Classical Joy Playlist

In Music by Daniel Lerner

When I was three years old I would sneak down the stairs after bedtime and hide on the landing, watching my parents play music together. My father was a flutist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and my mother was a renowned opera singer, but there they were, these two world-class musicians, making music simply for the joy of it, causing love and laughter to emanate throughout the house.

A year later my dad would charge into my room at 5 am as I blared classical from my plastic Fisher-Price record player: “What the hell is going…oh…is that Bach?” When I assured him that it was he responded “OK…just turn it down a little, would you sweetie?” As I grew up playing the cello, the three of us would play chamber music together regularly. After college, I went on to work as a talent agent in the music business for a decade.

From opera to hip-hop, rock-and-roll to broadway, be they times of celebration or sadness, recovering from a breakup or getting pumped up for a big game, music has been a constant presence in my life. I can’t imagine going a day without it.

It turns out that classical music not only served as a soundtrack for my every day — it changed how I processed the world and even the way that I functioned. Science is showing that it can do the same for you too.

Numerous studies have shown that listening to classical music while studying helps improve performance. Whether you’re in high school or college prepping for that next exam (or just need a boost to your spirits), check out this classical music playlist that I’ve compiled. With a distinct focus on raising your levels of positive emotion, it may not only help you retain more information but make the whole day a joyous one.

Happy listening, and please do feel free to reach out to any further recommendations — or to suggest a few yourself!


1) Adams, John (1947- ) Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Two Fanfares – II)

Simon Rattle; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

  • Just as we discuss the many ways to think about happiness, joy is a rich and layered concept.  This is joy as insane unexpurgated E-C-S-T-A-S-Y!  Kicking it off new school and kicking it off BIG, here is a work by the man who many view as the greatest composer living today, American John Adams. It is exactly what the title purports it to be.  Fasten your seatbelts, and play it as loud as your neighbors will allow (headphones recommended) – I like to think of this as an aural version of a marvelous storm unfolding over the western plains or a magnificent ocean tempest in the Pacific Northwest.  

2) Handel, G.F. (1685-1759) Concerto Grosso (Allegro)

Neville Marriner; The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

  • I am too close to Handel’s music to be in any way unbiased.  If Bach is the voice of God, Handel is God’s DJ when he feels like getting’ down with the angels.  Heart lifting, sun embracing, arms wide, body moving joy.

3) Handel, G.F. (1685-1759) Dixit Dominus (Alleluia)

Marc Minkowski; Les Musicians du Louvre (Annick Massis, Soprano)

  • See #2.  Notice however that this is the first of three selections that are based on the idea of “Halleluja.”  Also, to get one level deeper with the music, listen to hear that the vocal soloist has an oboe and strings which dance with it throughout, weave their way around and through it, and gambol with it like fairies.

4) Bach, J.S. (1685-1750)  Sonata in C Major for 2 Violins and Harpsichord

David & Igor Oistrakh (violins), Hans Pischner (Harpsichord)

  • If God speaks to us through music, it is through the work of J.S. Bach.  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says “Bach’s music has an ethical force; it’s like hearing a command to change your life.”  He is music’s answer to a positive intervention.  (Listen to the interplay between the two violins…and the brothers that are playing them!)

5) Bach, J.S. (1685-1750)  Magnificat in D (Magnificat Anima Mea)

John Eliot Gardiner; English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

  • This work was part of a study (unearthed while searching for Capstone related research) where they played 30 minutes of this piece every day for one month for patients suffering from various illnesses (cancer, etc.) and found that they responded to treatment and healing more effectively.  Bach wrote 300+ full cantatas (20-30 minutes each) during his lifetime (as the city composer it was his job to write one every week) in addition to hundred of other works.  Talk about your 10,000 hours…

6) Ravel, M. (1875-1937) Sonatine, Mouvement de Menuet

Vlado Perlmutter

  • Joy in watercolor, joy in simplicity, sweet heartwarming joy…in distant memory.  Think Monet for the ears.  Impressionism in musical form.  Water lilies, Giverny…  The pianist here was the last living student of Ravel.

7) Mendelssohn, F.B. (1809-1847) Symphony #4 (Allegro Vivace)

Herbert von Karajan; Berlin Philharmonic

  • One of my favorite symphonic movements in all of classical music, this brings to mind a wild ride on horseback through the gorgeous 19th-century pastoral countryside.

