Getting More Out of Classical Music

For a lot of people, classical music is intimidating. It can seem like music written by long-dead guys from other countries can’t possibly be relevant to our lives today. But it is! Much like looking at paintings, classical music is more fun to listen to once you know a bit about who wrote it, when, and what they were trying to say.

You don’t have to become an expert, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money. If you have the motivation, and a bit of spare time, you can learn a lot about the roots of classical music for free through online courses and other resources.

Craig Wright (photo courtesy Yale University)

One that I recently finished myself, and really enjoyed, is a free class available from Coursera called “Introduction to Classical Music.” It’s taught by Yale professor Craig Wright in an engaging style, full of animations and music clips. Wright’s course starts in the Middle Ages, and takes the history of music right up to the present. Along the way, you learn not only about how music itself changed over the centuries, but about the types of instruments used in different eras, and how the symphony orchestra itself grew and changed over time. While the course is mainly about classical music in the Western world, it includes some interesting comparisons with the musical traditions of the East.

Best of all, the class is made up of video lectures, ranging from about five minutes to about 20 minutes. There are optional quizzes you can take along the way, but the great thing is, there are no grades and no homework! Just enjoyment.

‘Maestro: Stories of the Great Composers’ is available to stream from Amazon Prime.

I found as I went through this class that I wanted to learn more about some of the composers who were touched on, so I began searching for documentaries on YouTube and other streaming services. This is really hit or miss. In some cases, I would bookmark multiple documentaries on a single topic, then watch the first minute or two of several before I came upon one that looked like it was going to hold my attention. So spending a bit of time on this will be ultimately rewarding.

In particular, I will recommend a great documentary series I found on Amazon Prime Video that covers Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Chopin called “Maestro: Stories of the Great Composers.” Each episode is a fascinating look about the life of the composer intermingled with musicians playing their work today, talking about how they perform it and what it means to them.

Robert Greenberg

The last resource I’ll mention are audio courses available from The Great Courses. I have listened to one so far, called The 23 Greatest Works for Solo Piano, via Audible. Many of The Great Courses are available through library streaming services, so I recommend you check with your local library before laying out any money!

The lecturer for the course I listened to is Robert Greenberg, whom, while being a renowned expert, is also irreverent and highly entertaining. He discusses the composers’ personalities and their lives and times, making it a course not only in music, but history, as well! The lectures were peppered with great piano music, too.

Greenberg narrates more than two dozen of The Great Courses in music, so if piano music isn’t your thing, there are lots of other topics to choose from.

So the next time you find yourself with an opportunity to check out a classical music performance, might I recommend that you spend a little time online, and do a little research before going? Watch a documentary about the composer. Check out some YouTube videos of commentary. I think you’ll be amazed how much a little free research beforehand will add to your enjoyment.

Header illustration credit:



Published by Rebecca Johnson

Writer and editor covering arts and culture in Austin, Texas and beyond.

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