Listening suggestions for a young child / thoughts on listener-accessible music?

March 31, 2019, 1:59 AM · Laurie's most recent weekend poll and some of the responses to it brought to mind an opportunity I have right now to inspire a young child.

I've been asked by friends to be involved in their 3-year-old son's musical development because he's showing an unusually strong interest in classical music and string instruments and some very impressive musical memory. Neither parent has any musical training. They go to one or two symphony concerts a year and enjoy it. But their knowledge is about what you'd expect from a non-musician with a good liberal arts education and occasional concert attendance, which is why they've asked me. I'm happy to do what I can because I similarly grew up in a non-musical family and realize that lacking early exposure to music can be a serious handicap for learning an instrument.

They brought him to my orchestra's free family concert last month, where he was almost certainly the youngest kid there, and he never lost interest when we played William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony in full at the end of the concert. At the "instrument petting zoo," he went straight to the strings table. He's especially interested in the viola and cello, and they're planning to start him on some kind of string instrument a year or two from now when he's a bit more coordinated and able to take instruction more easily (he just turned 3).

In any case, the issues of what instrument to start him on and how to go about it aren't going to come up for a while. For the moment, I've been asked to recommend a selection of pieces to listen to, the goals being to feed his interest in string instruments and expand his musical horizons beyond the most popular classics. I don't have to be especially selective; the parents would actually prefer to have a long playlist that won't be exhausted quickly.

Obviously it has to be accessible music. I think "accessible" for this kid in particular is a little more expansive than we normally think of as accessible for children, because longer pieces seem to be OK. But I think it means the piece should be an enjoyable listening experience without musical knowledge, important melodic and/or rhythmic elements should be obvious and not overly complicated, and there should be a clear sense of motion throughout to avoid causing boredom. (That said, it's occurred to me that I may not be the best judge of listener accessibility because I had minimal exposure to string instruments and almost no chances to listen to classical music until I was 12, and because I have zero experience at teaching music.)

So... anyone have suggestions for pieces that absolutely must be included? I've brainstormed a decent-sized list already, but I may want to both add and remove pieces. I'm looking for anything with strings involved: orchestral, concertante, chamber, and unaccompanied string instrument are all fair game. Also, any input on what characteristics make music accessible to listeners or suitable for young audiences is welcome, because it might help clarify my thoughts.

Replies (26)

March 31, 2019, 7:05 AM · I used to grow up with a record with a title in the style of "Mozart, the story told for children". It tells the story of the life of Mozart, and this is the interspersed with music by Mozart. The rondo from Mozarts 5th violin concerto was what got me attracted to the violin. This was 40+ years ago, but there must be similar products now, movies, games on the iPad, ...
March 31, 2019, 7:50 AM · Rick Beato fed his son hours of the most complex Bach and jazz improvisation pretty much since birth, and look how he turned out.

You could play any 20 keys on the piano, and that kid will tell you what kind of polychord it is in under 5 seconds.

March 31, 2019, 9:11 AM · What a nice problem to have! Good music is good music, and not all classical music is good and not all performances are good. Let your own ears and tastes be the judge, and as we all have limited ability to absorb new material, favour quality over quantity.

It's hard to judge offhand what would appeal to someone else, especially a child so young. My son used to enjoy going to sleep listening to the music I was playing at the time. I chose the music which I would like to hear at the time, and it wouldn't necessarily have been limited to classical music. but I would tone it down to be suitable for bed time. Unfortunately that habit seemed to extend to his concert experiences when young.

I'm not going to make specific recommendations for reasons of variable tastes and quality.

I do suggest however that the choices not be limited to classical and strings and that playing, perhaps more than one instrument, and singing too be enabled when possible, as they build the capacity to hear and enjoy.

Edited: March 31, 2019, 9:19 AM · A fun thing that my sister and I would listen to repeatedly 75 years ago was Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," which highlights many different instruments and has a nicely narrated story to go with it. Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals" features many different instruments and can be an inducement to musical imagination.

