Kids' Classical Countdown

A top ten list of classical masterpieces for parents and their kids

10, 9, 8, 7, 6...

Looking to bolster your child’s knowledge of classical music or simply trying to broaden their knowledge of music in general? Whatever your reason, here’s a different kind of musical hit list— our choices for the top 10 works in Western classical music for kids and their parents.


Identify the instruments of the orchestra with our Instrument Spotter's Guide.

Peter and the Wolf
by Sergei Prokofiev

If you’re thinking of easing your child into a lifelong appreciation of classical music, this musical fairytale—complete with spoken narration––is a good place to start. Instruments assume the roles of Peter (a plucky little boy), the Wolf (his nasty nemesis), and a host of woodland characters.

Where you may have heard it: In Disney’s animated Peter and the Wolf, or on an episode of Angelina Ballerina entitled “Angelina’s Musical Day.” The Wolf’s music is also used as the “bully” theme in the movie A Christmas Story.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le Carnaval des Animaux (The Carnival of the Animals)


L’apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)
by Paul Dukas

This famous late 19th-century bassoon showcase is a sparkling bit of “program music” (music that is based on something other than itself, like a book, a poem, or a play) and a brilliant way to introduce kids to some unusual orchestral sounds like the piccolo (a sort of “mini-flute”).

Where you may have heard it: In the famous segment of Disney’s Fantasia–think broomsticks! The theme also plays a recurring role in the credits of the 2010 film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Gustav Holst’s The Planets, VI. Uranus, the Magician or Mozart’s Concerto for Bassoon in B flat


Learn how Stravinsky's Rite of Spring drove the crowd wild at Sounds Historic.

The Firebird Suite
by Igor Stravinsky

With music based on Michel Fokine and Stravinsky’s 1909 ballet of the same name, this suite features probably the most elaborate version of a musical “round” you’re apt to find. “Row, row, row your boat” has nothing on this piece; during the finale, various instruments layer the same tune on top of one another until the entire orchestra joins together for one explosive ending.

Where you may have heard it: As the final segment in Disney’s Fantasia 2000.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (with orchestrations by Maurice Ravel)


The Planets
by Gustav Holst

Composer Gustav Holst, a sort of amateur horoscope fan, decided to name the movements of this massive work after the planets in our solar system (minus Earth and Pluto), claiming each “suggested” or inspired its own unique musical section based on its astrological profile. The rhythmically-infectious music calls for several rarely seen instruments like the glockenspiel, the xylophone, the gong, and the organ. Plus, the work is positively cinematic in its ability to depict images of conflict, solitude, mystery, and joy.

Where you may have heard it: “Jupiter” (movement IV) appears in a recent Reese’s Pieces commercial.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and The Firebird Suite


Overture to Guillaume Tell (William Tell Overture)
by Gioachino Rossini

The overture to Italian master Gioachino Rossini’s final opera is so catchy and “action-packed,” it’s earned a place on the concert stage all its own. Though things start small with only a few instruments, the music soon builds to a startling conclusion filled with cymbal crashes and a famous horn melody. Listen for some stirring musical sound effects, such as the quick, sharp notes from the low strings that are meant to resemble galloping horses.

Where you may have heard it: This one is best known as the theme song to classic TV’s The Lone Ranger.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Rossini’s Overture to Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

...5, 4, 3, 2, 1!

Continuing the countdown…

Take 5 - #5 

Crazy about Copland? Find out the story behind Fanfare for the Common Man

“Hoedown” from Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes
by Aaron Copland

Ask a classical music lover to describe Aaron Copland’s style in one word and the adjective you’ll most likely hear is “American.” There’s something about Copland’s works that instantly conjures up images of purple mountains majesty, and the last movement of Rodeo (originally conceived as a high-stepping “cowboy” ballet) with its pulsating fiddles and punchy xylophone melodies is no exception.

Where you may have heard it: As the theme song to the “Beef” commercial campaign of the 1990s.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid

Take 5 - #4 

Want to know more about the history of the 1812 Overture? Head over to Sounds Historic.

1812 Overture
by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

You haven’t heard “big, bold, and brassy” until you’ve heard this bit of history, written in 1880 in celebration of the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812. (If you listen very carefully, you can hear traces of both the French national anthem and the Russian anthem from Tchaikovsky’s day.) Though Tchaikovsky himself dismissed the piece as being “very loud and noisy,” (there’s even cannon fire!) its trademark fanfare melody has made it irresistible to generations of listeners.

Where you may have heard it: The work is often used as a “big finish” for a concert line up, especially on the Fourth of July.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite or Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite


Take 3 - #3 

There's even more Mozart over at A World of Music.

Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G Major: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”)
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This effortlessly graceful work for strings was most likely created as a bit of 18th-century light entertainment––a musical interlude for an evening of upper class Enlightenment partying. British actor, director, author, and music-lover Stephen Fry praises its “fun, almost throwaway, feel,” but don’t be fooled by its cheeky facade. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s striking use of musical contrasts (i.e., soft to loud, high to low) has much to teach kids about the dynamics of music.

