For years I’ve been using classical music, especially film scores, for various purposes — relaxing, studying, and evoking feelings of inspiration or wonder, to name just a few.
I even have a playlist on Spotify called “Creative Thinking” that’s all classical music, probably with a bit too much emphasis on the Lord of the Rings score:
Because I believe that the more you understand something the more deeply you can enjoy it, I decided I wanted to learn more about this powerful art form. But I wasn’t sure where to start.
So I got in touch with my friend Tommy, that childhood friend who was always busy on Sunday mornings doing his violin exercises.
I asked him for some advice about how to systematically self-learn the fundamentals of classical music.
That and some other research led me to design this step-by-step roadmap for learning classical music primarily through online courses, books, and your Spotify or Apple Music account.
Whether you want to listen more intelligently to the music you already love or get started on a path toward becoming a self-taught classical musician or composer, this guide is a good starting point. It’ll help you get your intellectual bearings.
1. Learn How to Listen Actively to Classical Music
When you read a book actively, you pay close attention to what the author is doing. You note the key points, the climaxes, and the impressive turns of phrase.
The best classical musicians and scholars do something similar when listening to classical music. Sometimes, instead of letting the music wash over them, they listen actively.
Inside the Score says that classical music is closed off or boring to many people simply because they haven’t learned how to listen to it.
He uses the analogy of reading Shakespeare to explain what he means. Many people find Shakespeare boring, but that’s not because Shakespeare is a poor writer. The student just doesn’t know how to approach his writing style. They need to be taught how.
To learn how to listen to classical music, check out this series from Inside the Score:
This series should give you a solid grasp of how to listen to classical music. After reviewing the series, it’s time to take an intro course.
2. Take Yale’s “Intro to Classical Music” Online Course
Yale’s free online course, Intro to Classical Music, will teach you about rhythm, melody, texture, and how classical uses these elements to impact a listener.
The course also traces the development of music from the middle ages through the classical and romantic periods all the way to the present day, so you’ll learn a lot about music history.
You can access the course through the Coursera platform, which will help you track your progress. The course itself comes with quizzes, readings, and, of course, lecture videos.
3. Start Listening to Classical Music Regularly
I use classical music like medicine. When I’m demotivated or homesick, I’ll put on the Lord of the Rings film score. When I’m feeling uninspired, I’ll listen to something quick like
When I feel numb and hurt, but just can’t get that blockage to let out my emotions, I’ll listen to something that moves me to tears.
But I also make it a daily part of my routine. I like to listen to it in the shower, or on long walks. I find it aids in daydreaming.
Pick some part of your day where you think listening to classical music will fit in, whether that’s to help you read in the morning or relax at night.
By listening regularly, and practicing listening actively, you’ll become better at feeling the moments of majesty in the pieces. You’ll become better at crying and smiling and dreaming.
What Music Should You Listen to as a Beginner?
If you don’t know what to listen to, consider picking your favorite film score. You already have emotional connections to these films, so it’ll be easier to feel the power of the music that accompanies those tragic and breathtaking scenes.
Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Howard Shore are always fanatics. Some of my favorite scores are Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Interstellar, and Dead Poets Society.
Hilariously, or at least that’s how my friends felt, three out of my five most listened-to songs in 2022 were from The Lord of the Rings trilogy score:
If you really love film score songs from your favorite movies, consider trying out some of the great classical musicians, like Bach or Beethoven. I’m particularly fond of Tchaikovsky.
As for songs, Canon in D, Nocturne Op.9, No.2, Beethoven’s Für Elise, and Le Grand Cahier never fail to move me:
These masters and canonical pieces might be a little harder to appreciate at first, but over time you’ll come to see why their works are so often referred to as masterpieces.
Be Patient With Your Love, Let it Develop
It’s important to know that you might not “get” a lot of classical music at the beginning. Over time, just through listening regularly, your ear will become more trained to the tropes and conventions of the art form, and you’ll start to enjoy it more.
I experienced this process not just in classical music, but also in reading history. When I first started studying long history books, I felt like they were slow, dry, and filled with too many facts.
It was only after about a hundred hours spent reading dense history books and trying to read them well that my brain started to enjoy them.
Some might mistake this as torturing my brain into submission. It might’ve been a bit of that, sure, but it was mostly just a positive effect of my increasing skill level. We tend to like the activities that we’re good at doing.
Through consistent practice, I started to become better at picking out the key concepts, retaining them, and connecting them to other concepts I’d learned. And because of this, the reading was just more fun.
