If you like playing or listening to classical music, you may already have your preferences. But it never hurts to see what others are listening to and picking up a new favorite or two.
Read on for a list of famous works from the Baroque era to the 2020s, solos to full orchestra pieces, and more; these are the best classical songs of all time.
1. “Cello Suite No. 1” by J.S. Bach
Song Year: 1717-1723
The prelude from this cello suite is one of the most recognizable melodies of classical music. It's highly technical but also possesses some lyricism within the large leaps. This work has become so enduring that musicians have given their own spin on the piece by playing it on instruments other than the cello, such as the flute or violin.
2. “Partita in A Minor for Solo Flute” by J.S. Bach
Song Year: 1722-1723
Another famous solo work by J.S. Bach is for flute. This partita contains four movements, each based on a dance from a different European country. It has technical elements that are fun to play with plenty of practice.
3. “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by J.S. Bach
Song Year: 1704
“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” has become a well-known melody around Halloween. This piece contains two movements, and some believe Bach was inspired by the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. It gained popularity when Disney used it at the beginning of the movie Fantasia.
4. “Prelude and Fugue 1” by J.S. Bach
Song Year: 1722
The first prelude and fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, this piece is one that every pianist should learn. It's in C major, so you don't have to worry about too many sharps or flats. Bach wrote this piece to showcase equal temperament, a type of tuning in music.
5. “Romanian Folk Dances” by Bartok
Song Year: 1915
Bartok originally wrote the six pieces for solo piano, but he later arranged them for a small orchestra. Either way, the pieces showcase different folk songs from Romania, specifically from the Transylvania region.
6. “Symphony in E Minor (“Gaelic”)” by Beach
Song Year: 1896
Another piece based on music from a specific country, “Symphony in E Minor (“Gaelic”)” is one of the best classical songs by a woman, Amy Beach. Each movement represents a different part of Irish culture and history, with all shining throughout the work.
7. “Fur Elise” by Beethoven
Song Year: 1810
You don't have to be a musician to have heard of “Fur Elise.” It’s a solo piano bagatelle, which is a term for a short piano piece with a light character. Beethoven dedicated the work to an unknown woman, with scholars suggesting several individuals for “Elise.” The melody repeats throughout the piece and utilizes the entirety of the piano's range.
8. “Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight”)” by Beethoven
Song Year: 1801
Another renowned classical piano song from Beethoven is “Moonlight Sonata.” It features a sad mood, thanks to the minor key. Beethoven wrote the piece for one of his piano students who he wanted to marry but couldn't.
9. “Symphony No. 5” by Beethoven
Song Year: 1804-1808
Beethoven's “Symphony No. 5” starts with the famous four-note motive of three repeated notes followed by a lower note. He took inspiration from his own third symphony to make this piece sound heroic, and it's now one of the most famous symphonies of all time.
10. “Symphony No. 9” by Beethoven
Song Year: 1822-1824
The other famous symphony by Beethoven is his ninth, which has four movements. In it, he included a choir along with the orchestra, and it's where the famous “Ode to Joy” comes from, which was an existing poem that Beethoven set to music.
11. “Carmen” by Bizet
Song Year: 1875
A full opera, there are multiple songs within Bizet's “Carmen.” The most famous is probably “Habanera,” which you hear when Carmen enters the story in the first act. This opera shares the story of Carmen, a Roma woman who seduces a soldier in Spain.
12. “Le Marteau Sans Maitre” by Boulez
Song Year: 1955
One of the best 12-tone classical songs comes from Boulez, who tried to make the piece more complex as it went on. “12-tone” means the piece doesn't have a home key and uses all 12 notes of the Western scale, meaning Boulez’s work can sound odd at first.
13. “Aria” by Bozza
Song Year: 1936
“Aria” is one of the most famous works for classical alto saxophone and piano. The saxophone takes on a more melodic role than in many other pieces. A single movement work, it was dedicated to Marcel Mule and somewhat inspired by the music of Bach.
14. “Image” by Bozza
Song Year: 1936-1940
Another beautiful work by Bozza is for solo flute, titled “Image.” The piece starts slow but goes into a faster technical section before a lower middle section and a repeat of the fast section. This extraordinary French work is technically challenging, making it most suitable for advanced flute players.
