Maestros, minuets, and Mozart have taken center stage as the main characters in numerous books about classical music. European composers began the classical period in 1750 to rebel against the strict rules of ornate Baroque music. Classical music edged away from predecessors with contrasting themes, balanced rhythmic patterns, and homophonic texture. Music evolved its structural clarity with sonatas, symphonies, operas, and concertos. Classical music’s “Golden Age” lasted until the early 20th century with notable composers like Beethoven, Bach, Verdi, Haydn, and Handel. Although classical music has declined recently, the fat lady hasn’t sung for this treasured art form.
Books about classical music are growing in numbers to recapture and revive the genre’s minimalist melodies. Their pages are artistically arranged to depict the lives of composers behind some of history’s greatest masterpieces, such as “Symphony No. 5” and “The Four Seasons.” Books about classical music use the written word to channel the happiness, joy, sorrow, and melancholy that each key modulation evokes. Reading about classical music could even relax fans enough to lower stress and blood pressure like listening does. Perhaps the “Mozart Effect” will also raise your IQ a tad. So consider the following 50 books about classical music in between trips to the concert hall.
#1 – The Rest Is Noise
Alex Ross’ Critics Circle Award winner tells the cultural history of the 20th century through music. From pre-WWI Vienna to Roaring Twenties Paris and Stalin’s Russia, the narrative follows classical music’s rippling influence through mass culture. Ross connects major and minor classical pieces to the century’s human dramas that birthed them. The acclaimed book swirls tones and timbres to disprove claims that the Western art is vanishing.
#2 – The History of Classical Music For Beginners
R. Ryan Endris (Author), Joe Lee (Illustrator)
The History of Classical Music For Beginners is a readable, illustrated guide where novices can easily nurture their interest. Colgate University professor R. Ryan Endris begins in ancient Greece to depict the philosophers’ earliest mathematical roots for music. Chapters then progress through Byzantine chant to the Renaissance to portray classical music’s conception with insightful trivia.
#3 – Music and the Middle Class: The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris and Vienna Between 1830 and 1848
Published in 1975, Music and the Middle Class was a trail-blazing nonfiction novel focused on examining the role the European bourgeois played in classical musicology. William Weber’s volume studies how social classes affected the creative composition process primarily from 1830 to 1848. Great attention is given to the development of concert halls from England to Austria.
#4 – Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Classical Music: But Were Too Afraid to Ask
Darren Henley and Sam Jackson
This 224-page reference guide provides the perfect start for newbies who don’t know an orchestra from an operetta. Henly and Jackson are a dynamic duo for steering readers through the basic terminology, history, and etiquette of classical music. The book’s three sections are packed with fascinating tidbits about the key figures whose sheer brilliance shaped the genre.
#5 – Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value
Praised in The Economist for its “heartfelt and finely reasoned appeal,” Julian Johnson’s 2002 novel defends the value of classical music in contemporary society. The author supports his argument that classical music is a supreme art that embodies individuality, freedom, and self-identity better than any other. Readers are encouraged to reflect on their own investment or depreciation in the vulnerable cultural form.
#6 – The Lives and Times of the Great Composers
British author Michael Steen penned this mammoth, 992-page resource to survey the classical music period from Handel to Strauss. Each chapter frames the too often tragic biographies of the era’s leading composers. Readers traverse 350 years of European history by studying the brilliant, yet flawed minds of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and more. Insights into the political and social milieu surrounding each musician are also given.
#7 – Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music
Tim Lihoreau channels comedian Stephen Fry to present a riotous, rambling romp through classical music history over 700 years from the Mongol invasion of Russia to modern day. Audiences follow an unedited musical journey through the beloved works of Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Wagner, and more. Along the way, historical references like the Black Death and Louis XVI scandal are haphazardly thrown in.
#8 – Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music
Mozart in the Jungle burst into the literary market in 2005 as the controversial memoir of Blair Tindall, a Grammy-nominated oboist. Unlike most books about classical music, it recounts a decades-long professional career in today’s New York City scene. From hangovers to sexual favors, Tindall provides a glaring behind-the-scenes look into the Broadway pit to portray the lives of working-class musicians.
