Classical music can be daunting for children, but if you pick the right pieces it can spark a love that lasts a lifetime. So next time they ask for the Frozen soundtrack why not try one of these pieces instead?


Best classical music for children

1. The Carnival of the Animals

Fearing that its frivolity would sabotage his reputation as a serious composer, Saint-Saëns insisted that The Carnival of the Animals be published only after his death. Yet, ironically, this charming zoological fantasy - in which each movement describes a different animal or group of animals - is perhaps his most famous work. There's so much wit, colour and melodic flair in these 14 little musical portraits, which include a lion, elephant, donkey, tortoises, kangaroos, an aquarium, fossils and even that dangerous breed: pianists. But probably the best-known and loved of them all is The Swan, scored for two pianos and cello solo, whose delicate melody perfectly captures the animal's gliding elegance.

2. The Nutcracker

At a time when 'outreach' was not a word much heard in classical music circles, Tchaikovsky arguably did more than any classical composer since to win over a young audience. His 1892 Christmas ballet The Nutcracker is a firm favourite among families and children thanks to its charming story - based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King - and hit tunes, including the thrilling Russian Dance, the delicate Dance of the Reed Flutes and the magical Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
As well as being one of the best composers ever we named Tchaikovsky one of the greatest ballet composers of all time and Nutcracker one of the best Christmas ballets and one of the best ballet scores

3. Scheherazade

Based on One Thousand and One Nights, the same story that gave us Aladdin, this tone poem of 1888 is bursting with wonderful melodies and drama - played out across four highly characterful movements. Although its composer Rimsky-Korsakov deliberately made their titles vague so that they would not be associated with specific tales or voyages of Sinbad, children will have no difficulty in imagining a fairy-tale narrative, thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov's feel for colourful scene-painting.

4. Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition as a tribute to his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, who had died in 1873 aged 39. Shortly after Hartmann's death, Mussorgsky visited a retrospective exhibit of the artist's sketches, stage designs and architectural studies and decided to capture the experience in music. What emerged was a series of ten piano pieces, each based on a different exhibit, each packed full of fantastical, even downright bizarre, imagery. Some of them, including The Hut on Fowl's Legs and The Great Gate of Kiev, pack the biggest punch when heard in Ravel's masterful orchestration of 1922. But there's a lot to be said for the vivid, pictorial detail of the original 1874 piano composition.

5. The Planets

First things first. This ever-popular 1914 piece by Holst is not really about the planets. Rather, Holst aimed, in his music, to create a series of what he called 'mood pictures,' assigning different personalities to the various planets, partly inspired by mythology. And so we have 'Mars – the bringer of war'; 'Venus – the bringer of peace'; 'Mercury, the winged messenger', 'Jupiter – the bringer of jollity', 'Saturn – the bringer of old age', 'Uranus – the magician' and 'Neptune – the mystic'. It makes for a work of great personality and humour, with huge dramatic contrast and some smashing tunes - most famously in the central section of 'Jupiter'.

6. Peter and the Wolf

Expressly written as a symphonic fairytale for children, Prokofiev's 1936 piece is a fantastic introduction to classical music, with each character in the story represented by a different instrument: the wolf by three horns, the duck by the oboe, the bird by a flute and the grandfather by the bassoon. Plus, you'll find versions narrated by all sorts of great personalities, from David Bowie to Alexander Armstrong.

7. Children's Corner

Debussy adored his only daughter, Claude Emma, whom he affectionately called Chou-Chou. In 1906, when she was just one year old, he started writing a piece of music for her, setting out both to entertain her, and to capture the essence of watching a child grow up from a nostalgic parent's point of view. The result was a suite of six delightful little pieces inspired by her favourite toys: Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, Jimbo's Lullaby, Serenade for the Doll, The Snow Is Dancing, The Little Shepherd and Golliwogg's Cakewalk - whose music was charming, despite the problematic nature of the doll it was named after.

8. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Britten takes his young listeners on a whirlwind tour in this 1945 piece, using a stately tune by the Baroque composer Henry Purcell to show off the characteristics of all the instruments in a symphony orchestra. It begins with a statement of the theme, followed by several variations that each feature a particular instrument in-depth, before concluding in climactic style: with a fugue of astounding complexity, originality and tuneful brilliance. You'll find recordings of both narrated and unnarrated versions, but my favourite is of Britten himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

9. Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel is not only for children. Its composer Humperdinck had worked closely with Wagner, and that Wagnerian influence can be heard throughout this 1892 opera, both in its sophisticated orchestration and its luxurious harmonic language. Yet, with its familiar fairy-tale story and folk-inspired melodies, one of the most famous being the 'Abendsegen' ('Evening Benediction'), from Act 2, this is the perfect gateway into opera for children, particularly since it's less than two hours long.

10. Swan Lake


Tchaikovsky's 1876 ballet Swan Lake about the cursed love of Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette, who was turned into a swan by the evil Baron Von Rothbart, ranks up there with The Nutcracker in terms of its popularity with families. Like The Nutcracker, it lures huge crowds every Christmas, but it's much more than a Christmas cracker: in creating a score that was more like a symphonic work, Tchaikovsky set his sights far higher than what was typically expected of dance music in his time. Among the work's most famous tunes is the Swan Theme, a delicate oboe solo heralded by string tremolos and harp arppegios. But the melodic pickings in this magical work are richly varied.


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.