Five simple ideas to improve your enjoyment of classical music

Photo: Listening to music

The more you know, the more fun it is to listen. But you don't have to take a college course to increase your enjoyment.

Here are five simple ideas an older musician told me many years ago as an introduction to the music. I still find them useful.

1. Remember Mozart. He is one of a kind. He has at least one masterpiece in every genre, is an endless fountain of melodies, and makes the complex sound simple. His piano concertos are some of his greatest achievements and are also an introduction to his first love: opera. It's easy to imagine a soprano singing those piano melodies.

Beethoven arrived a few years later and kicked open the door to two centuries of adventurous personal expression that continues to this day, so it is easy to forget Mozart's deceptively simple-sounding genius. That's why “remember Mozart” is good advice.

2. Get a good reference book that's fun to read and keep it handy. One of my favorites, "The Rough Guide to Classical Music," has brief bios and suggests major works and great recordings. No matter how long you've been listening to classical music, something new will catch your eye each time you open it.

3. Play listening games. Here's a good one. It works particularly well with chamber music, but will do wonderful things to any piece. When the music starts, pick just one instrument and put your entire focus on it. The music will become three-dimensional in a whole new way for you. Try it out with this J.S. Bach piece:

This one is a little tricky because the trumpet player starts and stops in several places. It's still fun to see if you can concentrate on just one melody line and notice how it affects the way you hear the piece.

4. Get a pair of headphones. Earbuds work too, but good headphones are even better. You will hear subtleties, especially in orchestral music, that you didn't when the music was coming out of your stereo speakers and floating around your living room.

And finally, perhaps the most important suggestion:

5. Keep listening. Go back to the acknowledged masterworks again and again. Like all great art, they reveal their treasures slowly and provide a lifetime of enjoyment.

It took me several years to fall in love with Brahms' four symphonies. Unlike most composers, Brahms waited until late in his life to write them, so each one is an expression of a mature master craftsman. The third movement of his Symphony No. 3 is an example of his ability to write a gorgeous melody that expresses longing with no trace of self pity.


One last thought. Although learning about the music and approaching it in different ways is rewarding, in the end it's lifelong discovery, enjoyment and fun that matter most.

As Igor Stravinsky said, "The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music. They should be taught to love it instead."

Richard Ray hosts Morning Mozart weekdays at 9 a.m. on CPR Classical.