10 best pieces of classical music for kids

1 December 2020, 09:40

Classical music for children
Classical music for children. Picture: Getty

From Tchaikovsky’s magical ballets to Bizet’s barnstorming orchestral préludes, some of the greatest classical pieces make perfect music for toddlers.

Here’s our selection of the greatest pieces of classical music for children.

1. Saint-Saëns – Carnival of the Animals

Saint-Saëns’ ‘grand zoological fantasy’ is beautiful, funny, and clever all at once. ‘The Swan’, one of the most iconic movements, is scored for two pianos and a cello solo, with the calming cello tune representing the bird’s effortless gliding, while the rolling piano chords paint a musical picture of the swan’s hidden feet, paddling furiously under the water.

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Each of the piece’s 14 movements represents a different animal, including a lion, donkey, and elephant, as well as fossils, an aquarium, an aviary and – Saint-Saëns’ little joke – pianists, possibly the most dangerous animal of them all...

2. Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake

From the graceful Waltz in Act I to the playful ‘Dance of the Cygnets’, this music is just magical. Tchaikovsky’s ballet tells the story of the doomed love of Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette, who was turned into a swan by the evil Baron Von Rothbart.

The spell can only be broken if someone who has never loved before swears an oath of undying love and promises to marry her. The Prince declares his love to Odette and promises to be loyal forever… but their ending isn’t so sweet.

Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky - Dance of the Little Swans

3. Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf

If it’s famous names you’re after, Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale for children has been narrated by some of the best in the business. David Bowie, Patrick Stewart and Alexander Armstrong have all lent their voices to the Russian composer’s children’s story.

Each character in the tale is represented by an instrument in the orchestra: the duck by an oboe, the grandfather by a bassoon, the bird by a flute and the wolf by three horns. Before a performance, the instruments are usually shown to the children, which helps them to understand the unique sound of each orchestral instrument.

Sergei Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf. Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

4. Beethoven – Für Elise

Beethoven’s Bagatelle No.25 in A minor is rarely referred to in such grandiose terms; instead, all who know and love it refer to it simply by its nickname, ‘Für Elise’.

The catchy piano tune is short, sweet and beautifully simple – and if ever there was a piece that might inspire musically inclined kids to do their piano practice, this is it.

5. Strauss – The Beautiful Blue Danube

It’s from this, his most famous piece of music, that Johann Strauss the Younger earns his nickname ‘King of the Waltz’. From the shimmering strings at the start, to its fantastic waltz tune and meaty music played by the cellos, Strauss takes us on a gloriously descriptive musical journey.

André Rieu - The Beautiful Blue Danube

6. Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

The real title for this perennial Mozart favourite is Serenade No. 13 in G, although it’s the piece’s informal title, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ that has stuck.

Written when Mozart was just 31 years old, it’s an uplifting piece of music perfect for young listeners and defined by its gloriously melodic strings.

Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik KV 525 Karl Bohm, Wiener Philharmoniker

7. Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker

From the elegant ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ to the thrilling ‘Russian Dance’, the score of Tchaikovsky’s enchanting ballet is a feast of wonderful melodies. Other favourites include the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ and the ‘Dance of the Reed Flutes’.

Despite its enduring capacity to charm Christmas audiences, the music of The Nutcracker is adored by families and young children all year round.

The Nutcracker – The Waltz of the Snowflakes (The Royal Ballet)

8. Handel – Water Music

Handel’s Water Music is made up of three wonderfully jolly orchestral suites, which are easy on the ear and jauntily life-affirming.

Packed with catchy and famous tunes, each movement is based on a dance style – but it’s Suite No. 1 that is the most popular. In eleven sections, it begins with a beautiful French-style Ouverture, continues through a jaunty ‘Bourée’, a stately ‘Minuet’, and ends with the grand ‘Alla Hornpipe’.

Handel Water Music: Hornpipe; FestspielOrchester Göttingen, Laurence Cummings, director 4K

9. Elmer Bernstein – The Great Escape

Elmer Bernstein’s jaunty, triumphant, catchy and extremely hummable theme is the perfect accompaniment to this Second World War film, in which Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough mastermind a mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp.

Its jolly rhythm and ear-wormy theme make this soundtrack a perennial favourite with young listeners.

"Elmer Bernstein": "The Great Escape" from Athens (X 2)

10. Bizet – Overture to Carmen

Bizet’s second opera is so packed full of memorable melodies that it’s guaranteed an almost permanent position as the world’s most popular and frequently performed opera.

The show’s opening number is feverish and exciting, with an exhilarating melody in the strings and a persistently rhythmic accompaniment in the brass and timpani sections. If this barnstorming Prélude isn’t stuck in you and your child’s head yet, it will be now…

Carmen Overture by Georges Bizet performed by The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra