City Lit Blog

Listen up: How do you find the best recording of a piece of music?

Story added 15th Aug 2017

Tips from City Lit music tutor Katy Hamilton on unearthing great musical recordings

When I was an undergrad, studying music at the University of Nottingham, I remember becoming aware for the first time that certain recordings of famous musical works were prized rather more highly by older students, and staff, than others.

It’s amazing how quickly this kind of attitude can get you into a kind of headspin.

What if you listen to the ‘wrong’ recording – will the piece be ruined? Will you not understand it? Will you mention the name of the conductor in polite company and find everyone looking at you in pity and disgust?

We live in a culture so saturated by the idea of judging, ranking, and finding the top ten of everything that it can be intimidating. (And let’s be honest, some people really enjoy trying to sound impressive by naming the famous musicians whose recordings they consider to be the best.) Over my time teaching at City Lit, I’ve had a number of students ask me rather anxiously which recording they ‘should’ buy of a given piece. So here’s my advice.

Step one: Listen to whatever you find first!

Whether it’s the first result to pop up on YouTube or Spotify, or you spot the disc in the library or music shop, first of all, just listen. Hear the piece, in any old version. Give yourself time to get to know it.

Step two: Find another version for comparison.

If it turns out that you like what you hear, seek out someone else’s performance. Borrow it from a friend, or do a bit more online searching. Charity shops are great for picking up cheap CDs and LPs. How different is it? Which do you prefer?

Step three: Try to hear it live.

There’s nothing like the excitement of being in a concert hall, watching the music unfold in front of you in the hands of capable musicians. Things will be different again, different from the two recordings you’ve already heard. You might like some bits more and other bits less. People might make mistakes – which are usually cut from recordings – and you’ll be amazed, trust me, at how absolutely and completely this does not matter if the performance is exciting and compelling. And remember, that performance you’re attending is unique. Those musicians will never play it exactly like that again.

Step four: Keep listening.

By now it should be clear that, even if the composer has written complex and specific instructions for the players, there’s quite a bit of room for manoeuvre in the way that something sounds. If you really love a piece dearly, you might want to hear it live and recorded in lots of different versions.

Step five: Find your favourite!

At the end of the day, there is no ‘best’ recording. Only the one(s) you like the most. And that might change from day to day – just as musicians might change how they play it day to day, to try new things. That’s what keeps music alive. Enjoy!

Find out more about Katy Hamilton’s career in music at www.katyhamilton.co.uk

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