Also, there was always a piano in our home. Having a piano or other keyboard in the house is an invitation to start making music before any technique is learned. But we had lots of music at home too, with Mother playing piano and Dad, violin and I and my sister were started on music lessons as soon as we were able (I on violin at 4 and she on piano at about the same age, 3 years later).

I also had a Tonette at sometime in there - it is like a short, plastic soprano "recorder" - easy to play a scale and work out simple tunes. Oh Yes! and some harmonicas, too.

Violin and viola are very difficult instruments to play because of the unnatural physical demands of the proper playing position/posture. Cello is easier only because proper playing position is natural but child-size cellos don't sound good - they are just too small to respond properly to the low tones.

Actually a full-size viola rigged to be played like a cello (and sounding one octave higher) sounds like a "real" instrument - I did that for one of my granddaughters when she was small - but it didn't "take." Neither did violin under the chin - even though she made good progress on it for one month. My experience with full-size violas fitted with "OCTAVE" strings to play true cello pitches fade out on the lowest (C) string and are frustrating to play and hear.

March 31, 2019, 11:17 AM · This is the playlist that I built for my son when he was an infant: LINK

It has a combination of orchestral works (including film scores), chamber music, and concertos. It's string-heavy. It's intended to be non-intrusive. I'd put it on in the background when trying to get him to fall asleep, but it's not elevator music.

March 31, 2019, 11:22 AM · Not after my son turned 3, we took him to a local community music school's open house. The small-size cello there (a 1/32, I think, possibly a 1/16) was perfectly fine for his size. (He is exactly average height, but has a long torso and huge head, and I'm guessing the cello sizing is more upper body than lower body.) For an ultra-cheap beater, it sounded okay, and it's clearly far more intuitive for a little kid than a violin. He was able to immediate figure out, without guidance, the proper sounding point for the bow and draw an actual tone, which was functionally impossible with the little violin they had.
March 31, 2019, 11:50 AM · "Rick Beato fed his son hours of the most complex Bach and jazz improvisation pretty much since birth, and look how he turned out.

You could play any 20 keys on the piano, and that kid will tell you what kind of polychord it is in under 5 seconds. "

He also looks like he wants to jump from the roof of a tenth-storey building.

Edited: March 31, 2019, 1:16 PM · Thanks for your thoughts -- good stuff so far. I want to assure everyone that he's not only going to get a diet of classical music; his parents have been playing other genres as well. I'm being asked for classical mainly because the kid is especially interested in an area of music where his parents have limited knowledge.

Lydia, thanks for the list! I can't look at it right now (I have Spotify only on desktop, not on my phone) but it seems like exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. Glad I'm not the only one who's tried to build this kind of playlist.

By the way, as for choice of string instrument to start on later: tiny instruments won't ever be needed. The boy is over 99th percentile height for his age and will almost certainly grow to be very tall. Both parents are tall enough to constantly be asked if they're basketball players. As of a month ago at the "instrument petting zoo", he can take a 1/8 size violin comfortably and can almost handle a 1/4 size. I wouldn't be surprised if, as an adult, he ends up playing an 18" viola.

That said: there is currently a toy piano in the house (about 3 octaves and functional) and a recorder. The parents plan to buy a cheap 1/8 size "beater" violin in the next month or two, just to get him familiar with the idea of producing sounds from the strings.

Edited: March 31, 2019, 1:16 PM · I think limiting what you show him to what adults consider accessible is a mistake. I've played an Ysaye sonata for a class-full of preschoolers, and Bartok quartets for kindergartners, and they absolutely love it. Play him good, high quality, engaging performances that you love. If you want to interest him in classical music, you want things that are going to excite him, not necessarily put him to sleep - the great thing about kids that age is that they haven't learned yet that they're not "supposed" to like classical music, and they don't have the same kneejerk negative reactions to dissonance that adults do.
Edited: March 31, 2019, 1:35 PM · Irene: as I mentioned, I'm trying to define "accessible" for this kid in particular, which is a challenge. But it's definitely not what adults would typically call "accessible." I'm not avoiding dissonance at all. (I have Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and even Adams and Higdon in my list already.) What I suspect might be too difficult is stuff like Bach fugues (too many threads to follow) and some longer late Romantic pieces (meandering and slow to develop at times). I'm wondering what people's thoughts are on those instincts.
Edited: March 31, 2019, 2:17 PM · When I was 8 years old I was thrilled by the Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, by Glinka and played the recording over and over. There is also the Wagner themes used on Bugs Bunny, which exposed many children to great Classical Music.
March 31, 2019, 1:36 PM · Referencing Andrew Victor...