15. “Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra” by Britten
Song Year: 1945
Britten's orchestral work is exactly what it sounds like: a guide to the orchestra. It features each of the sections of the orchestra so that you can hear all of the instruments and even some vocals.
16. “Concertino” by Chaminade
Song Year: 1902
Chaminade wrote mostly for piano. However, her most famous work is a single-movement concertino for flute. It starts slow and melodic but features technical passages and a cadenza where just the flutist plays before a flashy ending.
17. “Prelude Op. 28 No. 4” by Chopin
Song Year: 1839
Chopin wrote a collection of 24 piano preludes, with “Prelude Op. 28 No. 4” being one. It's short, so it's approachable for more players and listeners. The left hand plays many chords, while the right hand performs the melody.
18. “Umoja” by Coleman
Song Year: 2019
American composer Valerie Coleman wrote Umoja” for The Philadelphia Orchestra. She later arranged the piece for wind quintet, so small and large groups can enjoy it.
The title is the Swahili word for “unity.” Coleman wrote the work for a women's choir before the orchestra version.
19. “Appalachian Spring” by Copland
Song Year: 1944
Copland wrote “Appalachian Spring,” a tale of newlyweds, for a smaller chamber orchestra. He also incorporated elements from his friend Martha Graham, a choreographer. The full ballet version contains 14 movements, but many of the latter half of the movements aren't usually performed.
20. “Black Angels” by Crumb
Song Year: 1970
George Crumb wrote “Black Angels” in response to the Vietnam War. If you look at the score, you'll see that, at one point, it resembles a gun. The piece sounds like fluttering bees with minimal breaks to relieve the tension.
21. “Vox Balaenae” by Crumb
Song Year: 1971
Another work by Crumb is “Vox Balaenae” (“Voice of the Whale”). This piece is for flute, cello, and piano. Those who play these instruments wear masks and use extended techniques. The flute player sings and plays, the cellist uses seagull sounds, and the pianist employs glass against the strings.
22. “2 Arabesques” by Debussy
Song Year: 1888-1891
Debussy wrote two arabesques for solo piano, each being a single movement. The first uses triplets against duplets, which is technically challenging. Debussy’s second piece is slightly faster and uses a large portion of the piano's range.
23. “Prelude a L'Apres-Midi d'Une Faune” by Debussy
Song Year: 1894
This orchestral work starts with solo flute before the addition of the harp and other instruments. It's one movement, and the piece isn't too long. In 2022, Lizzo played a section of the flute solo at the Met Gala.
24. “Syrinx” by Debussy
Song Year: 1913
“Syrinx” tells the story of Pan and Syrinx as Pan runs after his love. The titular nymph disguises herself as bamboo to hide, and Pan unknowingly turns the bamboo into a flute. This melody changes as Pan realizes what he's done as the piece slowly fades out.
25. “Symphony No. 9 (“New World”)” by Dvorak
Song Year: 1893
The English horn plays the famous melody from “Largo,” the second movement of Dvorak’s work.
Musicians have adapted it for many solo instruments. The other three instruments in the piece feature in sections as soloists and are faster.
26. “Cello Concerto” by Elgar
Song Year: 1919
Elgar wrote this piece after World War I despite his dwindling popularity. The four movements tell the sad story of the aftermath of war. It was the last large-scale work that the composer wrote and is a big part of the cello repertoire.
27. “Violin Sonata” by Franck
Song Year: 1886
This work in four movements is one of the composer's most famous works. Franck uses the same theme throughout the piece, albeit in slightly different ways. He composed the work as a gift to his violinist friend Eugene Ysaye's wedding.
28. “Rhapsody in Blue” by Gershwin
Song Year: 1924
This song is a crossover between classical and jazz music. It combines a solo piano part with many instruments common to orchestras, from clarinets to trumpets and percussion. The piece contains one movement, which is what makes it a rhapsody rather than a piano concerto.
29. “Estancia Dances” by Ginastera
Song Year: 1941
Ginastera wrote “Estancia Dances” as part of the larger ballet. However, orchestras have performed the four dances separately from the ballet. Each movement is a different dance inspired by Latin American music and features all sections of the orchestra with solos throughout.
30. “Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits” by Gluck
From Orfeo and Euridice, the “Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits” features a flute solo over the orchestra. The work starts slowly, but the dance has more notes. Gluck wrote the entire opera to focus more on the story, inspired by Greek mythology, rather than the singers.
31. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Grieg
Song Year: 1875
From the “Peer Gynt Suite,” this piece is about a boy who can't marry the girl he loves. He decides to run away, but a troll kidnaps him. You can listen to this piece on its own or as part of Peer Gynt, a play by Henrik Ibsen.
32. “Solveig's Song” by Grieg
Song Year: 1875
Another entry from Peer Gynt, this work comes from the second orchestral suite. It's a short song that's only one movement and centers on a hero named Solveig, who protects Peer's soul. Unlike many songs in classical music, this one is in Norwegian.
33. “Messiah” by Handel
Song Year: 1741
Handel composed this 53-movement oratorio in English and uses text from the King James Bible. The Hallelujah chorus is the most famous part of this overall work. You can hear it often around Christmas and other major Christian holidays.
34. “Water Music” by Handel
Song Year: 1717
The composer wrote this piece of 22 movements intending for performances to occur near water. King George I commissioned the work for a trip up the River Thames. This piece contains three orchestral suites, so you can play or listen to all or part of it.
35. “The Planets” by Holst
Song Year: 1914-1917
This suite dedicates one movement to each of the planets in the Solar System (other than Earth). It starts with Mars but otherwise goes in order of the planets from the sun. Holst took inspiration, not from astronomy but astrology, and he used a massive orchestra with extra winds and brass.
36. “And God Created Great Whales” by Hovhaness
Song Year: 1970
A symphonic poem, this piece uses recordings of real whale sounds. Hovhaness wrote it to comment on the treatment of whales in the 1960s and 1970s. It also includes aleatoric, or improvisatory elements, which are striking to hear when performed.
37. “3 Grand Trios in E Minor” by Kuhlau
Song Year: 1826-1827
Known as the Beethoven of the Flute, Kuhlau wrote three flute trios as a collection. The first movement starts with a technical and happy feel, followed by three more movements at varying tempos. All three parts get to play the melody at some point in the piece.
38. “Danzon No. 2” by Marquez
Song Year: 1994
Marquez's “Danzon No. 2” is a single movement work that starts with a gorgeous clarinet solo. It features several instruments, from the piccolo to the piano to the strings. The composer incorporated elements of Mexican styles and musical forms into the work.
39. “Violin Concerto in E Minor” by Mendelssohn
Song Year: 1838-1844
“Violin Concerto in E Minor” is one of the pillars of the violin repertoire. It requires a lot of range from the soloist throughout its three movements. Mendelssohn wrote it for his childhood friend, the violinist Ferdinand David.
40. “Le Merle Noir” by Messiaen
Song Year: 1952
This work is a single movement, and the title is French for “the black bird.” It doesn't have any time signatures or key signatures but is for flute and piano. When the two players are in sync, the music is mesmerizing.
41. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart
Song Year: 1787
German for “A Little Night Music,” this piece is for string quartet with the addition of a double bass. However, it's not uncommon for string orchestras to perform the work. The piece features four movements, including sonata form, rondo form, and a scherzo.
42. “Flute Quartet in D Major” by Mozart
Song Year: 1799
This piece replaces the first violin with a flute part. The quartet has three movements, and each features the flute against the strings. Mozart was commissioned by his friend Ferdinand Dejean to write this piece and other flute works.
43. “Requiem” by Mozart
Song Year: 1791
Mozart wrote his requiem as he was dying, so he never got to finish it. It was unfortunate timing considering a requiem is a mass for the dead. Musicologists believe Mozart wrote it for his own death as if he knew he would die soon.
44. “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky
Song Year: 1874
Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” for solo piano. He was inspired by a painter friend who died at only 39 years old. The entire work has 10 movements, including an opening promenade and a finale, titled “Great Gate of Kiev.”
45. “24 Caprices for Solo Violin” by Paganini
Song Year: 1817
A violinist himself, Paganini wrote 24 solo caprices for the instrument. Each has challenges, most of which are technical but rewarding to play. Some even have unique names, such as “El Diavolo,” for the 13th caprice.
46. “Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”)” by Prokofiev
Song Year: 1916-1917
Prokofiev took inspiration from classical era composers like Haydn. He wrote this work in four movements at various tempos. The last movement is one of the fastest in classical music, but that helps keep it upbeat.
