Updated: Oct 7
Many parents want to introduce their children to classical music but are not sure where to start. There are so many pieces, so many composers...it can all be a bit overwhelming! In order to help, we've compiled a list of the 6 best pieces of classical music for introducing young listeners to this wonderful genre.
These pieces can be played as background music purely for enjoyment, or they can be studied as part of a music curriculum in a homeschool setting. Either way, your family is bound to be humming the melodies from these pieces after just a few listens.
1. Peter and the Wolf - Sergei Prokofiev
Prokofiev wrote this piece specifically for children as an introduction to classical music, and Maestro Classics feels like the best place to start your musical journey (and this is our most popular album!). Peter and the Wolf tells the story of a young boy named Peter who disobeys his grandfather and climbs over the garden wall. When he encounters a wolf, with quick thinking and the help of his friends – a bird, a duck and a cat – Peter captures the wolf and it is taken to the zoo.
Each character in the story is represented by a different instrument. For example, the flute represents the bird, the oboe represents the duck, the strings represent Peter, and so on.
The Maestro Classics recording of Peter and the Wolf includes both narrated and instrumental versions of the piece, a biography of the composer, and a performance of Peter and the Wolf on traditional Russian instruments. Scroll down this page to listen to samples from the album and snippets of the different characters' themes.
2. Swan Lake - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The music from Swan Lake, one of Tchaikovsky's most famous ballets, is another great way to start your listening journey. This classic tale tells the story of a prince who falls in love with a beautiful princess. However, an evil magician has turned the princess into a swan, and only the prince’s true love can break the spell.
Composing for the ballet in the 19th century was not considered very respectable. Serious composers usually did not compose for the ballet. Thus, Swan Lake was not very successful when Tchaikovsky wrote it in the late 1870s, but it has become one of the most performed ballets today. We are certain you will recognize some of the famous and memorable themes in this piece of music.
The Maestro Classics recording of Swan Lake includes the narrated story set to the beautiful music, and is an abridged one-hour version that is good for children and includes all the best parts. The album also includes tracks about the composer and the music, and a bonus track of the main theme played on electric guitar.
If you'd like to listen to the full score and watch the ballet in its entirety, click the video below.
3. Carnival of the Animals - Camille Saint-Saëns
Lions roar, elephants dance, roosters whistle, and fossils clatter in this charming, humorous, child-friendly piece of music. Saint-Saëns was not proud of Carnival of the Animals and would only allow it to be published after his death. Nevertheless, it remains one of his most famous pieces.
Each movement in this piece represents a different animal. The most famous movement, The Swan, features a slowly moving cello line that represents a swan gliding over the water.
Check out Maestro Classics' recording of Carnival of the Animals is a very child-friendly version, with Ogden Nash's poem narrated as the music plays. You can also listen to the entire piece without narration, as `well as tracks about the composer and the music. The Ogden Nash verses are included in the corresponding activity booklet.
4. The Nutcracker - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Get into the Christmas spirit with Tchaikovsky's beautiful music from The Nutcracker ballet. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, this ballet is a favorite for all ages. In the ballet, a young girl named Clara receives a nutcracker doll for Christmas and magical things begin to happen. Some of the unforgettable themes include the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Waltz of the Flowers.
We recommend the Maestro Classics one-hour, child-friendly version with the story narrated by Jim Weiss, America's premiere storyteller. For just the beautiful music without the narrated story, check out this equally child-friendly, one-hour adaptation.
5. Water Music - George Frideric Handel
Water Music is one of Handel's best-loved compositions. It was written in 1717 for King George I, who requested a concert on the River Thames. At its premier, 50 musicians performed this piece on a barge floating down the river. The King loved Handel's composition so much that he ordered it to be repeated another several times that same day.
The most well-known movement from Water Music is "Alla Hornpipe," which you can watch and listen to in the video below.
Listen to the story of Handel's Water Music on this recording by Maestro Classics, in which the story is narrated on top of musical excerpts from Handel's Water Music and Rinaldo.
6. The Sorcerer's Apprentice - Paul Dukas
Made famous by Disney in the film Fantasia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is another wonderful piece that young listeners will enjoy. In the story, the lazy apprentice, confident that he can use his master’s spell to do his chores, chants the magic spell and takes a nap. As the water swirls around the workshop getting ever higher, the apprentice awakens, only to discover that he does not know the spell to stop the brooms!
In the Maestro Classics recording, the thrilling narrated story accompanies Paul Dukas' dramatic musical score. (It also includes a kitchen percussion play-along!)