Learning to play the piano is the beginning of a great adventure for young children, who will make many musical discoveries that will enrich their lives. Some may go on to make music a career, and they will always remember their first exercises at the keyboard.
For generations, parents, experts, and educators have recommended simple pieces of piano music from the classical keyboard repertoire that are the most suitable for these early learners. Those on this list are a few of the most often recommended, both for their innate beauty and their value as learning tools.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise
The short piece “Für Elise” (“For Elise”) is one of the most instantly recognizable of the world’s simplest piano compositions. Listed in the Beethoven catalog as “Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor,” for the youngest students it is anything but a frivolous throwaway piece. Educators often suggest it as a practice piece based on its clear melodic line and pleasing harmonics.
Beethoven’s original manuscript for this piece likely does not refer to an “Elise.” Some scholars believe that the obscured first title read “Für Therese” (possibly referring to a young woman who spurned the composer’s marriage proposal). “Elise” may have come about as the result of a transcription error.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata No. 16 in C Major
Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, known as “Sonata semplice,” or “Sonata facile,” is only “facile” because it is easy for beginners to play. He created it as a solo piece just for young beginners at the piano. It is a perennial favorite because it affords them the chance to perform a piece by this notoriously difficult composer with confidence.
The catchy melody and easy progression of the musical parts of this composition make it relatively simple to understand and to perfect for beginners. In performance, it typically takes about 14 minutes total.
3. Johann Sebastian Bach: Minuet in G Major
Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, left behind a notebook that contained this short harpsichord piece, which she had carefully hand-copied. Her notebook consisted of pieces by major composers of her time and before, a list that naturally included her husband. But some scholars today attribute this particularly lovely little piece not to Bach, but to fellow composer Christian Petzold.
Whoever the original composer may have been, Minuet in G remains a favorite of students and their teachers. It immediately leaps out of the air with a sprightly beginning, offers simple and easily distinguished variations, and ends with a sweet and definitive conclusion.
4. Robert Schumann: “Einsame Blumen”
In the original German, “Einsame Blumen” means “Lonely Flowers.” Schumann wrote this simple, melodic piece for his wife, Clara. She was also a distinguished pianist and performer.
The piece is part of the larger Schumann collection of piano miniature compositions entitled Waldszenen (“Forest Scenes”), Op. 82. Each one is a small tone poem that, in loving detail, offers an image of wilderness romanticism. “Einsame Blumen” is an excellent choice as a teaching vehicle for young beginners. Additionally, it remains a staple of the concert repertoire due to its soft, soothing quality and its gentle musical transitions.
5. Frédéric Chopin: Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4
Chopin was a virtuoso pianist, but he composed a number of pieces that are easy enough for young beginners. These include the haunting, simple melody and spare harmonies of this Prelude in E Minor.
Music teachers often recommend that students new to Chopin start with learning his preludes, as they are the simplest and most accessible part of his oeuvre. This particular prelude is typically considered among the easiest piano pieces for a beginner to execute. This is due in part to its easy, distinctive melodic line for the right hand, accompanied by the series of basic chords for the left.
6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Italian Song”
Tchaikovsky was not himself particularly known as a virtuoso of the piano. His collection in Op. 39, “Album for the Young,” reflects his focus on teaching young beginners through relatively simple compositions. “Italian Song” is perhaps the best-known of these, offering a lively, lilting, picturesque melody with a strong through-line.
Other compositions in “Album for the Young” are even simpler: “The Sick Doll” and “Morning Prayer” are typically ranked by music educators as highly suitable for young beginners. Other pieces in the collection are somewhat more difficult, and are perhaps better adapted for the needs of more skilled players.
7. Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1
Satie, well-known as an early 20th century avant-garde French composer, created his series of “Gymnopédies” in 1888. They have stood the test of time among the simplest and loveliest beginning piano melodies. Additionally, the fact that they are meant to be played at slow tempos enhances their value to the youngest students.
Today, Gymnopédie No. 1 is instantly recognizable from its frequent use in film and television as a slow-paced mood piece. In fact, a number of critics have cited it as one of the most relaxing pieces to have ever been composed.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) points out that there is still no one comprehensive training program for music teachers on the best methods of teaching to students with disabilities and other special needs. Special education teachers may also be concerned about finding the most appropriate and memorable ways of bringing music into their classrooms.