47. “Bolero” by Ravel
Song Year: 1928
This single-movement work features a repeating melody that almost every orchestral instrument plays and was inspired by a traditional Spanish dance of the same name. “Bolero” even features a saxophone part, which is uncommon. Meanwhile, the snare drum plays the same rhythm without stopping.
48. “Ma Mere L'Oye” by Ravel
Song Year: 1910
“The Mother Goose Suite,” as “Ma Mere L'Oye” translates to, is a piece for orchestra with five movements. Each movement represents a different story, from Sleeping Beauty to Beauty and the Beast. It's for piano or full orchestra.
49. “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini
Song Year: 1816
“The Barber of Seville” is one of Rossini's most famous overtures. Its main theme appears in the violins and the piccolo, and the theme repeats throughout the overture. The overture sets the stage for the story of Figaro, a barber who helps a woman escape her guardian.
50. “William Tell Overture” by Rossini
Song Year: 1829
Another overture from Rossini is from William Tell. It features a duet between the flute and English horn. But many people may know the overall theme as the Lone Ranger theme, as the composition has been frequently used to represent horses or people galloping to the rescue.
51. “Carnival of the Animals” by Saint-Saëns
Song Year: 1868
This suite is for a chamber orchestra, and each movement features a distinct animal and instrument. The most famous is probably the Swan, which features the cello. Other movements highlight donkeys (pianos), elephants (double basses), and birds (flutes).
52. “Danse Macabre” by Saint-Saëns
Song Year: 1874
Another famous orchestral piece by Saint-Saëns is “Danse Macabre.” This piece is unnervingly eerie, making it an ideal listen to around Halloween. It's a tone poem and features the same melody in different keys throughout the work.
53. “Erlkönig” by Schubert
Song Year: 1813
“Erlkönig” is for voice and piano, and the lyrics tell of an erlking. The story is of a boy who gets scared when he sees one of these scary elves, but his father can't hear or see the being. Its melody and accompaniment help capture the tension.
54. “Finlandia” by Sibelius
Song Year: 1899
Sibelius wrote this work as a national anthem of sorts for Finland. It sounds beautiful, from the start of the low brass and strings to the full orchestra. Unfortunately, for years, this piece went by a different name while the country was under the rule of the Russian Empire.
55. “Piano Concerto No. 2” by Shostakovich
Song Year: 1957
Shostakovich wrote this concerto for his son, who premiered the work. Its first movement is virtuosic and features the piano and the orchestra equally. Other movements explore the range of the piano and orchestral instruments.
56. “Firebird” by Stravinsky
Song Year: 1910
Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is both a ballet and orchestral piece. It uses different instruments to represent the various characters of the story, and the composer includes Russian folk melodies. In the story, The Firebird helps the main character defeat the evil villain.
57. “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky
Song Year: 1913
Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring” incited a riot at the ballet's premiere. It features a larger orchestra and less common instruments to add to the character and sound. The piece begins with a bassoon in its highest register, a groundbreaking choice at the time of writing.
58. “Sonata for Flute and Piano” by Taktakishvili
Song Year: 1968
Georgian composer Taktakishvili wrote one of the most famous flute sonatas of the 20th Century. The piece uses traditional Georgian folk melodies throughout the piece. Its second movement is slow and solemn and is a striking contrast between the faster first and third movements.
59. “Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky
Song Year: 1892
An alternative to the full ballet, Tchaikovsky wrote the “Nutcracker Suite” as an adaptation of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a German short story. It contains three movements and a total of eight musical numbers. The piece is typically played or heard around Christmas, just like the ballet.
60. “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi
Song Year: 1718-1720
Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” captures each season as a full violin concerto. The different concertos contain three movements each, all with the pattern fast-slow-fast. It was one of the first solo concertos, while many contemporary pieces featured multiple soloists.
61. “Anthracite Fields” by Wolfe
Song Year: 2014
Wolfe took inspiration from coal miners in Pennsylvania for “Anthracite Fields.” The piece got its name from coal's purest form, anthracite. This work is for chorus and is a beautiful example of American music.
Top Classical Songs Of All Time, Final Thoughts
The classical repertoire is vast and spans multiple centuries. Narrowing down the best classical songs wasn't easy, but some choices were clear. Be sure to check out all of the songs on this list, old and new. Give them a listen and add them to your list of pieces to play.