putting.

Ravel was asked (paid) to compose this by a harp manufacturer, hence the unusual instrument grouping.
2014 concert5/14/20
Schubert, Franz
1797-1828
The Erlking4 minsLieder - baritone with piano accompaniment
Terrifying
AdvancedAs a parent, this is the most terrifying piece of music I have ever heard, because of the tale it tells of a desperate father racing with his young child to safety, while being pursued by the Erlking - ie, Death - who is trying to steal his son.

The starkness and terror in the music matches the bleakness of the words.

This song is similar to a Harry Potter dementor - it will overwhelm you, emotionally, and perhaps not in a good way.
You absolutely should read about Goethe's poem and the music here before listening to it

Fischer-Dieskau, Moore The legendary pairing of these two consummate artists can never be equaled
5/23/20
Schubert, Franz
1797-1828
Trout Quintet, D 66738 minsChamber music
classical/romantic style
Lyrical
ModerateWell known, unusually in five rather than four movements. The fourth movement is a set of variations on an earlier piece he wrote "Die Forelle" (The Trout).

Maybe try the 3rd or 4th movement first, then the other, then the 1st or 5th movement, then the other, and the 2nd movement last.
Great YouTube version with the score and excellent notes

Stunning ensemble of biggest-name performers
5/14/20
Schubert, Franz
1797-1828
Rosamunde incidental musicvariesOrchestral
Rhythmic, jolly
Easy to moderateThe complete music lasts an hour and is seldom played, the popular pieces are the Entr'actes, two ballet music parts, and overtureYouTube5/14/20
Schubert, Franz
1797-1828
Unfinished Symphony D 759, (number 8)30 minsOrchestral
Very lyrical first movement, slow alternately wistful and bold, second movement
Easy to moderateTwo movements completed (usually symphonies have four), hence the name.YouTube5/14/20
Schumann, Robert
1810-1856
Carnaval, op 9Piano - light, brisk and brightModerateA series of 21 short pieces said to represent revelers at a pre-Lent carnival ball. Some thematic connections between each of the pieces.

Chances are you might like some of the pieces more than others. But give it time and you might end up liking them all.

Requires considerable virtuosity to play well.
Notes about the piece

Daniel Barenboim
5/14/20
Schumann, Robert
1810-1856
Piano Concerto in a28 - 36 minsConcerto - piano
Melodic
ModerateSchumann wrote a lot of piano music, and four symphonies, but only one piano concerto.

It is one of the most popular in the world, often paired with the Grieg piano concerto.

In typical three movement form. All are great.
Barenboim, Munich PO, Celibidache5/19/20
Strauss II, Johann
1825-1899
Die Fledermaus (The Bat)1 hr 45 minsOperettaModerateIf you're thinking of trying out opera, this operetta is perhaps a good starting point. It is full of good tunes, and a light-hearted "feel good" plot.

You might find some pieces more approachable than others. Maybe try some sort of suite or "highlights" compilation to start with.
Notes

Great cast
5/14/20
Strauss II, Johann
1825-1899
Emperor Waltz11 minsOrchestral - waltzEasyWritten to commemorate a meeting of the German and Austria-Hungarian emperors in 1889. Its title tactfully could apply to either or both emperors.

This is a consummate classic Viennese/Strauss waltz with a twist. Listen to the introduction - count the beats. ONE two three, like a waltz? No! Four beats!

Astonishingly, Strauss starts off a waltz with an in-your-face burst of 4/4 time (technically 2/2 but never mind) then a searing long melody line still in that time signature before a transition and into the main series of waltzes.
Berlin PO, Barenboim5/14/20
Strauss II, Johann
1825-1899
(On the Beautiful) Blue Danube Waltz10 minsOrchestral - waltzEasyThe best known waltz, ever? Quite possibly, and probably deservedly so.

Actually a collection of waltzes all linked together (like most waltzes are).
For many of us, it is impossible to hear this without thinking 2001 - see the link to that scene on the right. I also sung it many years ago (words were added subsequently).
The scene from "2001" that featured part of the waltz. As stunning today as it was back in 1968.

Vienna Phil, Barenboim
5/14/20
Strauss, Richard
1864-1949
Four Last Songs (Vier Letzte Lieder)23 minsVocal, orchestral accompanimentAdvancedRichard Strauss wrote much of his best music for the soprano voice. These four last songs, written shortly before his death, took things to an entirely new level however.

Each song is very different. They are usually performed in a different order to their composing dates, but the revised order feels best.

In the third song, when Schwarzkopf re-enters after the orchestra and solo violin interlude (letter E in the score, "Und die seele unbewacht" and soars up to a high A-flat, I spent a five figure sum, 35 years ago, getting this to play correctly free of distortion. It was money well spent.