With that in mind, here are a few notes on using music to expand the classroom experience for students with special needs:
1. Extraordinary benefits
Music holds an immense untapped potential to transform the lives of young people with special cognitive and emotional needs. It can build motor skills, social skills, and the ability to communicate with others. Using music as a tool can enrich the life of a child with special needs by making him or her more self-aware, more aware of the world, and better able to understand the people in it. It can serve as an easily accessible bridge from a child’s own inner world to the worlds of others.
Music therapists point out that setting lessons—in any subject—to music makes the material easier for students to process and retain. Music can serve as a motivational tool and a way of keeping track of time. Teachers may find that where other strategies have failed, music may be the key to facilitating communication with students with special needs, particularly those who are non-verbal.
Children with special intellectual or developmental needs sometimes show a gift for music. And, even for students with special needs who don’t show an obvious aptitude for making music, the very presence of music in the classroom can help overall educational progress.
2. A total neurological package
All areas of the human brain, as well as almost all of the human sense organs, receive stimulation from making or listening to music. This translates into music’s capacity to boost cognitive capacities in significant ways.
Because music engages multiple senses at once, it has an instant and powerful effect on both hemispheres of the brain, as well as the entire human nervous system.
Finnish investigators have discovered that simply hearing music stimulates broad swaths of neuro networks, including those that govern the creative process and coordinated movement.
While playing music of any kind, many parts of the brain receive stimulation: the cerebellum, a range of cortexes involved with sensation and movement, the prefrontal region, and the limbic system and its amygdala, which are responsible for responding to and remembering emotions.
3. Enhancing the musical experience
There are a number of resources that can even create customized music for special needs students, assisting them in distinguishing the sounds of spoken language or serving as aids to memorization and learning.
4. The power of percussion
Percussion instruments can be especially meaningful for students with special needs. Drums, shakers, and similar instruments provide an immediate sound in response to a physical activity, which can help sight-impaired students improve their ability to control their own movements and understand the nature of cause and effect.
The ability to touch and feel the shapes and physical textures of a variety of instruments is also beneficial, as is being able to feel the sound vibrations that follow a particular action.
5. A sample rhythm program
NAfME’s website offers some tips on how to build a structured approach to teaching the simple concept of rhythm to students with special needs:
First, start off by, as a group, clapping students’ names. Because our names are so intimately familiar to us, it is an easy way for those with special needs to connect to a beat and a pattern. This type of exercise is doubly valuable in that it reinforces the memorization of classmates’ names as well.
The next step includes using common words and phrases in rhythmic clapping. Words can be topical—tied in with an approaching holiday, for example—or can represent everyday things in students’ worlds. Displaying an image of the word or words is additionally helpful for any students who still may struggle with word recognition.
At this point, teachers can put background music into the mix to support classroom rhythm games.
At the next level, teachers can incorporate the use of color to teach musical notation. Each type of note value can have its own color; for example, blue can indicate a whole note, green a half note, and so on. A posted picture of a word that represents the musical expression, with the color-coded notes beneath it, can provide extra support as students learn to rely only on the notation.
As students become more comfortable with this phase in their learning, the teacher can gradually eliminate the pictures and the color-coding, encouraging students to read the original musical notation without any prompts.
6. Pairing music with visual stimulation
Visual cues are also very helpful for students with special needs learning to remember song lyrics. By fixing images of the words they are singing above the lyrics, teachers can support students in their processing and recall of the new information. Often, adding movement to the singing of lyrics can serve as an additional mnemonic.
7. Giving music its due in education plans
Teachers of children with special needs should ensure that each student’s individualized education plan includes a place for music instruction—and for the joys of creative self-expression that come along with it.
The universality of music as an art form—and as a cultural treasure—has become a cliche. However, as music teachers know, that cliche represents an important truth about the way in which music can expand horizons, facilitate understanding, and contribute to a broader appreciation of the heritages of all the people in the world.
