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How to Start a Classical Music CD Collection

So you want to start listening to classical music, but don't know where to begin? It's a familiar story: many people are casually interested in classical music, but give up when confronted with the enormous selection of recordings currently available. To solve this problem, we have compiled top-ten lists of the classical music CDs that every beginner needs in his or her collection. The lists are organized in several different categories, so you can choose the music you're most likely to enjoy. We also have compiled a CD Buying Guide that tells you what you should look for when choosing classical recordings.

Get started now, with our Top 10 CDs List
Expand your collection, with our Top 20 CDs List

Our Philosophy

We believe that the best way to learn about classical music is to listen to it, and the best way to start listening is to build a classical CD collection. Given the profusion of bargain-priced CDs available today, building a classical CD collection does not have to be a budget-breaking proposition. In fact, you can buy all ten of the CDs on our Top-10 Classical CDs list for just over $100.

You'll find no "Classical Favorites," "Best of Bach," or "Mozart for Your Mind" on our lists. Why? Such CDs contain only fragments of the world's greatest music -- a single movement, or often only an excerpt from a movement. We believe that great music makes its statement as an entire work, and presenting anything less than the whole work trivializes the composer and insults the intelligence of the listener.

Why is acquiring CDs the best way for a beginner to learn about classical music? Consider the other options:

  • Books and Web Sites may tell you a great deal about the music and its composers, but no amount of words can evoke the feelings aroused by a stormy Beethoven symphony or a tender Schubert string quartet. However, you can (and should!) read books to supplement your increasing knowledge of music as you build your collection. Here are our recommendations.
  • Attending Concerts is very expensive. For the price of a ticket to the symphony, you can buy half the CDs on our Top-10 Classical CDs list. In addition, going to a concert hall is inconvenient, you have no control over the program, and the quality of the performance may be unpredictable. This is not to say that concerts should have no place in your life -- indeed, once you know a little about what music you like and what makes a good performance, classical concerts may be among your most sublime, moving, and memorable experiences.
  • Radio can expose you to music you haven't heard before -- up to a point. Most of today's classical music radio stations are tailored to the "Classics for Relaxation" market, which usually means boring pieces by obscure composers chosen to be unobtrusive as you wait for your dentist appointment. Our lists give you the most memorable pieces by the most important composers -- you'd have to listen to an awful lot of radio to hear all of them.

How to Use This Site

If you're starting from scratch, first take a look at the Top 10 Classical CDs. All of these CDs are sure-fire winners even for the beginner. Once you've enjoyed this list, you can extend your collection to the Top 20 Classical CDs.

Once you have the beginnings of a collection and know a little more about what you like or don't like, use our categorized lists to find classical music similar to your favorites -- or jump into a new area entirely. For example, if you enjoy Franz Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet, you might check out our Romantic, String Quartets, or Schubert lists; you might hear Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 and thereby discover a deep passion for twentieth-century music. Or you may listen to Schubert's Winterreise and fall in love with German lieder. The possibilities are endless.

About our Top-10 Classical Music Lists

One of the best aspects of classical music is its enormous variety. The pieces on our Top 10 lists are carefully chosen so that everyone will be able to find something enjoyable. The lists contain the best works from every genre (symphony, string quartet, piano sonata, etc.), from all of the most famous composers, and from various time periods and national styles.

But our lists do more than just recommend pieces to buy -- we also describe which of the dozens or hundreds of available recordings we think are the finest. We have spent hundreds of hours comparing recordings, and for each piece we recommend a specific recording based both on quality of performance and on price. When you're starting out, there's no need to buy the best Unfinished Symphony recording ever at $18 if the second-best one is only $6.99. (Eventually you will want the $18 CD as well, but that time is far off.)

Our reviews and recommendations are entirely independent, and are not influenced by any of our sponsors or affiliates. With all our expertise at your fingertips, you're bound to find classical music you love at a price you can afford. Happy listening!

Get started now, with our Top 10 CDs List

Read our Classical Music CD Buying Guide