A Guide to Enjoy Classical Music (3/3): Techniques for Advanced Listeners


This is the third post in the series “A Guide to Enjoy Classical Music”; the first two posts dealt with A.) Getting Motivated and B.) Enabling an Easy Entry to Classical Music

If you’re fortunate enough to have access to classical music, and willing to “invest” a bit more time and effort to explore it further, some of the following ideas may provide some inspiration:

1.   Take a Deep Dive I: Listen to the Piece Many Times Until You Know It Very, Very Well

Our familiarity with a piece seems to play a key role in how much we enjoy it. For example, if someone listens to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and they take the time to become well acquainted with the lyrics and melody, they are probably more capable of enjoying it.

What could be the reason for this? I’ve yet to learn a scientific explanation, but maybe it’s because we are more in sync with the piece, knowing what we can expect next and therefore we are inclined to feel more comfortable (i.e. reducing uncertainty and thereby meeting our basic need for security). Or perhaps a certain level of familiarity with the piece is required, allowing us to enjoy the anticipation for certain movements.1

Whatever the reason, for me the joy has always increased after becoming familiar with a piece.2 After listening to Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden for the first time, I instantly felt a connection to this piece. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it at that time; at least not to the extent it turned out to be enjoyable later.

So what’s the takeaway from this – rather well-known – observation? Maybe that we should keep this fact in mind and act accordingly; although obvious, I’ve caught myself several times abandoning a piece without having given it a fair chance, without actively listening to the work several times. I'm certain: the more familiar we are with music, the more rewarding it can be. So let’s give it a decent try – it will probably pay back nicely.

2.  Take a Deep Dive II: Learn More About the Piece

In addition to the above, we can also become familiar with music on an “intellectual level”. This includes all information which helps us to “rationally understand” the piece, i.e. :

o    Which musical era the piece belongs to

o    The circumstances surrounding its creation

o    What the composer intends to express with it  

o    Playing techniques used, why it is difficult to play, etc.

o    How interpretations of the piece can be different (slowly/faster played, more emphasis on certain notes, etc.) 

o    Particularities about special movements in the piece

o    Etc.

I never found this as important as the “emotional familiarity” achieved through re-listening as mentioned above. However, in some cases it can be useful, especially by trying to understand the intent of the composer, what he or she wanted to express with it; this may help us to connect it to the real world (so that we can make sense of it and don’t feel lost).

Jeremy Siepmann’s introduction to Beethoven’s "Pastoral Symphony” or the podcast “Starke Stuecke” (only in German but at least it’s free) are among the easily accessible resources which explain classical pieces with audio examples. I’m sure there are more. If you know of good ones please add in the comment section below!

3.  Take a Deep Dive III: Experience It Your Way… and Identify With It

The key to enjoying a piece is emotional connection. The proposed techniques 1 and 2 from above may help to do that, however there is also another level to this, which I like to call “identification”. This is going beyond feeling familiar with the piece (be it on an emotional or intellectual level); instead it is about making the “story” relevant to us.

It’s no coincidence that Benjamin Zander suggests to think of a personal relative who “is no longer there” when listening to Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 (referring to the video in the last post). By doing so, we give the piece a personal meaning, thereby allowing us to truly identify with it.

A possible suggestion could be to actively try to connect the piece to our world by looking for life associations. For example, we may ask ourselves which experience matches the music well, or we may try to find patterns which remind us of something in our worlds (i.e. when listening to the overture in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at 0:44-0:48, I picture a waterfall – maybe you see something completely different). It’s absolutely no problem if our associations are not what the composer intended with the piece; quite the opposite, they are likely to be stronger, and longer-lasting as we create them ourselves.4

4.   Try Out Something New

It’s tempting to stick with what we know (familiar = more joy) but that does not broaden our horizons; perhaps we should drill the landscape for new sources of happiness – they may become important once the existing sources have dried up (after being familiar with the pieces we may also experience diminishing returns at some point).5

An easy way to get inspiration is to see what people with similar tastes enjoy listening to. Ivotings.com, one of my websites with a whopping 43 registrants a couple of months of after going live – don’t miss the action -, provides users with an extended version of Amazon’s “Users who liked X also liked Y”, which can also be used for classical music pieces. Who knows, maybe ivotings finally proves to be useful for something.

For a bigger step, we should also think about experiencing entirely new genres. If you’re a symphony lover, why not consider giving chamber music a serious chance. Or, if you’ve only tried concerts so far, why not give opera a try? In case you already like, or love, Verdi and Puccini operas, it may be time to explore what Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman or Weber’s Freischuetz have to offer etc.

In this context, it may be worthwhile checking out CDs such as Jeremy Siepmann’s Introduction to Chamber music, or introductions to opera such as this one or this one.