Children who learn that there are others much like themselves who make music, dance, and sing together just as they do, can be a powerful motivator for them to learn more about other cultures. And when they participate in positive programs that introduce them to cultures other than their own, they learn to become more tolerant and accepting of other human beings.
In addition, participation in multicultural musical activities exposes children to a wider variety of sounds, intonations, and rhythms than they would ordinarily experience at home.
Educators point out that the process of teaching children music from a rich variety of cultures should begin in early childhood with an emphasis on broad participation. And any good early childhood music program will typically incorporate rhythmic movement activities and opportunities to develop social skills.
Studies validate multicultural music experiences.
Research has shown that when children hear music from other cultures, they develop the ability to perceive fine distinctions among sounds. This is just the type of experience that helps them to acquire and build on vital early language skills. They also learn the art of listening and increasing their ability to concentrate.
Experts assure anxious parents that hearing music in multiple languages—just as in the case of learning a second language—actually helps young children to improve their primary language skills.
World Music Day honors many traditions.
In fact, there is an entire day dedicated to the celebration of listening to, performing, and enjoying music from all over the world. World Music Day, which is observed in a multitude of ways in numerous countries, occurs on June 21 of each year.
The observance began in France, as Fête de la Musique, in the early 1980s. Since then, it has served as a means of promoting free access to music for everyone in some 700 cities worldwide, and it is supported by organizations such as Musicians Without Borders.
A treasure trove of recorded music.
Teachers and parents who want to focus on offering a multicultural palette of musical experiences can begin with one of the many well-reviewed recordings for children. These include the series published by Putumayo, which provides high-quality CDs of representative musical compositions from a wide range of cultures for children of all ages.
Putumayo’s children’s catalog, which is available online, includes the classroom favorite and Parents’ Choice award-winner World Playground. The label’s other selections include Kids’ African Party, which also offers an aid to learning with a list of instruments and musical genres that are distinctly African.
Other Putumayo titles include Cuban Playground, Italian Playground, and other “Playground” CDs featuring musical styles from New Orleans, Brazil, France, and the Caribbean. The albums are joined by several “Dreamland” collections, featuring multicultural songs suitable for quiet family times.
A classic American performer interprets the music of the world.
Ella Jenkins is a performer beloved by generations of parents and children. Jenkins, an African-American singer and actress, has worked since the 1950s to deliver definitive renditions of a wide range of folk songs for audiences of children. Her albums are available on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Jenkins’ classic Smithsonian Folkways albums include Multi-Cultural Children’s Songs and More Multicultural Children’s Songs. Children can enjoy songs from these albums that teach common greetings in many languages, including Swahili. Other tracks include renditions of beloved songs depicting the cultures of Israel, China, Australia, Germany, and many other nations.
Smithsonian also publishes Jenkins’ early albums Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, which introduces listeners to West African music, and Adventures in Rhythm, which teaches awareness of rhythmic concepts in music from the very basic to the more complex.
A bilingual educator offers multiple ways to learn music.
José-Luis Orozco is another musical artist with an international catalog that spans decades. A teacher with a master’s degree in education, Orozco has made a career of sharing the joys of music in Spanish and English with children and their families. He performs throughout the Americas to promote the value of bilingualism and multicultural understanding.
Orozco’s albums include Caramba Kids, De Colores, Esta es mi tierra/This Land Is Your Land, and numerous others. His website also offers educational kits that can enhance classroom music and cultural programming.
Putting traditional American classics in a global frame.
Another Smithsonian Folkways artist, Elizabeth Mitchell, offers recordings anchored in her early work as a teacher of young children in New York City. Her classes consisted of children who spoke a wide range of languages. Mitchell discovered that music could serve as a bridge among cultures. She has since gone on to immerse herself in the American and world folk music traditions. Her highly accessible albums include You Are My Little Bird, which features interpretations of American Appalachian and other folk melodies appropriate for all ages.
When parents and teachers first think about fiction titles for children on the subject of music, the ones that first come to mind are likely to be picture books. But there are also a wide range of absorbing novels for middle-grade readers, each bringing the world of creating and performing music to life. Here are only a few:
1. The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White
White is better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. However, The Trumpet of the Swan is a worthy addition to a young reader’s bookshelf in its own right.
