10 Pieces of Classical Music Everyone Should Know

Unless you’ve studied music or played in an orchestra, much of your exposure to classical music is likely to come from film scores, adverts and perhaps a wedding or two. You may well not know when the pieces were written, much about who wrote them, or anything at all about what inspired them or why they sound the way they do. Yet just as understanding the historical context of a novel can make its story more interesting, so too can knowing more about the background of a piece of music make it more interesting to listen to.
We’ve included the top ten pieces of classical music that nearly everyone will have heard at some point, whether by seeking them out in performance, or incidentally at an event or on TV, and filled in some of the back story that you might like to know.

1. Johann Pachelbel – Canon in D Major (1680-1706)

Pachelbel’s most famous composition has become a favourite at weddings.

The oldest piece on our list is one of the best known, not least because of its popularity at weddings; where the traditional Bridal March can sound a bit slow and grim, Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major is sprightlier and happier-sounding. It didn’t actually take Pachelbel twenty-six years to write the piece, but its date of composition can’t be narrowed down to anything more precise than the second half of the composer’s lifetime. It’s been suggested that it was originally written for a wedding – that of Johann Christoph Bach, older brother of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was one of Pachelbel’s pupils.
One thing that’s particularly fun about the Canon in D Major is that its chord progression – I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V – has inspired or been ripped off by so much pop music that Pete Waterman has described it as “almost the godfather of pop music”. It appears in songs from ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ by My Chemical Romance to ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ by Oasis; so even if you don’t think you’ve heard this piece, you’ve almost certainly heard something that sounds a good deal like it.

2. George Frideric Handel – Water Music (1717)

The first performance of Handel’s Water Music was commemorated in this painting by Edouard Hamman.

Unlike Pachelbel’s Canon in D, we know exactly why Handel’s Water Music was written and why. In the summer of 1717, King George I planned an event consisting of a vast royal flotilla going down the river Thames – and Handel was commissioned to write music to accompany it. Handel rose to the occasion, producing a piece that worked on a grand scale, to be played by 50 musicians, a huge number at the time, and that would carry across the water too.
The piece is a three-part suite, including a Hornpipe in the second suite, which is a nod to the maritime setting as well as sending a political message. George I had ascended to the throne in 1714 on the death of Queen Anne, his second cousin. His claim to the throne was tenuous at best, as there were more than 50 people more closely related to Anne; George became the heir because everyone ahead of him in the line of succession was Catholic, and therefore barred from taking the throne. George was German and spoke little English, so including a traditionally English melody like a Hornpipe in Handel’s tribute to him may have been intended to convey George’s assimilation to his new country.

3. Johann Sebastian Bach – Air (1730)

Bach was the youngest son of a renowned musical family.

Johann Sebastian Bach is the best-known of an extraordinary musical dynasty; there were more than 50 musicians among his family members, including his older brother who studied with Pachelbel. Bach was hugely prolific; his Air is only one of many well-known pieces. It’s from his Orchestral Suites, and is now best known in the form of a late 19th century arrangement by August Wilhelmj, Air on the G String – in fact, that arrangement has become so popular that many arrangements refer to the piece as ‘Air on the G String’ even when the arrangement does not involve a violin playing the melody on its lowest string.
Just like Pachelbel’s Canon, Bach’s Air has been borrowed by pop musicians, specifically in Procol Harum’s 1967 anthem ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ (one of fewer than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide).

4. Ludwig van Beethoven – Ode to Joy (1822-1824)

The Ode to Joy in an instrumental form has become the anthem of the European Union.

The best-known part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, the Ode to Joy appears in the choral finale – the first time that a major composer had used voices in a symphony. The text of the Ode to Joy comes from a poem by Friedrich Schiller, which, as the name suggests, celebrates the power of joy in bringing people together and in Christian worship. The symphony as a whole is viewed as one of the greatest musical compositions ever written, and the Ode to Joy as its crowning part.
By the time Beethoven was composing the Symphony, he was almost completely deaf. At the first performance, it’s said that he was ‘conducting’ an orchestra that he could not hear and who had been instructed to ignore him. By the time the symphony finished, Beethoven was still conducting, and the contralto Caroline Unger had to walk over to Beethoven and turn him around so that he could see the five standing ovations that his symphony received. Over the course of the 20th century, the Ode to Joy has become not just a much-loved piece of music but a protest anthem – for instance, being broadcast by student protestors in the mass 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, as well as being adopted as the anthem of the European Union.

5. Gioachino Rossini – Overture to William Tell (1828-1829)

William Tell being ordered to shoot an apple on his son’s head, as depicted by Francis Bourgeois.