5.   Take the Freedom To Do What the Piece Requires You To Do

Listening to music may appear as a passive activity at first, but it's not: it stimulates our brains, awakening emotions, inspiring us, creating pictures (sometimes even colours) and much more. It may also make us want to become physically active, which we can do by dancing, singing, tapping our foot on the floor, moving hands, or other movements (“the piece pushed me over” – again referring to Ben’s video in the last post).

Satisfying these needs for physical activity can enhance the enjoyment we get from listening to a piece significantly; that’s why I propose not to allow any pre-learnt inhibitions to prevent us from doing so (i.e. “What would other people say if they saw me moving like that?” – who cares? Everything that maximizes our joy is good as long as it does not come at the expense of others6).

For example, why not sing along with the music if you want to? Learn the lyrics (otherwise lalala is okay too), and give a stunning performance to your bathroom walls (they are docile listeners and won’t complain… trust me I know ;-)). Or, become a maestro in your mind and conduct Beethoven’s fifth, like Superintendent Skinner does in one Simpsons episode (sorry, forgot which one it was). Whatever it is, allow yourself to enjoy the piece, and let your emotions lead the way.

Incidentally, I believe one of the major drawbacks of attending live concerts are the restrictions: don't move, hum, or speak. These “social norms” impose strict rules when it comes to im “feeling and reacting” to the music. When attending a concert recently, I was fortunately able to stop myself from becoming too expressive; otherwise I’m sure the guys in the white shirts would have come and taken me to the padded cells… again. Hehe.

6.   Learn More Classical Music in General… or Start to Play an Instrument

Knowing more about classical music in general will certainly also help people to enjoy it more, although it is not as much a direct approach like the ones above.

Good sources for learning more:

o    Classical music for dummies (read it myself, nice and informative, but not suited for the newbie to find access to classical music)

o    Explanations of the orchestra’s instruments, either explained by Robert Levine and Meredith Hamilton (I have not tested it, but it has very good reviews) or by Yehudi Menuhin (very good, but in German)

o    Idiot’s guide to classical music (similar to the one for dummies above)

Of course, taking up an instrument is another good way to learn more about – and enjoy – classical music. Taking up an instrument helps us appreciate the work that goes into professional composition, and the commitment of musicians when performing a symphony. Also, playing an instrument comes with several more advantages (i.e. it keeps our brain challenged, we socialize with people, etc.) so if your time allows it, why not give it a try?

All these ideas are merely brainstormed7. I invite you to enrich this post by adding your comments below. How did you find the access to classical music? What methods help you to increase your enjoyment? Please share your experiences and make others benefit from them!

If you’ve read all 3 articles, I congratulate you on demonstrating so much stamina which may also prove useful in some of the not so-good concerts ;-). If you enjoyed reading these posts, please subscribe to my RSS Feed or Email newsletter


1) I.e. anticipating the “big bang” of a piece like in Strauss’ Thus spoke Zarathustra, or more moderate elements, such as the triangle appearance in Smetana’s Moldau.  This may also explain why people who remember classical pieces well are capable of enjoying it more as they get more value from anticipation.

2) I have heard of people who were “stunned” by listening to a piece the first time; However, this would be no contradiction to what has been said above, only if their enjoyment when hearing it for the second or third time was less (or the same) compared to hearing it for the first time. I assume this is rather unusual (correct?).

3) In other words, the “initial investment” required to get the joy out of the activity (explained in detail in the introduction to this series), does not only apply to classical music as a whole, but to every single piece. The difference is that advanced listeners are more aware of this, and are a little more patient than the ones who are just starting out.

4) Are therefore “creative” people, who can link musical movements to the real world, more capable of enjoying classical music?

On a side note, this may be similar to literature: very often books that allow many interpretations, so that every reader can “read the book his or her way” are successful (as many readers find their individual way to identify with it); it does not actually matter what the author’s original ideas were.

5) Getting to know new pieces is not only useful when we experience “diminishing returns” with the old ones; as different pieces stir different emotions in us, we may find a new piece that provides new dimensions of joy that the ones we already know did not.

6) Incidentally, if people truly like you they are supportive in maximizing your joy, so we should not be too concerned that they don’t want us to move freely to the music.  

7) Originally, this post was intended to be more than a brainstorming of factors that may facilitate the road to classical music, but a step-by-step guide that works for everybody. However, I found this hard to develop; this seems to be because a.) it’s not well understood why we actually like (classical) music, (on a fundamental level) and 2. People like different forms of classical music, making it difficult to propose pieces that enable entry for everyone. Therefore the above list is still a hit-or-miss approach only.

However, as our understanding of music enhances in the future (e.g. what it does in our brains, what moods it requires, for which types of people, which type of music) come new ways of leading others to the joy of classical music, and enhancing it for the ones who already enjoy it… which I very much look forward too! :-)  

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