The novel’s protagonist is Louis, a young trumpeter swan that the author named after legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Louis is broken-hearted because he cannot make a sound. He wants to be able to communicate with Serena, a beautiful swan who has won his heart.
When Louis learns to read and write, aided by his friend Sam Beaver, he only confuses his swan friends. But when Louis’ father steals a trumpet for him to play, the young swan shows that he is more than a voice. In this, his final book for children, White conveys the joy of music and the equal joyfulness of self-expression.
Director Richard Rich created a 2001 animated film adaptation of White’s 1970 masterpiece.
2. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This Newbery Award-winning title also earned a Coretta Scott King Award for its vivid portrayal of the title character, an African-American boy living during the Great Depression. The 10-year-old Bud, whose mother died when he was only six, sets out on a train to find his missing father, as well as to track down the famous jazz musician Herman Calloway. As he learns about his family’s history, Bud also falls deeply in love with the rhythms of jazz.
Curtis’ 1999 book was later turned into a jazz-flavored musical that has delighted young people all over the country in touring performances.
3. Hidden Voices by Pat Lowery Collins
This 2009 historical fiction title for mature young people ages 12 and up is subtitled The Orphan Musicians of Venice. It is the story of three teenage girls who live in an orphanage in the early 18th century.
However, this particular orphanage has built up an extraordinary program of music education, and that theme pervades the book. The three girls all begin their lives searching for love. They find it in their growing devotion to the musical arts under the tutelage of composer Antonio Vivaldi.
But there is danger outside the orphanage walls. Each of the main characters experiences the complexities of life, love, and personal trauma in different ways. The book is a rich depiction of the capacity of rigorous musical study to strengthen the human spirit.
4. Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry
Parry’s exciting, sensitive 2012 book is a look at the adventures of Jody, a 13-year-old girl in Berlin in 1990 in the wake of the fall of Communist governments across Eastern Europe and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Jody, a violinist, lives with her family on an American army base. She and her two best friends are the members of an ensemble string trio who hope to perform in a competition in Paris. But their plans are derailed when they are the only ones who can rescue a young Russian soldier who becomes the object of attempted murder.
As the girls try to save the young man by helping him reach Paris, they become embroiled in political intrigue and learn the strengthening and revitalizing power of the art they have chosen.
5. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
The harmonica is the star of this well-researched and deeply moving novel about musical vocation, identity, courage, and compassion.
Ryan follows the story of a particular harmonica through the lives of multiple children at multiple times and places. Their musical stories touch on the tragedies of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the prejudices against Mexican migrant laborers in mid-20th century California, and the harsh lives of children in an orphanage. Ryan received a 2016 Newbery Honor Award for the book.
The audiobook version of Ryan’s beautifully-written historical and contemporary fable is made richer with accompanying musical performances.
6. I Am Drums by Mike Grosso
In Grosso’s 2016 book, middle school student Sam not only plays the drums, she lives the drums, hearing the beat even in her sleep. Unfortunately, her parents don’t have the money to support her dreams by buying her a drum set of her own. Additionally, her school loses its music program due to budget cuts.
Sam creates a drum kit out of old magazines and books while coping with her father’s job loss and her parents’ constant arguing and lack of understanding of her passion. Her love of music prompts Sam to test the limits of what she is prepared to do to achieve her goals. She even lies to her family about starting a lawn-mowing venture to earn money.
The author, a music teacher himself, creates a story based on the real dilemmas many kids like Sam face. He establishes reader empathy for his central character, her missteps and successes, and her dream to be a musician.
Pythagoras might have been speaking for numerous others when he said that he found music in the spacings between the planets and geometry in the sounds of strings. Plato wrote of harmonies in mathematics and how they parallel harmony in a just society. Confucius also found numerous eternal truths in the unfolding of pieces of music.
These ancient philosophers grasped truths about the interconnectedness of music and mathematics that have become even more clear over the centuries.
Here are only a few insights, based on the experiences of musicians and mathematicians, about this close relationship:
1. Activation of analogous skills
Music students, when tested, tend to show more skill in mathematics than their non-musical peers. High levels of cognitive processing ability and executive function—which involves self-regulation and self-management in order to achieve a goal—are essential for success in both fields.
