home | site map | about us | contact us
Getting Started
Top 10 CDs
Top 20 CDs
Top 10 by Composer
Top 10 by Era
Top 10 by Genre
Top 10 Books
CD Buying Guide

Top 10 Books About Classical Music and Classical Music Recordings

While we belive that the best way to learn about classical music is to listen to it, there are some books that greatly enrich the learning process. We have recommended our favorite ten books below. Our list contains two different types of books: (1) books about some aspect of the history of music, whether it be a composer biography, discussion of a particular genre or style, or a general reference work, and (2) guidebooks that review and recommend classical music recordings. Both types will be useful as you build your classical music CD collection, for you will want to learn more about the context of the music you're hearing, and someday (far in the future) you will want to learn what recordings to buy beyond those on our lists.

View our Top 10 Classical Music CD and MP3 recommendations

Read our Classical Music CD and MP3 Buying Guide

1 The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010 -- Ivan March, et al.
The most comprehensive classical CD guide. Review...
2 The Lives of the Great Composers -- Harold Schonberg
The history of classical music through the eyes of the greatest masters. Review...
3 The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection -- Ted Libbey
Reviews and recording recommendations for 350 essential works. Review...
4 A History of Western Music -- J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Grout, Claude Palisca
The standard reference for music history from ancient times to the present day. Review...
5 Beethoven -- Maynard Solomon
A definitive biography of the great composer. Review...
6 The Insider's Guide to Classical Recordings -- Jim Svejda
An irreverent and highly opinionated guide to hundreds of CDs. Review...
7 Opera 101 -- Fred Plotkin
A beginner's guide to learning and loving opera. Review...
8 The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2011 -- James Jolly
A comprehensive guide to recordings. Review...
9 Concerto Conversations -- Joseph Kerman
Examining the entirety of the concerto repertoire. Review...
10 The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven -- Charles Rosen
Insightful explanations of the three giants' music. Review...


The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010
by Ivan March, Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton, and Paul Czajkowski, Penguin Books, 2009

The Penguin Guide is the granddaddy of classical music CD guides. It contains hundreds of composers, both major and minor, and thousands of reviews of recordings. The Guide has dozens of reviews for all of the major works, which is a boon for the connoisseur but may make it difficult for the beginner to choose only one. To make things a little easier, the latest edition features not only the Guide's trademark "Rosettes," which indicate particularly special recordings, but also a list of "Key Recordings" that novices can use to start a collection. The Guide is essential for anyone looking to expand his or her collection beyond the basic repertiore.

Similar works: NPR Guide, Insider's Guide, Gramophone Guide
The Lives of the Great Composers
by Harold C. Schonberg; 3rd Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., 1997

Harold Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers is a great introduction to the forty or so men who have had the greatest influence on classical music. All of the major figures get a chapter on their lives and works. Taken as a whole, the book presents four hundred years of classical music history. Schonberg's style is vivid and compelling, and no musical expertise is required.

Similar works: Top 10 CDs by Composer, Beethoven Biography
The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection
by Ted Libbey; 2nd Edition, Workman Publishing, 1999

This guidebook is aimed at the person who knows something about classical music and wants to expand his or her collection. It contains brief biographies of all the major composers, and detailed descriptions of the 350 most important works, with recommended recordings for each. The guide is indispensable for someone looking to move beyond the works featured on Classical CD

Similar works: Penguin Guide, Insider's Guide, Gramophone Guide
A History of Western Music
by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald J. Grout, and Claude V. Palisca; 8th Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., 2009

This classic reference work is the standard university textbook for courses on the history of Western music. Beginning with Greek, Roman, and medieval music and continuing through the most recent developments in Europe and America, the book describes in detail each era of music history, including in-depth examinations of the most important composers' lives and works, explanations of developments in musical style, and summaries of external conditions such as wars and religious movements that influenced music. Novices most familiar with the Classical and Romantic eras may be disappointed that nearly half the book covers the period before 1750, but those who read it will discover that the early years were just as interesting as more recent times. The book does contain some musical examples and technical terminology, but the untrained reader won't miss much. In the newest edition, J. Peter Burkholder has updated Grout and Palisca's classic text, placing more emphasis on social and historical trends that have affected music history.

Similar works: Top 10 CDs by Era
by Maynard Solomon; 2nd Edition, Schirmer Books, 2001

Maynard Solomon's biography on Beethoven is the best recent biography of the composer and a first choice for anyone who doesn't feel like wading through Thayer's immense classic. In an elegant, readable style, Solomon takes many different angles on the composer -- historical, psychological, sociological, and musicological -- as he traces Beethoven's life and music. Reading this book will help both the trained scholar and the musical novice understand the great composer and his music.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven CDs, The Lives of the Great Composers
The Insider's Guide to Classical Recordings
by Jim Svejda; 6th Edition, Prima Lifestyles, 1999

Jim Svejda's classical recording guide is subtitled "A highly opinionated, irreverent, and selective guide to what's good and what's not," and indeed the book lives up to this billing. Svejda has been broadcasting classical music on the radio for more than 25 years, and he has built up an impressive knowledge of recordings. While he never claims to be objective (e.g. "I have always had a blind spot when it comes to Vivaldi"), his reviews are hilarious and informative at the same time. Even if you don't agree with Svejda's recommendations, just reading the reviews gives the classical music lover a wealth of knowledge about composers, performers, and conductors. Sadly, the sixth edition has gone out of print, but there are plenty of used copies available to hold you over until the next edition arrives. (Note: if the sixth edition is available only at unreasonably high prices, the fifth edition might be a better bet.)

Similar works: NPR Guide, Penguin Guide, Gramophone Guide
Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera
by Fred Plotkin; Hyperion, 1994

Fred Plotkin's Opera 101 is the best beginner's guide to opera on the market today. The first three chapters offer an introduction to opera, including its history, terminology, and what you need to know to be an informed listener. In the remainder of the book, Plotkin takes the reader through eleven famous operas in detail, describing what to listen for in each. Though it helps to have a recording of each opera playing as you read the book, there is much to be gained even if you read in silence. Plotkin's style is both engaging and accessible.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera CDs
The Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2011
by James Jolly; Gramophone Publications, 2010

The Gramophone guide falls somewhere between the Penguin Guide and the NPR Guide in the continuum of classical CD guides. It includes nearly as many composers as the Penguin Guide, but reviews fewer works for each composer and fewer recordings for each work. The reviews are helpful and clearly indicate which is the recommended recording for each work.

Similar works: NPR Guide, Penguin Guide, Insider's Guide
Concerto Conversations
by Joseph Kerman; Harvard University Press, 1999

Originally given as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1997-98, Joseph Kerman's six "conversations" range freely over the whole concerto repertoire, treating both the general and the particular. According to Kerman, concertos model human relationships, and his description of the stages of the concerto brings this metaphor to life. The best part of the book, however, is Kerman's detailed analyses of particular concertos (including Mozart's 20th Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto), which offer fresh insights into these memorable warhorses. The book also comes with a 69-minute CD of musical examples, especially appropriate from a man who believes that music appreciation should be "less talk and more music."

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
by Charles Rosen; 2nd Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., 1998

Winner of the 1972 National Book Award, Charles Rosen's The Classical Style discusses the music of the three great composers of the Viennese Classical School: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Written in an eminently readable style and filled with insight after insight, Rosen's book offers an excellent argument for why the music of these three composers has become the standard by which all subsequent music is judged. The one caveat for the beginner is that the book contains many musical examples, so the book hold far more meaning for those who can read musical notation.

Similar works: Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Haydn, Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Beethoven