I heartily agree with the twin suggestions: 'Peter and the Wolf' and 'Carnival of the Animals'. I gave the former to a young friend and he reported most encouragingly that he had heard the most beautiful thing possible: the first theme.

March 31, 2019, 4:37 PM · Lots of good suggestions already. I will just add that a recent concert program reminded me that when I was a small child, "Funiculi, Funicula" absolutely filled me with joy. It was on some children's record we had which unfortunately I can't recall the name of, and I played it over and over and over and over and over....I've always liked 6/8.
March 31, 2019, 5:01 PM · DO NOT assume that anything is "too complex" for a child. By giving them dumbed-down material, you're doing just that-making them stupid. Or, at least, less smart than they could be.
March 31, 2019, 5:08 PM · I love short pieces, both for my kids and I. With three fairly little ones, it's much more satisfying for me to put on something that can be enjoyed in smaller chunks, than trying to sustain a thread of concentration. I like to put on Josh Bell's Kreisler album, or compilations of various salon pieces from different violinists, or even just the cheapo compilation reprint albums with various classical highlights. Vivaldi Seasons/concerti, Handel Water Music, Bach Brandenburg, Mozart Eine Kleine, Copland Appalachian Spring, Grieg Peer Gynt, Holst Planets, O'Connor or Time for Three or Leroy Anderson, all are regulars for us--stuff that the kids enjoy, and is pleasant for mom to have on in the morning even when there's a lot going on. I hope someday I'll have brainspace to invest in symphonies and concerti again :D We do a lot of classical and jazz radio in the car, and both of our local stations are excellent, so we find a lot of new stuff that way.
Also, good soundtracks/genre mixes are worthwhile! Not all popular violin/orchestral music is fluff! (Not that all crossover pop is sub-par either but...!) Perlman's Cinema Serenade albums come to mind, as does of course John Williams (the master) but I've also been impressed by Randy Newman's and John Powell's stuff.
Btw Britten's Young Person's Guide to the orchestra has always been a personal favorite.

Finally--don't run screaming--my kids latched on to the "Little Einsteins" TV show at Grandma's. I was skeptical..let's just say there is some major suspension of disbelief in the plotting :D but when we spent a Saturday afternoon listening to, conducting, and accompanying Beethoven's 9th on Youtube--complete with soloists and chorus--because of Ode to Joy being "the butterfly song"--well, I can work with that! So if they watch TV you might mention it...The show's logic is way out there but the music is great!!
Fun discussion!

March 31, 2019, 9:26 PM · I second the recommendation for Little Einsteins for preschool-age kids. They do a great job showcasing both a piece of classical music (in a small, memorable fragment, primarily, though they also use the rest of the work and often other works by the same composer as background music during the episode) as well as a work of art in each episode. They also teach some musical terminology.

I also recommend the Disney version of Peter and the Wolf, which you can easily find on YouTube and elsewhere. For preschoolers, it really softens the scarier elements, while retaining the story and almost all the music. My son also likes the Abbado version, which you can find on YouTube.

Finally, my son loves watching ballet videos. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is a favorite. He also likes Prokofiev's Cinderella a lot, as well as Copland's Rodeo.