This is the overture to the last of Rossini’s 39 operas, drawing on the myth of William Tell, an expert marksman with the crossbow who was famously challenged to shoot an apple balanced on the top of his beloved son’s head. The Overture has four parts, painting a picture of life in the Swiss Alps: dawn, storm, the ‘call to the cows’ and the march of the Swiss soldiers. The transition from one part to the next, and the images they are intended to evoke, are quite clear even to people with limited familiarity with classical music.
This makes the Overture extremely accessible, but it also makes it somewhat overplayed. In particular, the final section, The March of the Swiss Soldiers, is used regularly in TV, radio and film to represent a cavalry charge or someone riding to the rescue, most famously as the theme music for the 1930s radio series The Lone Ranger, an association it still retains even among people who are much too young to have heard the series on its initial broadcast.

6. Richard Wagner – The Valkyrie: Ride of the Valkyries (1848-1870)

Valkyries in Norse myth choose who will survive a battle, and take the dead to Valhalla.

One of only a few pieces on this list that can rival the finale of the William Tell Overture for being overplayed in TV and film, the Ride of the Valkyries is the beginning of Act 3 of Wagner’s opera The Valkyrie (Die Walküre), which itself is the second of the four operas that together comprise The Ring of the Nibelung, also referred to as the Ring Cycle. Drawing on Norse mythology, this part of the opera shows the valkyrie Brünnhilde and her sisters preparing to carry fallen heroes to the afterlife in Valhalla.
The Ride of the Valkyries immediately proved popular as a standalone piece beyond the greater whole, which Wagner objected to, and from 1870 to 1877, Wagner banned the piece being performed except as part of the whole opera; he had initially wanted to avoid the opera being performed except as part of the complete cycle, but was forced to allow it at the insistence of his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Beyond TV and film, today the piece is also frequently heard in a military context; for instance, it’s the regimental quick march of the British Parachute Regiment.

7. Camille Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre (1874)

The danse macabre as depicted in a medieval painting.

Danse Macabre is a symphonic poem, a musical piece that tells a story or illustrates a non-musical source such as a poem or a landscape. This was a form that the composer Saint-Saëns was particularly fond of; he wrote four, modelled on their use by Liszt. Danse Macabre tells the story of Death appearing on Hallowe’en to call the dead from the graves to dance to his fiddle, until they are sent back by a cockerel crowing at dawn.
The piece is highly evocative, using the xylophone to create the sound of rattling bones; in his later Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns similarly had fun with these kinds of musical sound effects. Danse Macabre was used as the theme music for the mystery drama Jonathan Creek in the UK, and in one of the stand-out episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Hush’, where it plays to accompany part of the 27 minutes of the episode that occur entirely without dialogue.

8. Richard Strauss – Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Dawn (1896)

The Wanderer is a figure in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Another symphonic poem is Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which is based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s comedic philosophical novel, telling the story of the fictional travels and speeches of Zarathustra (named for the founder of Zoroastrianism, but in many ways the opposite of his namesake). The piece is in 9 parts, of which ‘Dawn’ is the first. It’s the best-known part of the piece; it was used by Elvis Presley as the opening piece of his concerts for the six years before his death, and then, unforgettably, as part of the soundtrack for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with which it has now become permanently associated.
In the film, ‘Dawn’ is used to accompany the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence at the start of the film, in which proto-humans first discover how to use tools. One of the interpretations of 2001 as a whole sees it as a commentary on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which is underlined by the use of ‘Dawn’.

9. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Flight of the Bumblebee (1899-1900)

The idea that bumblebees defy the laws of physics when they fly is a myth.

The Flight of the Bumblebee is an orchestral interlude in Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, appearing at the end of Act III, Tableau 1. The Tsar’s son, Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, has been magically transformed into a bumblebee so that he can fly away to visit his father, who doesn’t know that he is still alive. The piece is intended to evoke the random and chaotic way that bumblebees fly.
Alongside multiple uses in film and TV, the Flight of the Bumblebee is used for the Guiness World Record for the fastest guitarist and violinist. That means there are some astonishingly fast recordings out there, such as this successful world record attempt – be warned that although playing the piece in under 65 seconds is an impressive display of dexterity, it doesn’t result in an outcome that sounds particularly good.

10. Carl Orff – Carmina Burana: O Fortuna (1935-1936)

The Wheel of Fortune is a popular motif in medieval art and writing.

Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana sets to music 24 poems from a medieval collection by the same name (which contains 254 different texts in total). While the medieval Carmina Burana mostly consists of irreverent and satirical texts, Orff’s Carmina Burana is rather grander. O Fortuna is the opening and closing movement, exploring the ever-changing nature of fate and good fortune, and drawing on the medieval concept of the wheel of fortune where everyone’s experiences would cycle from good fortune to bad fortune and back again.
In 2009, O Fortuna was top of the list of the most-played classical music in the UK in the past 75 years. It’s been overused in film and TV as well – sometimes to add real emotion to a scene, but just as often because its high drama lends itself to satire, particularly in advertising, film trailers and reality TV. Unfortunately, it’s so overused that it’s hard to take the piece seriously as it was originally intended, though hearing it in the context of the whole cantata does help in perceiving it with the grandeur that Orff intended.

Images: wedding; Handel; Bach; EU flag; William Tell; valkyrie; danse macabre; the Wanderer; bumblebee; wheel of fortune; orchestra.