When it comes to most-listened-to musical genres pop music is still king. But the music we now refer to as "classical" was actually sort of the pop music of its day. Even as late as the mid-twentieth century classical music was hugely popular with a large segment of society. That's no longer the case. There are, of course, young and middle-aged fans, but largely, we have relegated classical music to the past or worse—we've made it acceptable only as background music. So what? Why should you even try listening to it again? I believe that if you don't like classical music it's because you were likely exposed to it the wrong way, and therefore, you are missing out on something wonderful. To truly enjoy classical music I believe you need to focus on three things—your listening environment, your listening posture, and your listening content.
First, let's define our terms. When I say "classical music" I'm referring to the music most associated with orchestral instruments. This music was originally developed to be enjoyed live as there were no recording devices available. In many cases, the music was the main event. It was meant to be the focus of the entertainment, not incidental to it. So the first thing I think we're doing wrong with classical music today is listening to it in the wrong environment.
You don't have to be listening to it live to enjoy it, but you do need to be listening to just the music. Listening to an orchestral suite by Elgar in your car, for example, almost guarantees you won't like it. You won't hear half of what was intended by the composer because classical music recordings, unlike some other genres (I'm looking at you, pop), aren't compressed so that everything is super loud. There are huge differences in dynamics within most orchestral pieces, and if you're listening along with road noise you can forget hearing those subtle parts. If you can get out to a live concert, I highly recommend it. Just be sure it's not an all Mozart jamboree. Barring a live venue, I recommend you use quality headphones or speakers and make sure you are not distracted by other things. That leads me to the next point.
Listening with good acoustics is important, but your listening posture is crucial. By listening posture I don't mean whether you're sitting up straight or not. Rather, are you actively engaged in the listening or is it just passive hearing? There are elements in classical music that demand some focused attention. The more effort you put into listening, the more you get out of it. Sure you can relax to classical music, but that's not normally what was intended by the composer. They intended to communicate something to you the listener. One of my favorite ways to listen is by watching videos of orchestral performances. The sound quality on YouTube may not be quite as good, but seeing the musicians perform adds an extra layer of understanding to what is happening in the composition. The important thing here is to make the music your focus. Listen for themes, listen for the development of those themes. One of the magical things about this genre to me is that it speaks to the emotions and the intellect through the use of thematic devices. In much of orchestral music there are no lyrics, but that doesn't mean the music isn't communicating. In fact, the absence of lyrics allows for a transcendent form of communication that confounds the use of language.
Finally, the medium you employ for listening to the music is important. Actively listening is critical, but probably the most important factor to whether you enjoy the music or not is the content of your listening. Not every classical piece has to be enjoyed equally to say that you like classical music. Said another way, I don't like Mozart symphonies very much, and I majored in classical music. That's okay. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was famously not a fan of Mozart either. There are so many composers and so many styles within classical music. Find what you like. Just because I like rock doesn't mean I like every rock band. Similarly, Mozart might all sound like the same snoozy stuff to you, but you could stumble upon a composer that speaks to you like no other. At the end of this article I will post some recommendations to get you outside of the Bach, Beethoven, Mozart bubble of classical music. (For the record I love both Bach and Beethoven and I enjoy the occasional Mozart piece.)
So why should you try classical music again? Imagine someone gave you a copy of an amazing book or movie, but you only looked at the cover? You might see some interesting artwork or an intriguing summary of the plot. But you would have completely missed the point of the art itself by not enjoying it fully in the way it was intended. I think listening in the right way and to the right music opens up a world of beauty and depth of emotion that can enrich your life in ways you might not have thought possible. It may be that classical music will never speak to you the way other genres of music do, but I've seen living examples of people who gave it another try and would never go back.
Here's a list of pieces I recommend that might help you find music that suits your tastes. I've included modern living composers as well. Let's not forget that classical music is still being written. If you don't like any of these, try searching for a Spotify playlist in the Classical or Modern Classical genres.
Edward Elgar - Nimrod from the Enigma Variations
Samuel Barber - Adagio for Strings (this has been used in movies so it might sound familiar)
Johannes Brahms - Rhapsody in B Minor for piano
Philip Glass - String Quartet No.3 Mishima VI
Frederic Chopin - Ballade No.1 in G minor for piano
Johan Sebastian Bach (I couldn't resist throwing in a Bach piece)- Organ Sonata No.4 Andante transcribed for Piano
Max Richter - On the Nature of Daylight
Gustav Mahler - Symphony No.2 Movement 4
Sergei Rachmaninoff - Prelude in C Minor (not C# Minor. That one is fine too, but overplayed.)
Sergei Prokofiev - Piano Concerto No. 3
Stella Sung - Rockwell Reflections (she was also my composition teacher at university)
Claude Debussy - Children's Corner Gradus Ad Parnassum