Where you may have heard it: Often used in films during a fancy party or a scene in a high-end establishment.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet in A or Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C

Take 5 - #2 

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
by Johann Sebastian Bach

New York Times music writer Anthony Tommasini said of Johann Sebastian Bach that “Including [him] is a no-brainer,” when it comes to selecting the top 10 composers of all time. The Brandenburg concerti (a set of six completed in 1721) are shining examples of Bach’s ability to explore the rainbow of sounds an orchestra has to offer—from light to dark and everything in between. The 3rd is a fun and bouncy work written for strings, featuring an interesting “call and response” between various instrument groups.

Where you may have heard it: Like Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Brandenburg concerti are often trotted out in TV and movies when trying to create an elegant atmosphere. No. 3 made a brief appearance on TV’s The Gilmore Girls.

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

Take 1 - #1 

Can't get enough Beethoven? Check out Beethoven Rocks!

Symphonies No. 5 & 9
by Ludwig van Beethoven

Okay, we’re cheating a little here by including two pieces in one slot, but we have good reason. These two works rank among the most famous in the canon, and you seldom hear the one mentioned without the other. Music writer Tim Smith says of Beethoven’s 5th that “the first four notes…are perhaps the best known in the world.” (Think: da-da-da-DUM.) Similarly, the “Ode to Joy” from the 9th’s final movement is one of the most hummable and instantly recognizable themes in all of Western music. These two symphonies (a taste of both are in the player below) are a must for every classical music novice.

Where you may have heard them: Everywhere! Pop culture abounds with references to these symphonies. Here’s just a sample:

For the 5th: The 70s disco track “A Fifth of Beethoven”

For the 9th: The “Joyful, Joyful” finale from the film Sister Act 2, and the YouTube sensation “Ode to Joy” from the Muppets

If it’s a hit, you can also try: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3Eroica,” Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “The Emperor

The Runners-Up

Children playing piano

Our classical music resources don't end here!

Explore the relationship between music and history with Sounds Historic.

Discover orchestral chills and thrills with Spooky Sounds and Scary Tales.

Meet Mr. Big in Beethoven Rocks!

Take a journey across musical Europe with A World of Music, or explore music at home with Classical Music in America.

Or just learn about the instruments of the orchstra with Perfect Pitch or our Instrument Spotter's Guide.

Want to download these pieces? Visit our iTunes Playlist.

Here are our “honorable mentions”—a great way to continue your child’s journey into the world of classical music.

Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
by Benjamin Britten
(No, this is not the title of a book! Britten wrote this composition as a perfect crash course in how an orchestra works, designed specifically for young listeners)

Toccata and Fugue in D minor
by Johann Sebastian Bach

Symphony No. 40 in G minor
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

by George Frederic Handel
(You can learn more about this massive choral work here)

Also Sprach Zarathustra
by Richard Strauss

Rhapsody in Blue
by George Gershwin

Overture to Candide
by Leonard Bernstein

Night on Bald Mountain
by Modest Mussorgsky

Danse Macabre
by Camille Saint-Saëns

The Stars and Stripes Forever
by John Philip Sousa



Eleni Hagen
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: A Biographical and Critical Study, Vol. III: The Years of Wondering. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1986.

Butterworth, Neil. The Music of Aaron Copland. London: Toccata Press, 1985.

Fry, Stephen. Stephen Fry’s Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music as Told to Tim Lihoreau. London: Pan Books, 2005.

Greene, Richard. Holst: The Planets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Grout, Donald J. and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Holst, Imogen. Gustav Holst. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lunday, Elizabeth. The Secret Lives of Great Composers. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009.

Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man. New York: Schirmer Books, 1991.

Routh, Frances. The Master Musicians: Stravinsky. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1975.

Smith, Tim. The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music. New York: Perigee, 2002.

Tommasini, Anthony. “The Greatest,” The New York Times, January 7, 2011 (digital), January 9, 2011 (print).

Weinstock, Herbert. Rossini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1987.

Works Cited

Butterworth, Neil. The Music of Aaron Copland. London: Toccata Press, 1985.

Fry, Stephen. Stephen Fry’s Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music as Told to Tim Lihoreau. London: Pan Books, 2005.

Lunday, Elizabeth. The Secret Lives of Great Composers. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009.

Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man. New York: Schirmer Books, 1991.

Smith, Tim. The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music. New York: Perigree, 2002.

Tommasini, Anthony. “The Greatest,” The New York Times, January 7, 2011 (digital), January 9, 2011 (print).

Music Excerpts

Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev. Zubin Mehta/Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI Digital, CDC 547067

The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas. Sir Alexander Gibson/Scottish National Orchestra, Chandos CHAN 6503

The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky. Charles Dutoit/Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, London 414 409-2

The Planets (Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity) by Gustav Holst. Andre Previn/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Telarc CD-80133

Overture to William Tell by Gioachino Rossini. Sir Neville Marriner/Acagemy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, EMI Digital CDC 7 49155 2

Rodeo (Hoedown) by Aaron Copland. Erich Kunzel/Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Telarc CD-80339

1812 Overture by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Antal Dorati/Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury 434 360-2

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgqang Amadeus Mozart. Christoph von Dohnanyi/The Cleveland Orchestra, London G2-43175

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach. Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonoker, Deutsche Grammophon 431 173-2

Symphony No. 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Leonard Bernstein/Wiener Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon 431 049-2

Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven. John Eliot Gardiner/Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique/The Monteverdi Choir, Archiv 447 074-2

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