8) Albinoni, T. (1671-1751) Sonata #3 (Allegro)

Ensemble 415

  • The inspiration of dance music is a key element in Baroque music and no doubt contributes to much of its extrovert energy.  The great, simple works such as this one make the instruments dance with each other like human heartbeats freed from their bodies and intertwined.

9) Mozart, W.A. (1756-1791) Exultate, Jubilate (Exultate, Jubilate)

Trevor Pinnock; The English Concert & Chorus (Barbara Bonney, Soprano)

  • Classic Mozartian use of joyous strings and warm brass providing a cushion for the melodic and beautifully written vocal soloist.  Plus, how could we not include a work with this title?  Exult and be jubilant?  Morning gratitudes in musical form?  This piece always just makes me happy to be alive.

10) Haydn, J.F. (1732-1809) Symphony #30 in C “Allelujah” (Finale)

Christopher Hogwood; Academy of Ancient Music

  • Affectionately known to many of his peers as Papa Haydn, the Austrian composer thankfully wrote a huge number of works – including 45 piano trios, 68 string quartets, and 104 symphonies.  His music is elegant, but always down to earth, full of a humor, but also of noble feeling and brimming with warmth.  Our second “Allelujah” entry.

11) Bach, J.S. (1685-1750)  Brandenberg Concerto #3 in G (Allegro)

Neville Marriner; The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

  • Author / Philosopher Alain de Botton won’t listen to any classical music except Bach.  Wynton Marsalis says simply that “Bach’s the man.”  Listening to concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach gives the same kind of pleasure you get listening to a great jazz combo:  Soloists come in and out to play their licks, and the underlying ping of the harpsichord pushes the music along like a drummer keeping the rhythmic 

12) Haydn, J.F. (1732-1809)  Concerto in E-Flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra (Allegro)

Raymond Leppard, National Phil. w/Wynton Marsalis

  • As Haydn historian Karl Geiringer explained, “Haydn expected marriage to provide him with a comfortable, peaceful home and with children, for whom he felt a great fondness.  Neither of these hopes was fulfilled.  Maria Anna was quarrelsome, jealous, bigoted, [and] not even a good housekeeper…[but] what irritated him most was his wife’s utter lack of appreciation of his work. ‘She doesn’t care a straw whether her husband is an artist or a cobbler,” he exclaimed indignantly.” A devout Catholic, Haydn had no hopes of parting ways with her, but somehow he managed to rise above the situation and smile through his marital travails.  

13) Handel, G.F. (1685-1759) Music for the Royal Fireworks (Overture)

Trevor Pinnock; The English Concert

  • Joy begins in the guise of pomp and circumstance, but Handel doesn’t let that hold him back for long.  It is remarkable to hear him survey an array of joyous sounds, from the regal to the playful and then back to the elegant and proud once more.  

14) Handel, G.F. (1685-1759) Concerto Grosso in C (Allegro)

Trevor Pinnock; The English Concert

  • Handel at his sweetly elegant and buoyant best.

15) Beethoven, L. (1770-1827)  Beethoven #4 (Allegro ma nontroppo)

Nikolas Harnoncourt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe

  • He’s Beethoven.  We need him in our lives.  Despite the clichéd idea of him as a scowling old deaf guy, he had his moments of pure unadulterated joy as well.  Here is one of them.

16) Mozart, W.A. (1756-1791) Overture to The Marriage of Figaro

James Levine; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

  • The gloriously popular overture to one of – if not the – greatest operas ever written.

17) Handel, G.F. (1685-1759) Messiah (Hallelujah)

John Eliot Gardiner; English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

  • Ladies and gentlemen, the third Hallelujah of the set, and well known to your music loving ears.

18) Stravinsky, I. (1882-1971) Firebird Suite (Finale)

Leonard Bernstein; New York Philharmonic Orchestra

  • We began and shall close with joy as ecstasy.  Big, bold, unboundedly glorious joy.  When this work was premiered it was so controversial (pagan fertility rites were written into music in 1913, not to mention the use of instruments in a way that they had never been used before) that what began as an argument between audience supporters and vocal detractors devolved into fistfights and finally a full-scale riot.  A red AND green cape intervention?  Hmmm…



About the Author

Daniel Lerner

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Author, speaker, consultant and educator, Daniel Lerner is the author of "U Thrive, How to Succeed in College (and Life)".