Research also supports the notion that executive function, even more so than overall intelligence, has been shown to influence academic achievement. Learning math ties into the development of executive function by calling on a child to analyze, identify key concepts, and proceed through a series of logical steps. Likewise, learning to play a musical instrument enhances this capacity by, among other factors, drawing on the ability to calibrate motor movements in response to changes of time signature and key.
2. A beautiful symmetry
Some mathematicians explain their field by focusing on how they work to extract the essential elements of any given thing and study the characteristics and interactions of those elements on an abstract plane. This type of learning can help students to understand music and can lead to a deeper engagement with the essential elements of a musical composition.
Music can inspire students to learn more about mathematics through studying, for example, the properties and manifestations of sound. Innovative mathematics teachers have even brought opera singers into their classrooms to show students how the patterns of mathematics are part of the essence of music.
3. Simplicity within complexity
Every note a composer writes or a musician plays is involved in an intricate web of harmony, rhythm, and mathematical patterns.
These patterns tend to be built around elements of symmetry. For example, just as the shapes of regular geometric figures remain the same when rotated, a musical tune can be transposed to another key in a composition such as a fugue.
In a Mandelbrot set, a famous fractal, a smaller replica of the entire patterned set can always be found hidden at the core of any other image in the set. So, we might also say that a musical fractal occurs when one theme harmonizes with a slower version of itself. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, showcased a talent for repeating his themes numerous times throughout a variety of permutations.
4. A composition made possible by math
In fact, thanks to an extraordinary mathematical insight, Bach had the tools he needed to compose The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. The piece consists of a set of masterful preludes and fugues, one in each of the major and minor keys.
But Bach could not have created this much-loved work without mathematics. In 1636, the French monk and mathematician Marin Mersenne successfully solved a difficult problem by deriving the twelfth root of the number 2, thus paving the way for the division of the octave into 12 equal semitones.
Before this division and the associated method of equal temperament of musical instruments, pieces transposed into new keys often sounded uneven and unpleasing. But after Mersenne’s achievement, musicians were able to work with a 12-part octave, evenly spaced and divided into ratios. They could then write music in every key and transpose easily from one key to another. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was the first noteworthy example of this musical revolution.
5. How math determines pitch
A discussion of pitch is only one way to demonstrate how math undergirds sound.
Pitch is based on wave frequencies. All audible sounds are produced by changes in the air pressure of the pockets surrounding a sound wave. The frequency that hits the human ear translates into the perceived pitch. Each note possesses its own individual frequency.
For an example of sound waves in action, think of a train whistle. Notice that the sound seems higher-pitched as the train approaches. But after the train goes by, the sound seems lower. As the train speeds toward the listener, the forward movement compresses the arriving air pockets against each other, thus pushing them forward more frequently. As a result, the sound seems higher-pitched. Then as the train recedes into the distance, the air pockets slow in their arrival to the ear, giving a lower pitch.
We perceive the most pleasant-sounding chords when we combine notes with sound waves that reverberate in analogous patterns. The mathematical ratios of the intervals between notes give the means of calculating which note combinations produce harmony and which create discord.
Frequency is measured in terms of hertz, and notes with higher pitch have a higher frequency. Middle C has a frequency of approximately 262 hertz. This means that, when middle C sounds on a piano, the sound waves that reach a listener’s ear consist of 262 pockets of higher air pressure striking against the ear every second. As a comparison, the E just above middle C sounds at approximately 329.63 hertz.
Building an understanding of the physics and mathematics behind pitch also leads students to a fuller understanding of octaves, chords, and other musical elements.
6. Pairing music and math in the classroom
When teaching music in the classroom, teachers can incorporate math in a multitude of ways. One is to ask older children to identify the parts of a musical pattern, then to restate the rule governing that pattern. They can go on to use their analysis of patterns to make predictions about the future direction of a composition. An exploration of time signatures and chords can also be the basis for lessons in how math and music work together.