#9 – The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide
Belonging to the Listener’s Guide series, The Concerto is a concertgoer’s dream book about over 120 works ranging from J.S. Bach to John Adams. Michael Steinberg compiles musical notes he’s written for the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. In doing so, he captures the dramatic contexts through which these wondrous concertos were composed. Readers expand their repertoire beyond Beethoven with Liszt, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Sibelius, and more.
#10 – Draw A Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young
Deemed the “Patriarch of the Minimalist Movement,” La Monte Young is perhaps one of the most mystifying, elusive composers of the 20th century. For nearly 50 years, Young partnered with Marian Zazeela to compose revolutionary works in his Tribeca loft. Now Jeremy Grimshaw shares his research on Young’s life and influence on figures like Andy Warhol.
#11 – The Insider’s Guide to Classical Recordings
Loyal fans of Jim Svejda’s weekly radio show The Record Shelf may not know he’s written one of the best-selling books about classical music. In his entertaining, irreverent style, Svejda recommends his favorite CDs for hundreds of classical compositions. While singing the praises of renowned artists like Mozart, the insider’s guide also introduces unsung composers like Henze and Syzmanowski.
#12 – Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters
Desiree Bradford Scarambone and Bernardo Scarambone
As Book 1 of the Memory Palaces for Young People series, this short, illustrated nonfiction work introduces children aged 7 and up to classical music. Within 36 pages, the Scarambones teach youngsters about 14 of history’s most famous composers. Readers will learn the names, nationalities, and best works for masters like Gershwin and Schumann.
#13 – Classical Music For Dummies
David Pogue and Scott Speck
Classical Music For Dummies is a simple, humorous guide that helps newbies build playlists with recordings that define orchestral beauty. Pogue and Speck collaborate to survey the basics of instruments and compositions to better understand what made groundbreaking classical works shake the musical world. Readers also become acquainted with the stories behind the genre’s most popular figures from Haydn to Bach.
#14 – The Lives of the Great Composers
Harold C. Schonberg
Since its release in 1981, The Lives of the Great Composers has become a trustworthy resource for lay readers to gather biographical information on classical music’s foremost figures. Harold C. Schonberg weaves rich, fact-based anecdotes on composers from Monteverdi to serialist Stockhuasen and tonalist Philip Glass. Recent editions also include the rare stories of female composers like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Cecile Chaminade.
#15 – Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide
Oxford’s highly successful series continues with Chamber Music, a genial guide to 192 admirable works composed for string quartets and other small ensembles. James Keller, a prestigious ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award winner, blends captivating biographies with in-depth musical analysis to illuminate 56 classical composers. From Bach to contemporary figures like Steve Reich, the book astutely enriches the audience’s listening experience with surprising insights.
#16 – Beethoven
As the leading authority on Beethoven, Maynard Solomon penned this 554-page, full-color pictorial biography to hail the classical composer’s masterpiece career. Born in Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven had his musical talent nurtured by Joseph Haydn. By 21, his reputation as a virtuoso pianist grew as his hearing deteriorated. Solomon accounts Beethoven’s personal and family struggles while highlighting the 700+ works that pioneered music’s transition to the Romantic era.
#17 – The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2012
Featuring over 1,400 pages of reviews, The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2012 is the ultimate listening companion for revering old favorites and finding new pleasures. James Jolly, the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief, authoritatively provides thousands of classical recommendations to suit every taste. From Zemlinsky to Schoenberg and Faure, the guide allows audiences to fill gaps in their classical collections with accompanying CD recordings.
#18 – Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works
Phil G. Goulding
Who was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina? Why did Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” provoke pandemonium? How is a sonata different than a symphony? These are just a few questions answered by Phil G. Goulding in this fun, user-friendly guide. Readers will also discover rankings of the top 50 composers, CD recommendations, a musical glossary, and detailed biographies.
#19 – The Oxford History of Western Music
Musicologist and UC Berkeley professor Richard Taruskin’s five-volume set of books about classical music won the coveted R.R. Hawkins Award. Featuring 500 illustrations, this easy-to-navigate tome offers an unmatched chronicle of musical affairs from the early 16th century to today. Taruskin inputs brilliant observations on the culture, politics, literature, and religion to create a panoramic context for each compositional period.
