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Teenagers: Classical Music Your Children Should Know

Many parents, when faced with the teenage years and teenage musical tastes, buy their child a headset and hope that their child's hearing will survive the next ten years. (The generation gap can often be measured in decibels!) And yet, while schools provide the counterbalance to popular reading matter with good literature and a talk show view of contemporary society with courses on history and current events, it is left to parents to provide the counterbalance to popular culture.

teenagers listening to classical music

​The trick is how to protect your child from being the class "dork" at the age of fifteen and at the same time make certain that he/she is not ridiculed as the class dunce the first week at college when he/she does not recognize the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. For better or for worse, there are certain pieces of classical music that your child should have heard before being sent off to college, and that job usually falls to you, the parent.

If you are a great lover of classical music, you will look at the list below and cry out about all of the wonderful works that are not there. If you are not a great fan of classical music, you may find this list a bit long. My goal was to make a selection of 12 works that not only are classics among classics, but which also allow a person to say, "That sounds like Bach," or "That sounds like Tchaikovsky." These works span in time from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and from Europe to America. I recommend that you purchase CDs or downloads and play them for yourself, not as music that your teenager should listen to. Repetition is important. Put Vivaldi's Four Seasons on every morning for a week while the family is getting up or racing through breakfast. See how long it takes before you get the comment, "Are you listening to again?" (They have noticed! Score one for the parents' team!) Respond with something like, "Yes. Have you ever heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons before?" Be prepared for, "Yes, every morning this week!" (Congratulations, you have a child with a good musical memory.) Now the time has come to move on to another recording. The good news is that everything on the list has been enjoyed for decades, if not centuries, so even if it takes your child a month to notice that it is the same piece of music every time he/she gets into the car, you will enjoy listening to the music.

Most newspapers give a fairly complete listing of upcoming concerts in your area and the works on the program are almost always listed. While those on the list below are among the most famous in the classical repertoire, the number of times each is performed live is surprisingly few. A live performance of a work that you know from recordings is an exciting experience, even for the jaded teenager, so purchase two tickets and take him/her with you. Recipe for success: Do not pay too much attention to dress. Do not take younger siblings. Offer to take a friend. Make it a special event with a meal out at his or her favorite restaurant. Agree to hear only that work (a call to the performing orchestra or the concert hall will usually give you exact times for each work.) Listen to the recording of the work several times before you go to the concert, even if it is during homework or dinner. Be prepared for resistance! If it is fairly explosive, you have a normal teenager. If it is moderate, hold onto your hat; you may have a musical genius!

Not all concerts are wonderful; not all recordings are fabulous. There is also much room for personal preferences. You may have a favorite recording of one or more of the works listed below; if so, dust it off and play it for your teenager. If you do not, I have listed my favorite recordings of some of these works.

Orchestral Music

  • Vivaldi - The Four Seasons, Claudio Scimone, conductor, with I Solisti di Veneti

  • Handel - Water Music, Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor, with Orchestra of St. Luke's, on Telarc 

  • Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, Gerard Schwarz, conductor, on Seraphim

  • Mozart - Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter"

  • Beethoven - Symphony No. 5, Leonard Bernstein, conductor & narrator, on Sony

  • Brahms - Symphony No. 1, George Szell, conductor, with Cleveland Orchestra, on Sony

  • Ravel - Bolero

  • Debussy - La Mer

  • Tchaikovsky - Piano Concerto, Van Cliburn, piano, on RCA Victor Red Seal

  • Stravinsky - Rite of Spring, Leonard Slatkin, conductor, with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on RCA Victor Red Seal

  • Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin, piano, on CBS Masterworks

  • Copland - Lincoln's Portrait, Gerard Schwarz, conductor, James Earl Jones, narrator

Nothing is worse than bad opera and, conversely, there is nothing more exciting than a great opera production.

the metropolitan opera at lincoln center in New York City

The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center New York, New York

Unfortunately, great opera requires great singing, great acting, great sets and costumes, brilliant direction, wonderful lighting and exceptional conducting, all of which translates into huge budgets and high ticket prices. While ticket prices for live opera are often out of reach, the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts at movie theaters are a great way to introduce young people to opera. If you do decide to spring for a live performance, be sure that it has subtitles (translations that are flashed on a screen on the proscenium above the stage or on a small screen on the back of the seat in front of you). All of that said, four great operas for teenagers are:

  1. Puccini - LaBoheme

  2. Bizet - Carmen (There is an excellent video version)

  3. Gershwin - Porgy and Bess

  4. Bernstein - Candide


  • Gilbert & Sullivan - MikadoH.M.S. Pinafore and/or Pirates of Penzance

  • Bernstein - West Side Story, on Columbia Records

Showing young people videos in advance is always helpful. It allows them to stop and ask questions and/or take a break when their interest wanes.

3 things to remember

  1. The above constitutes five or six years of listening, so don't feel that it all has to be done in the next six weeks. ​​

  2. Precisely because your child is a teenager, listening to classical music should be a joint experience, one where you take the initiative and turn it on and, hopefully, one that he/she will listen to after you have done so.

  3. Remember that, just as few teenagers can withstand the peer pressure to admit that they like classical music, most would be equally mortified if a professor or college senior looked at them the first week of freshman classes and called them culturally illiterate.

Classical music has endured

As have paintings by Michelangelo and da Vinci, Rembrandt and van Gogh, because they offer countless new insights every time one encounters these works. Conductors go to concerts and museum directors walk the halls of museums because the music and art are different every time they view it. Some would have our teenagers listen to Mozart to improve brain pathways, some to score well on college exams, but as a parent you are opening the door to a lifetime of kaleidoscopic encounters with the arts.

Bonnie Ward Simon

Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,

President of Maestro Classics

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