Before younger children even learn the formal concepts of mathematics, they learn through experience about rhythm, repetition, and proportional relationships among musical concepts. They can clap out the syllables of their names, and then see if they can match the number of syllables in their own names to those in other students’ names. They can also echo their teacher, with voice or movement, as he or she calls out and varies notes, beats, and tempos.
When teaching music to young children, educators and parents today can choose from a wide range of colorful, fun, and fascinating picture books that will enhance their lesson plans. Here are only a few of the best books for preschoolers and early elementary students that offer lilting texts and multi-layered pictures to help to convey the joy found in music.
1. Music, Music for Everyone
2. My Family Plays Music
My Family Plays Music, written by Judy Cox and illustrated by Elbrite Brown, showcases the lives of an entire family of musicians in bright and lively cut-paper pictures. Educators have praised the book as a first introduction to the range of musical instruments children can play. Published by Holiday House, it received a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent Illustrator after its original publication in 2003.
The heroine of the story practices making music with a variety of instruments alongside different members of her family. She tries out the triangle with her father and his string quartet, joins her aunt’s jazz band playing the woodblock, and more.
3. Kat Writes a Song
Kat Writes a Song, written and illustrated by Greg Foley, is a story of inspiration, creativity, and the ability of music to brighten anyone’s day. Published by the Little Simon imprint in 2018, the book stars Kat, a kitten who is feeling down and lonely on a rainy day. She writes and sings a song, and finds the clouds and rain going away. But the magic really begins when she decides to share her song to lift the spirits of her friends and others in the neighborhood.
4. Barnyard Boogie!
5. Music Class Today!
Part of the Music for Aardvarks series, Music Class Today! was written by David Weinstone and illustrated by Vin Vogel. Published in 2015 by Farrar Straus Giroux, Music Class Today! is the simple story of a music class, one shy student, and how to find the inner strength to try new experiences. The lively text and illustrations bring the excitement of making music as a group to life.
In addition to his work as a picture book author, Weinstone created the imagination-fueled Music for Aardvarks CDs and classes for young children.
6. Miguel and the Grand Harmony
The making of Miguel and the Grand Harmony brought together Newbery Award-winning writer Matt de la Peña and Pixar artist Ana Ramírez to create an original work of art based on characters from the beloved movie Coco. The book, published by Disney Press in 2017, tells the story of Miguel. Prohibited from making music, the young boy practices on his homemade guitar in secret. He gets help from the spirit of La Música, who creates the right sequence of circumstances that will allow his dream to come true.
The book’s rich illustrations celebrate music’s ability to be a creative force that enhances life’s journey.
7. Geraldine, the Music Mouse
8. Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin
And finally, there is Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. The now-classic picture story treatment of the instruments of the orchestra was written by Lloyd Moss, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, and published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in 1995.
This Caldecott Honor book spotlights the distinctive voices of 10 different instruments in catchy and musically rhyming words set amidst a swirl of saturated pinks, golds, and other colors. It also serves as a counting book, as one by one the instruments and their musicians take the stage.
Across the world, dedicated musicians have helped nurture the talents of new generations of young performers in the classical tradition through a variety of youth symphony orchestra experiences. These organizations, regardless of their location, share a set of common goals: to train young men and women in the rigors of musical interpretation while helping them develop vital life skills such as cooperation, self-discipline, goal-setting, and professionalism.
Here are summaries of the histories and work of only a few of the world’s many youth orchestras active today:
1. The Children’s Orchestra Society
In 1962, Dr. Hiao-Tsiun Ma established the Children’s Orchestra Society (COS) as a means of teaching children to appreciate and perform music, and to understand the values of collaboration and teamwork. Since then, the New York-based nonprofit organization has transformed the lives of numerous young people by helping them gain skills in musicianship and performance that have had lasting positive effects on their lives. Thanks to the training COS offers, young musicians can perform at high levels as members of groups dedicated to classical and chamber music, and play alongside established adult performers.
The COS continues to operate under the principles of its founder. Dr. Ma, a musicologist and teacher in his native China and in the West, was the father of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, who currently heads the COS. The society’s child-centered philosophy aims to provide a supportive environment optimized for the unfolding of each student’s own innate musical gifts, with parts written specifically to enhance individual competencies.
