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The Best Classical Music by Key

Updated on January 8, 2015

Introduction and Explanations (Excuses)

In music, the key of a piece is one of the most important choices a composer makes. Every key has its own characteristics that can make a symphony great, or boring. For example, Spinal Tap says that D minor is the saddest of keys, and some of the great works in that key seem to bear that out.

Below is a list of the greatest works sorted by key. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind when digesting its content. First, I am a string player by trade so most (nearly all) of the pieces on the list involve symphonic music and chamber music that includes strings. I have certainly left out some great solo piano works, or even some terrific band music by the likes of Percy Grainger et al.

Second, there is no operatic music on the list. I have chosen only "whole" works that are based in the given key. Operas are giant works that span the entire range of key signatures. I could have chosen individual arias from opera, or even one movement from any given symphony or string quartet (Haydn's string quartet op 76 #5 slow movement in F-sharp major), but again, I decided to stay with one entire work at a time.

Lastly, I have left out a couple of keys that are simply not represented by any good music. It seems harsh, but there are simply no great works written in C# major or A-flat minor. And, in case you were wondering, I am aware that in almost every case on the list below, the piece ends in a different key than it begins. Such is life, and music.

Let's Get Started!

C major – Mozart Symphony #41 “Jupiter” Honorable mentions: Beethoven String Quartet Op. 59 #3, Shostakovich Symphony #7 “Leningrad”

G major – Brahms String Sextet #2; Honorable mentions: Ravel Piano Concerto, Mahler Symphony #4

D major –; Beethoven Missa Solemnis; Honorable mentions: Prokofiev Symphony #1 “Classical,” Brahms Symphony #2

Brahms Sextet #2

Here's Some More

A major – Mozart Clarinet Quintet; Honorable mentions: Mendelssohn Symphony #4 "Italian," Dvorak Piano Quintet

E major –Copland Symphony #3; Honorable mentions: Vivaldi Spring from the Four Seasons, Wagner Siegfried Idyll

B major – Brahms Piano Trio Op. 8; Honorable mention: Korngold Sinfonietta

F# major – Mahler Symphony #10

Mozart Clarinet Quintet

And, the Flat Keys

F major – Schubert Octet; Honorable mentions: Ravel String Quartet, Gershwin An American in Paris

B-Flat major – Beethoven String Quartet Op. 130; Honorable mentions: Schubert Piano Trio #1, Bruckner Symphony #5

E-Flat major – Mendelssohn Octet: Honorable mentions: Beethoven Symphony #3 “Eroica,” Sibelius Symphony #5

A-Flat major – Sibelius Finlandia; Honorable mentions: Brahms Waltz Op. 39 No. 15, Chopin Nouvelles études #2

D-Flat major – Janacek Sinfonietta

Janacek Sinfonietta

Minor Keys - how sad!

D minor – Beethoven Symphony #9; Honorable mentions: Mozart Requiem, Schubert String Quartet #14 “Death and the Maiden”

G minor – Debussy String Quartet; Honorable mentions: Mozart Piano Quartet #1, Brahms Piano Quartet #1

C minor – Mahler Symphony #2 “Resurrection”; Honorable mentions: Beethoven Symphony #5, Brahms Symphony #1

F minor – Brahms Piano Quintet; Honorable mentions: Tchaikovsky Symphony #4, Mendelssohn String Quartet Op. 80

B-Flat minor – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1; Honorable mention: Walton Symphony #1

Debussy String Quartet

And finally...

E minor – Brahms Symphony #4; Honorable mentions: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Shostakovich Symphony #10

B minor – Barber String Quartet; Honorable mentions: Mendelssohn Overture “Fingal’s Cave,” Tchaikovsky Symphony #6

F# minor – Glazunov Symphony #2; Honorable mention: Shostakovich String Quartet #7

C# minor – Beethoven String Quartet Op. 131; Honorable mention: Mahler Symphony #5,

Mahler Symphony #5

Want to get some of this music?

Well, That's It

No list of the "greatest" anything is ever etched in stone. These lists are there to get us talking about whatever they are ranking. In today's world, it is very important that we continue to talk about and love classical music.


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