March 31, 2019, 9:58 PM · What almost everyone has said...
I think most kids with music loving families, will love music. But in my own experience and my kids, nothing stays longer and digs dipper as "Symphonic Stories". Ballet and some opera. Kids are driven by imagination, and that music is built around that ingredient.
Edited: April 1, 2019, 1:26 AM · Looking into Little Einsteins now, and it looks very promising. And thanks again, Lydia -- I didn't think of including actual ballet videos in my list, even though I have some ballet music in there. Thank you!

Carlos, is "Symphonic Stories" a video or CD series I should look for, or are you referring to theatre and program music in general?

Oh, also to clarify: I'm not saying the popular stuff is fluff at all. It's mostly that I want to recommend something that the parents aren't already familiar with and already playing for their son -- they approached me because they're aware their son's interest is rapidly overtaking their ability to cater to it. (They know more repertoire than typical non-musician parents do, but still not much beyond the pieces that appear in compilations plus a few of the "warhorse" symphonies and concertos.)

Up until now, I've already made a few individual suggestions over the past month, and they've gotten enthusiastic responses, though they've been what I think of as relatively safe picks: Borodin In the Steppes of Central Asia, Wagner Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, Mozart Kegelstatt Trio, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, Grieg Holberg Suite, and Adams The Chairman Dances.

April 1, 2019, 3:26 PM · Some suggestions: the "fun and exciting" repertoire seems hard to beat for this purpose. Someone else mentioned the Russlan and Ludmilla Overture. Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso comes to mind. Some of the Paganini Caprices - maybe the 24th for the Theme and Variations. Why not some fiddle music? And how about some Stephan Grappelli?
April 1, 2019, 10:51 PM · My son also absolutely loves Vanessa Mae's "Storm" video (Vivaldi Winter), various Lindsey Stirling videos, and lots of random videos from the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall.
Edited: April 2, 2019, 2:53 AM · Two other pieces I was enthralled by as a young child: Vivaldi Spring first movement, and Mozart Turkish March (from that same "Mozart's story" album). Also, let's not forget the entire Disney Fantasia (the original edition, in 2000 they produced a follow-up that I haven't seen but may also be very good). In that Disney Fantasia there is an enormously fascinating presentation of the "Night on the Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky. Very spooky but it ends well and the way the little church bell scares away the demon and sends all the spooks back in their graves made an ever-lasting impression on me! Perhaps he is still a little bit too young now for that fragment? And of course it also has a beautiful, funny and charming presentation of Beethoven's Pastorale symphony slow movement.
Edited: April 2, 2019, 8:38 AM · I apparently listened to what my parents were listening to. When we were little we learned how to put (vinyl) records on. My parents had everything from Pete Seeger to Schnabel playing Beethoven. Sometimes we played them at different speeds or backwards. When I was 10 my folks bought me an album by BB King. My favorite orchestral piece at that age was probably Scheherezade.
April 2, 2019, 12:23 PM · Like Paul, we listened to whatever my parents were listening to, so anything from Bach's Brandenberg concertos to Herb Albert. I remember a lot of Mozart and Beethoven solo piano, a lot of symphonic music (the usual suspects), and really anything from Baroque to 20th century. My parents didn't worry about making music accessible; any music was good. When I was about six, my aunt gave us a box of pop and rock records, which ruined me for life, but in a good way. My mother had a subscription to something called the Longines Symphonette Society, so we'd have new records every month or so. Nobody in the house really discriminated about music. I had to learn that in college, when I got snooty about Bartok.
April 2, 2019, 7:50 PM · Lydia - that's a nice playlist! I'm suggesting it to my niece who wants to expose her son to good music as early as possible of all types. I do have fond memories of "Peter and the Wolf" from the mid-60's...I will suggest this to my niece.

One thing I remember clearly was my music tastes diverged from my parents at a very early age. My parents allowed me to listen to a wide range of music and did not attempt to steer me into playing any particular type of music once I started playing (outside of making certain I did my music/violin class homework). Looking back on their deep love for old school country music it's a bit of a surprise that I was interested in classical music as early as I was. I like the connection several here have made between music and the imagination, regardless of genre.

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