#20 – The Ultimate Classic FM Hall of Fame: The Greatest Classical Music of All Time
Darren Henley, Sam Jackson, and Tim Lihoreau
Three Classic FM directors collaborated to build a countdown for the 300 best pieces of classical music. Aficionados will discover delightful stories, recordings, and illustrations for every chosen piece to capture the greatness of each moving refrain. Rated with five stars on Amazon, this ultimate book provides a treasure trove of composers from Prokofiev to Schubert.
#21 – The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music
Tim Smith, the Baltimore Sun’s music critic, adds to the NPR Curious Listener’s series by presenting the essentials of the classical music genre. Along with a detailed history of the art form, Smith includes a brief biography and 50 CD recording recommendations for each featured composer. Classical music buffs will also learn more about noteworthy performers like Maurice Andre and landmark compositions like “Appalachian Spring.”
#22 – Dvořák: His Life and Music
With two bonus CDs, Dvořák: His Life and Music traces the lifetime of one of Romanticism’s most celebrated composers. Born in Nelahozeves near Prague, Antonin Dvořák was already an apt violinist by age six. Inspired by the folk traditions of his rural Bohemia homeland, Dvořák began crafting masterworks for the Austrian Prize competition. By 1878, he became the second Czech composer of international fame with his legendary “Slavonic Dances.”
#23 – The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide
Another of Michael Steinberg’s books about classical music is The Symphony, an exciting guide to the revolutions of sound and form that shaped the symphony’s history. Each of the 118 entries provide general introductions to symphonies in the repertory of America’s leading orchestras, including nine from Beethoven. From Brahms to Bruckner and Mahler, readers learn to listen with enlivened interest in symphony composition.
#24 – Johannes Brahms: A Biography
Jan Swafford’s biography on the “New Messiah of Romanticism” is packed with insights on his extraordinarily productive career. Born in mercantile Hamburg, Johannes Brahms got his start playing piano in dockside taverns among prostitutes. But by 1868, Brahms gained European fame with the premiere of “A German Requiem,” his largest choral composition. Swafford further explores Brahms’ relationship with Clara Schumann, rivalry with Lizst, and friendship with Dvořák.
#25 – What Makes It Great?: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers
For 20 years, music commentator Rob Kapilow has entertained audiences with his What Makes It Great? series on NPR. Now comes this book of short individual masterpieces spanning two centuries to beautifully portray the classical style. Kapilow details the musical genius of great composers, including Vivaldi, Schubert, Puccini, and Tchaikovsky. Astute analyses on popular pieces like “Prelude to Tristan and Isolde” are also included.
#26 – How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart (Great Courses)
Professor Robert Greenberg is one of the most trusted names behind books about classical music. In How to Listen to Great Music, the musicologist presents an engaging course on how music has mirrored Western history. Audiences learn how to listen for minuets, sonatas, concertos, madrigals, and other elements that enliven classical music.
#27 – Haydn, Mozart, & Beethoven: Studies in the Music of the Classical Period
Published in 1999, this collection immaculately presents 19 essays from an international group of distinguished musicologists to honor Alan Tyson. Under Sieghard Brandenburg’s editorship, outstanding academicians like Maynard Solomon, Cliff Eisen, Neal Zaslaw, and Lewis Lockwood share their scholarly works. There’s also a complete bibliography of Tyson’s writings for more books about classical music.
#28 – The Vintage Guide to Classical Music: An Indispensable Guide for Understanding and Enjoying Classical Music
Over 500 years of musical history is eloquently captured in Jan Swafford’s “The Vintage Guide to Classical Music.” Essays are chronologically arranged to detail the personalities, opinions, and challenges for a hundred composers. From Machaut to Copland, informative entries will clarify the classical music movements from the 1300s on. Beginners will also appreciate the glossary of musical terms like homophony and cadenza.