4. Self-Study The Fundamentals of Music Theory
Music theory studies the concepts and techniques that composers and other musicians use to create music. Scholars attempt to answer questions such as “Why does this piece make us feel happy?” or “How is the composer using pitch to create this effect?”
Though it’s a deep and complex field of study, a basic understanding of music theory can be attained in a matter of weeks.
Among other topics, students in a music theory 101 class learn about keys, scales, rhythm, and melody, and how they’re all related. Students also learn to read sheet music.
To learn the basics of music theory, you have a couple of options.
Read an Intro Book on Music Theory
You could start with this book music theory 101:
This book is meant for absolute beginners and will teach you how to read sheet music, identify and organize keys, and other essential skills and concepts for both aspiring musicians and people who just want to understand how music works.
A book is a good primer, but without sound, it can only do so much for your classical music self-education.
Take a Music Theory Online Course for Beginners
To take your learning to the next level and really train your musician’s ear, consider taking a course where a professor will actually play classical musical examples to illustrate the techniques they discuss.
The online course Understanding the Fundamentals of Music is a great place to start. In the 16-lecture course, Robert Greenberg, Ph.D. in Music Composition at UC Berkeley, walks you through the basics of music theory.
He teaches timbre, tempo, meter, pitch, intervals, and melody. In other words, he teaches you the fascinating language of music.
Students seem to love his passion and knowledge for the subject:
After reading the book and taking an online course on music theory, you should have more knowledge about how music works than about 99.9% of the people who listen to it on a daily basis.
5. Attend Live Classical Music Performances
At this point in your self-directed studies, you should be ready to go to a symphony orchestra concert hall, sit through a 2-hour long classical music performance, and actually enjoy yourself, if not shed a couple of tears.
Do a quick Google search to locate the concert halls and upcoming shows near you. Tickets are usually on the cheaper side, especially when compared to those of pop music concerts.
Now, why should you attend a live performance instead of just listening to it on your speaker while you fry an egg or scrub your armpits in the shower?
Well, there’s something special about sitting in a concert hall with no distractions. It’s a different kind of experience. The acoustics are loud and sweet and the sounds reverberate off the walls into your soul.
Throw in the fact that it’s a shared experience with other people, and you have yourself an energizing experience that some might even call spiritual or awe-inspiring.
Also, it’s a reason to get off your ass and try something new. I still go to the movie theatre for similar reasons.
Oh and one more thing — watching a full-length performance of classical music allows you to experience how the composition was meant to be consumed.
6. Start Learning a Musical Instrument
If you want to get yourself into an intense learning cycle, consider picking up an instrument and playing it in the classical style. This could be violin, cello, clarinet, piano, or guitar.
Learning an instrument and playing it in the classical tradition is not only a whole lot of fun, but it will also force you to deepen your knowledge and appreciation of classical music.
Because I already knew how to play guitar and wanted an easy A, I took a classical guitar class in college. I ended up absolutely loving it.
I was floored by the beauty of the music I could create through finger-picking and loved the fact that the songs needed no lyrics to be fun for an audience to listen to (I suck at singing).
7. Create a Self-Directed Listening Curriculum
I’m a big fan of reading plans to learn new subjects, where you read the most influential works in the field. A similar approach can be used to expand your understanding of classical music.
You could compile your list of classical pieces in a couple of ways:
- Explore Your Favorite Composer: If there’s a composer who really grabs you by the throat and shakes you violently with their melodies, pay homage. Listen to their oeuvre.
- Follow an Authoritative List: Consider using a list like the 100 greatest classical music works and work your way through the whole thing.
- Choose a Time Period: If you love the Baroque period, for example, listen to the most influential works in that classical music period.
Whenever you listen to a piece in your curriculum, pay attention to the music and practice the active listening covered in step one.
Also, consider reading what music scholars, musicians, and critics have written about these famous works of classical music. Perhaps even write down your own thoughts on a blog or a YouTube channel.
Bottom Line: Continue Studying Classical Music
Now that you know the basics of classical music, you should have a good idea about your interests in the field. The next step would be to pursue further self-education in those topics or skills.
If that means mastering a musical instrument or learning more about music theory, go right ahead.
Who knows, you could be the next famous composer if you really work at it. The world is open to us autodidacts in ways we sometimes can’t even fathom.
Whatever you decide to do, continue supporting the wonderful, hard-working musicians and concert staff by attending live performances and downloading classical music.
And, lastly, if you’ve caught the learning bug and want more DIY guides for various subjects, from English literature to economics, I encourage you to check out the self-education roadmaps section of the website.