Whether you’re looking for instrumental music to inspire you or you’ve heard classical music is good for the brain, we’ve got some of the best classical songs of all time for your playlist. The famous tunes below may sound familiar and for good reason. These powerhouse compositions are the soundtrack of entertainment ranging from cartoons to dramatic movies.
From well-known favorites, like Für Elise, to songs you didn’t know you know, like Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2, here are 21 of the best classical compositions we could find.
1. Für Elise – Beethoven
A favorite of piano students and teachers alike, “Für Elise” is one of the first classical compositions people learn to play. Its pop sensibilities resonate with modern listeners, and its range over the piano makes it look harder to play than it is.
An iconic favorite of classical music enthusiasts, it makes this list because it’s also well-known by people who couldn’t tell you whether it was Bach or Beethoven who was deaf.
2. Canon in D Major – Pachelbel
Love it or hate it, Pachelbel’s “Canon In D Major” creates a line in the sand amongst classical music lovers. A favorite for high school graduations, weddings, and other events, this is also an ace in the sleeve for piano teachers, and you’ll be likely to hear it at any recital.
The sweeping, thematic sounds of this song are catchy and easy to move to, which is one reason it may be so popular in many circles.
3. Moonlight Sonata – Beethoven
The emotional rhythms of “Moonlight Sonata” bring the magic out of the simple keys of a piano, especially when the song is played by a master. Anyone familiar with classical music will likely recognize this song within a few bars, even if the pianist stumbles a bit.
The impressive mood of the piece is evocative, and piano players of all levels enjoy trying to master part or all of this tune.
4. Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 – Chopin
As with the other famous classical music on this list, Chopin’s “Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2” is easily recognizable, and while the average person might not know the technical name, they know they’ve heard it before.
The existential mood of this piece is deep beneath the originating light piano sounds. Listening or playing it through is akin to the feeling of accepting that your clothes are soaked by the rain while you’re out, but you must keep walking to your destination anyway.
5. Hungarian Rhapsody, S. 244, R. 106, No. 2 – Liszt
We’d say this is technically substantially better than Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but we know music tastes are subjective. This song showcases Hungarian folk influences on Liszt. Don’t expect this one to pop up at children’s or beginner’s recitals, as it’s extremely difficult to play in the solo piano form.
There’s also an orchestral version, which may be familiar to readers. Like a lot of the best classical songs of all time, it’s been used a lot to provide background mood and context in cartoons.
6. The Four Seasons – Vivaldi
A far cry from Frankie Valli’s vocal group, this piece of music is a violin ode to the ever-changing year. It takes listeners on an auditory journey through spring, summer, fall, and winter.
When Vivaldi published the concertos in the 1700s, he included a series of sonnets with them. This was not a usual practice during that time; his sonnets gave more context about what seasonal spirit he was trying to evoke in his music for each part of the year.
7. Clair de Lune – Debussy
This romantic piano song is one of the most famous classical music pieces of all time. You’ll find it making appearances in a range of movies, including “Twilight.” There’s a good chance if a leading man or lady in a story sits down at the piano to show off some skills, they’re about to play “Clair De Lune.”
Debussy, an Impressionist composer, started writing the song before he was 30. The finished music didn’t reach publication for another 15 years. The piece is relatively easy to play on the piano, so this is another one you may recognize from children’s recitals.
8. Boléro – Ravel
Listeners may immediately recognize Ravel’s “Boléro” as soon as they hear the tin-tin march of the drums being played. The familiar drums are soon joined by wind instruments as the piece builds to an eventual dramatic flourish.
This is another one that was commonly used in cartoons, but the simple emotional beats that are snagged in bits and pieces to back animated characters show the overall complexity of the piece. Ravel purposefully started with simple sounds and built on them, adding orchestral complexity to the song as it goes.
9. Toccata & Fugue D Minor, BWV 565 – Bach
Modern listeners might swear this piece comes straight from Dracula’s castle. The blame for that can be laid, once again, at the feet of cartoons, as the ominous organ music from the beginning of this song has often been used to create a bit of tension as cartoon rabbits or ducks make their way up to a spooky house on a hill.
“Toccata & Fugue D Minor, BWV 565” is composed to be played on the organ, which is one of the few facts that can be agreed on. Scholars are otherwise in disagreement about when the piece was published and if it was even written by Bach.
10. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – Mozart
If you haven’t recognized a piece of music from cartoons yet, this one is likely to be the one you do. It shows up as background music in many animated shorts, especially when the characters are engaging in some dramatic (but also silly) battle of wits or skills.
The name of the piece means “A little night music” in English, and Mozart composed this piece for a chamber ensemble. That meant it could be played in people’s homes for small gatherings or balls as background or inspirational mood music for an event.
11. Ave Maria – Schubert
Schubert composed “Ave Maria” as part of a group of songs designed to set the themes of Walter Scott’s “The Lady Of The Lake” poem to music. At some point, this tune became the star of the show and one of Schubert’s most famous pieces. It’s often sung or used in movies today.
12. Ride of the Valkyries – Wagner
If you’re looking for a piece of classical music you can ride all the way to the finish line—of your current workload, your pile of laundry, or an actual race—Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” is the one. The song crashes out of speakers or headphones with a triumphant sound before carrying the listener on an adrenaline-filled audio journey.
Most people have only heard this piece in instrumental form, but it’s actually part of an opera and does have a vocal accompaniment.
13. The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Act II. No. 13 Waltz Of The Flowers – Tchaikovsky
If there’s a sunrise in an old cartoon, it’s likely to be accompanied by the very beginning of this piece. Also called “Waltz Of The Flowers,” this song is part of the magical Nutcracker ballet. Tchaikovsky’s music is known by many who otherwise aren’t interested in classical music or ballets in part because this tune is a favorite for the Christmas season and dance recitals.
14. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Tchaikovsky
The “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy” is as well-known as the previous Tchaikovsky entry on this list, due in part to the aforementioned popularity of The Nutcracker.
But if you know this song, have never seen a ballet performance in your life, and can’t put your finger on why the tune is so familiar, it may be that you played the classic Tetris video game when you were younger. The beginning of this song is sampled for the anxiety-inducing music in that game, which gets faster the longer the blocks drop.
15. Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20: scene: Enchanted Lake – Tchaikovsky
Three Tchaikovsky’s in a row? If we’re being honest, we could have filled this list of the most famous classical music entirely with his compositions alone. His ballets are well-known still today, and many of the songs are used for dance recitals and other events. You’ll also recognize bits and pieces of music like the “Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20: scene: Enchanted Lake” because it’s often sampled and worked into new scores for movies and television shows.
16. Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 – Strauss
If the first part of this song has you thinking about the vastness of space or imagining the doors of a spaceship opening, you’re not alone. That’s because Stanley Kubrick took the fanfare from this piece and used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, ensuring modern audiences would forever associate the slam of its tones with stars and planets in orbit.
However, the piece goes on much beyond Kubrick’s sample, and it’s worth giving a new listen to without the sci-fi impressions.
17. The Art of Fugue – Bach
Looking to listen to a piece of classical music that won’t evoke zany cartoon characters in your memory? This piece by Bach is actually from the Baroque period; listening to it, you can concentrate on hearing all the different versions of the melody acting together to create the overall harmonic piece.
18. Symphony No. 5 – Beethoven
If you watched any Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, this one’s going to bring those storylines back to you. Sorry, it’s not us—classical music is just too good at evoking the right emotions, and animators couldn’t keep their hands off it.
Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music you can run across, but it’s also powerful. Put this one on your playlist if you need a quick pick-me-up in the middle of the day.
19. Gymnopédie No. 1 – Satie
We break away from cartoons here with a piece that many readers will recognize from Minecraft. This hypnotic, slow piano song by Satie is the perfect rainy-day vibe, and we think it should come with a warning that you may mellow out and forget to complete your to-do list. Pair this one with hot cocoa or wine and a few warm blankets as you sit near the fire.
20. Jazz Suite No. 2: VI. Waltz 2 – Shostakovich
And we’re back to songs you may recognize from animated classics again. This brings you up and down the way only Russian creatives can, so we definitely don’t recommend it if you’re looking for mellow fire-side vibes.
21. Caprices, Op. 1: No. 24 in A Minor – Paganini
Paganini’s violin composition makes this list for one reason: pure virtuoso vibes. Better add this one to your digital playlist, because you’ll only ever see it performed live (and well) by the best violinists in the world.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.