#29 – Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time
Nicolas Slonimsky proves that classical music doesn’t have to be dull with this hilarious, irascible book titled Lexicon of Musical Invective. Quotes from eminent reviewers like George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Virgil Thomson are compiled into a critical attack on classical music. Prominent musical figures over 200+ years from Beethoven to Strauss fall victim to the pessimistic judgments.
#30 – Classical Music: A Beginner’s Guide
As a Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, Julian Johnson crafted Classical Music: A Beginner’s Guide to encourage students to explore over 1,000 years of musical history. The slender text investigates how classical music has transformed in-line with movements of the Western world. Johnson particularly points out how classical music’s spirituality and emotion remain relevant today.
#31 – Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization
Temperament tells classical aficionados the often untold history of musical composition. From ancient Greece, legendary thinkers like Plato, Galileo, and Descartes regarded the arrangement of musical notes as a crime against God and the universe’s nature. Historian Stuart Isacoff portrays the art world’s quarrels through the adoption of a modern tuning system that made Beethoven and Chopin possible.
#32 – Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music
Angela Myles Beeching
Budding music entrepreneurs can benefit from reading the real-life success tips given by veteran mentor Angela Myles Beeching in Beyond Talent. Unlike most books about classical music, this 400-page guide examines the careers of composers and musicians only to help readers jumpstart their own. Beeching lays out step-by-step instructions for promoting, networking, auditioning, and performing your way to the limelight.
#33 – The Essential Canon of Classical Music
The Essential Canon of Classical Music was written by David Dubal in 2003 as a handbook for struggling listeners. More than 240 composers are identified in chronological order to promote readers’ understanding of classical music. Dubal goes beyond traditional canons to introduce little-known works by greats like Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms. The uncommon collection nurtures new master listeners for the deteriorating genre.
#34 – Why Beethoven Threw the Stew: And Lots More Stories About the Lives of Great Composers
Perfect for children from second grade up, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew is an entertaining read that brings the biographical portraits of six notable composers to life. Cellist Steven Isserlis offers witty descriptions of the bristly Brahms, shy Schumann, mischievous Mozart, and more. Beautiful illustrations truly exhibit the unique personality of each composer.
#35 – The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art
Historian Tim Blanning travels spectacular distances past most books about classical music by showing musical triumphs from Plato to Elton John. Blanning elegantly explores the influential role of music on radically changing religious, political, social, and even technological conditions like the iPod’s emergence. Readers are taught how music progressed from lowly peasant status to supremacy centuries later.
#36 – Mahler (Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers)
The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers series features a well-researched biography on Gustav Mahler from Edward Seckerson. Raised in Bohemia, Mahler pursued his musical gifts at the Vienna Conservatory. By 1897, he became conductor of the Vienna Court Opera to perform the stage works of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Readers witness Mahler’s evolution into a leading late-Romantic composer during the terror-filled Nazi era.
#37 – The Big Book of Classical Music: 1000 Years of Classical Music in 366 Days
Darren Henley, Sam Jackson, and Tim Lihoreau
Classic FM musicologists Henley, Jackson, and Lihoreau collaborated again to publish The Big Book of Classical Music as the ideal coffee table companion in 2014. This illustrated guide highlights noteworthy events in the classical music genre over one year. From Bach’s birthday on March 21st to Mozart’s death on December 5th, the timeline pinpoints the milestones every aficionado should know.
#38 – Secret Lives of Great Composers: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the World’s Musical Masters
Elizabeth Lunday (Author), Mario Zucca (Illustrator)
Ear-pleasing masterpieces are often the target for books about classical music. However, Elizabeth Lunday’s Secret Lives of Great Composers accounts the seamy, scandalous lives behind the masters of international music. Readers learn unforgettable tidbits about first-rate composers, including Wagner’s alleged cross-dressing fetish, Bach’s brief imprisonment, and Cage’s fascination with fungi.
#39 – Classical Music Insights: Understanding and Enjoying Great Music
From symphonies to operettas and ballets, Classical Music Insights provides a commendable overview of 200 renowned compositions. Betsy Schwarm, a Colorado music historian, intermingles anecdotes about each piece’s composer and most impressive performances. Readers venture into the history of the crème of composers, including Liszt, Strauss, Mozart, and Holst.