This is not "quiet background music". It is not even cheerful. It is overwhelmingly emotional and powerful. Do not listen if feeling unhappy.
Schwarzkopf, Berlin Radio SO, Szell - there are many versions of this available, this is unquestioningly the ultimate sine qua non5/19/20
Vaughan Williams, Ralph
1872-1958
The Lark Ascending16 minsOrchestral
With solo violin
Relaxing, tranquil, gentle music
EasyConsistently voted the most popular piece of music in BritainLovely commentary about the piece

YouTube
5/14/20

 

Table Notes

 

The Four Buttons above the Table

We’ve added four new table management buttons above the table.  Try them to see what they do, and here are some explanatory notes if needed.

Column visibility allows you to hide any of the columns if you wish.   When you click the button, a drop down list of the different columns appears.  Click to turn off (or on again) any columns you wish to hide or re-reveal.  This can make it easier for you to see just the columns you want on the screen all at the same time.

CSV and Excel allow you to export all the table data to either a CSV or an Excel file.  The only limitation I’ve noticed is that you lose the links to outside sides (ie the YouTube links), but everything else seems to work well.

Print allows you to print the document out – either electronically as a PDF or to a regular printer.  I recommend, if you do this, to change the paper orientation from portrait to landscape, and then it looks very nice.

Information about the Data in the Table

In the Piece column, I show major keys in capitals and minor keys in lower case.  So “Eb” is “E flat major” whereas “c#” is “c sharp minor”.

Also in that column, you’ll sometimes see I include opus numbers (usually abbreviated as “op”) when there is a standard numbering system and perhaps to avoid ambiguity or to help identification.  In addition to opus numbers, sometimes you’ll see another number preceded by an abbreviation – this is in cases where there has been a separate formal cataloging of a composer’s works.  Sometimes, to make things even more complicated, more than one authoritative cataloging exists (the works of Domenico Scarlatti, in particular, come to mind).  But no need for the complications unless you wish to become a scholar yourself.  Just click the links to enjoy the pieces.  🙂

The Approx(imate) Length of a piece can vary depending on whether the piece of music is played in full, or only in part.  For example, maybe instead of a complete collection of several dozen pieces of music for a ballet, there is a suite with half a dozen highlights.  Maybe instead of a complete symphony, there is just one movement featured.

In addition, there are often some parts of a piece of music that are repeats of earlier parts of the piece, and sometimes these repeats are featured, and sometimes omitted.  Strauss waltzes are filled with repeats, and different conductors include all, some, or none of them.  In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the first 1 minute and 40 seconds (plus or minus a bit) of the opening movement should be repeated, but many conductors don’t.  In his last piano sonata, the length can vary from 20 minutes to 40 minutes depending mainly on which of the repeats the pianist plays.

The other big variable is the speed at which the music is played.  Surprisingly perhaps, even though some composers were as careful as to specify exactly the speed in beats per minute the music should be played at, some conductors choose to ignore that and go faster or slower, sometimes to an astonishing degree of variation.

That’s not to say it is necessary to exactly follow the composer’s metronome markings on his music.  Sometimes composers left them out and a copyist or editor added them, or perhaps the composer made a mistake and just wrote down what he thought might be a good speed but never actually checked it with a metronome, or maybe it was intended as a suggestion rather than a rigid “you must play the music at this speed” imperative.

The point here is not to get too hung up on the length of the piece and never think that there is an exact perfect speed.  I cite lengths more so you have a general idea of the duration of the piece – whether it is 2 minutes or 2 hours, for example – and so you can see if perhaps a version you are listening to is the complete work or just excerpted parts of it.

The Level column indicates my suggestion about how easy and approachable the piece of music is.  Note also that if this refers to a piece of music in multiple parts (or movements in some cases) there is likely to be wide variation between the parts, with some much more readily enjoyed than others.

The quality of the sound on some of the YouTube links is very disappointing, especially if you’re listening through headphones or high end speakers.  Good music is easiest to appreciate when its sound quality is good, too – that has been a painful and costly journey of discovery for me over the years, some time I’ll tell you about the five seconds of Richard Strauss music that cost me the better part of $10,000 to reproduce perfectly through my sound system (and, no, it isn’t the first section of Also Sprach Zarathustra – that is easy).

If you are interested in the music when hearing it through the YouTube links, there’s really nothing better than buying the music on CDs and then ripping it to FLAC format to listen through your preferred digital music player.  If you download music files from online sources, be careful what quality level they are.  Ideally they should be in FLAC format.  Failing that, MP3 either 320 kbps CBR or highest quality VBR.  Much less than 256 kbps and the quality starts to become perceptibly degraded.

The Links are generally to performances on YouTube, and sometimes to information about the music.  I’ve tried to identify good YouTube performances, but it is difficult – many of them have poor audio or poor video (or both).  And the ones that have interruptions randomly occurring for advertisements are terrible!

If you see PO or SO in the descriptions, that refers to Philharmonic Orchestra or Symphony Orchestra.  So LPO and LSO would be London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra, for example.

The Added column can help you see what new pieces I’ve added.  Click the up/down arrows beside it to sort by date and see what new delights might be awaiting for your enjoyment.

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