#40 – What to Listen for in Music
Enormously popular since the late 1950s, Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music offers an engaging, jargon-free guide for developing greater appreciation for music. Whether listening to Mozart, Elvis, or Madonna, Copland argues that people miss valuable aspects of music. Therefore, the composer teaches novices to detect the melody, rhythm, harmony, and tone color for hearing everything conveyed in song.
#41 – Why Classical Music Still Matters
Fordham professor Lawrence Kramer published Why Classical Music Still Matters in 2009 to outline the demise of the genre. Kramer sharply observes the factors in today’s media-driven world that have threatened its viability. Then, the chapters drum up advocates by affirming the value of classical music and disproving centuries-old prejudices. Kramer’s prose-poetic style succeeds in connecting the harmonization of humanity and technology to music.
#42 – More Classical Music Insights: From Mozart to Muhly and More
Another of Betsy Schwarm’s books about classical music was recently released in 2014 to provide behind-the-scenes insights for 220 more compositions. From the active table of contents on, readers are drawn into the stories of men and women who crafted some of classical music’s most revered pieces since the Renaissance. Also consider checking out her other book, Operatic Insights.
#43 – The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection
National Public Radio’s Ted Libbey created an indispensable, 536-page guide for readers to build a basic classical repertory. Offering hundreds of recordings, the book informs new listeners about the essential symphonies, concertos, operas, and chamber pieces for any CD collection. From the “Brandenburg Concertos” to the “Magic Flute,” Libbey ensures novices don’t miss a beat.
#44 – Roots of the Classical
Peter Van der Merwe
South African musicologist Peter Van der Merwe published Roots of the Classical to trace how the origins of Western popular and classical music are interlinked. Readers begin viewing the development of classical music in a different light with Oriental and African influences. From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, Van der Merwe explores the evolution of classical tonality in terms of modes, scales, and harmonies.
#45 – Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
Everyone readily recognizes the names of Mozart and Beethoven, but what about Francesca Caccini and Clara Schumann? Well, Sounds and Sweet Airs can change that. This engrossing read shares the stories of prolific female virtuosos who have been dismissed in musical history. British author Anna Beer delves into the unique motivations and struggles faced by women in classical music.
#46 – John Williams’s Film Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style
John Williams is arguably one of the most accomplished composers in cinematic history. With 49 Oscar nominations, Williams’ critical acclaim was sung from distinguished scores for Indiana Jones, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and other blockbusters. This acclaimed novel surveys Williams’ neoclassical style and epic career in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
#47 – A Short, Easy Guide to the Great Classical Composers
R. D. Meyer
This simple, 40-page book combines articles written for the esteemed World Book: Organized Knowledge in Story and Picture. Essays are combined to portray the lives and masterpiece works of 30 classical composers, including Handel, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Bach. Available in physical or Kindle edition, the book gives readers a starting point for their journey into classical music.
#48 – Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
Jan Swafford’s compelling biography peels away the layers of a classical music legend who sparked Romanticism. From Enlightenment-era Bonn to Vienna, audiences traverse the career of Ludwig van Beethoven and his most iconic music. Despite heartbreak, rejection, mental anguish, and encroaching deafness, Beethoven excels as Europe’s predominant musical figure. The book’s 1,000-plus pages paint the portrait of the man behind “Ode to Joy.”
#49 – The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
As the 1972 National Book Award winner, The Classical Style focuses on the lives and compositions of the three prodigies who forever changed music with the Viennese School. Charles Keen draws from his rich research on these luminaries to show how Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven shifted away from the High Baroque Style. The most recent edition adds a CD of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and an updated 14-page preface.
#50 – Concerto Conversations
Including a 68-minute CD, Concerto Conversations offers an insightful, enthusiastic survey of the concerto repertory. Joseph Kerman writes perceptive commentary on how concertos model human relationships between solo instruments and orchestras. From the cherished pieces of Mozart to undervalued works from Prokofiev, Kerman captures the spirit of concertos in classical music.
Whether you’re a classically trained instrumentalist or avid listener, these books about classical music provide unique perspective on the various facets that made the period so influential for over 250 years.