2. The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra
The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra was founded in 1999. Originally funded with grant monies from the local Jewish Community Federation, the organization—then known as the Los Angeles Jewish Youth Orchestra—focused on Jewish-themed liturgical and other music. Its mission soon widened to include performance of the full range of music from the world’s musical heritage, both classical and contemporary.
Under the leadership of composer and music director Russell Steinberg, who arranged several symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn and created original compositions specifically for the group, its musicians’ talents blossomed.
As its repertoire grew and diversified, so did the orchestra’s membership. By 2003, its performers included some five dozen students from a variety of backgrounds and representing about 50 Los Angeles-area high schools. In acknowledgement of this broader focus, that year Steinberg renamed the group the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. In 2008, the group earned official nonprofit status.
Since its debut, the LAYO has hosted West Coast and world premieres of a number of original compositions. Its schedule includes regular public performances, and it has planned a 2019 Argentina Tour, in which its members will perform four concerts in Buenos Aires, including an outreach concert in one of the city’s most poverty-stricken communities.
3. Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras
The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras has served the community as a nonprofit group providing music and performance education since 1946. Today, CYSO works with hundreds of young people from the primary grades through high school. These youth take part in a variety of ensembles including four full-scale orchestras, several string orchestras, jazz and steel orchestras, and chamber music groups.
Prominent Chicagoland professional musicians serve as teachers and mentors to the youth as they train to present major performances. Former CYSO participants have gone on to distinguished careers in music and other fields. Many today perform in well-known orchestras and other ensembles around the world, while others have used the skills they learned with CYSO to become lawyers, physicians, and community leaders.
Thanks to CYSO’s Community Partnership Programs, more than 8,000 young people have had the opportunity to gain musical training through neighborhood-based groups and through other venues over the course of the 2017-2018 season. These programs focus particularly on serving youth in under-resourced parts of the community, with the goal of making a strong music education a core part of the life of every Chicagoan.
4. The New York Youth Symphony
The New York Youth Symphony was founded in 1963 to highlight the talents of young people ages 12 to 22. Today, after winning numerous awards and earning praise as one of the most prestigious of the world’s youth orchestras, the symphony continues its program of preparing young people for careers in music, and for becoming lifelong students of—and advocates for—the art.
Over the half-century and more of its existence, the New York Youth Symphony has benefited from the guidance of world-renowned music directors. It has also served as the training ground for some of today’s most in-demand composers and performers, and has for almost 35 years actively commissioned new compositions from young musicians themselves.
5. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura
In Paraguay, young people with few material resources have established themselves as a remarkable orchestra playing exquisite music on instruments made from garbage. The 2016 documentary film Landfill Harmonic takes viewers inside the creation of this extraordinary youth orchestra, founded by renowned maestro Luis Szaran and led by music director Favio Chavez for the benefit of the children living in the slum of Cateura, Paraguay.
The orchestra has thrived thanks to the dedication of Szaran, Chavez, and a local recycler whose family has sustained itself by collecting and recycling trash. Now, the area’s youth have become skilled musicians playing violins, double bass, wind instruments, and more, all made from scrap metal, old barrels, discarded spoons and buttons, and other trash. And Szaran’s organization, Sonidos de la Tierra, or “Sounds of the Earth,” continues as an instrument workshop and worldwide musical touring ensemble supporting the orchestra.
While numerous examples of lively, well-crafted contemporary music composed especially for children exist, educators and parents also have at their disposal a wide range of classical compositions that can foster a love of music. While not written specifically for young people, a variety of individual short works—and movements or pieces of longer works—from the classical repertoire have proven over the years to be as enticing for kids as they are for adults.
These works include pieces by composers ranging from the towering, august Ludwig van Beethoven to popular 20th-century masters such as Aaron Copland. However, as diverse as these composers are, their compositions all feature strong melodic lines and rich tonality that can paint colorful stories across the canvas of a young listener’s mind.
The following are a few suggestions for album collections, composers, and individual recordings that can enrich any child’s musical education:
1. Beethoven Lives Upstairs
Beethoven Lives Upstairs is only one in the Classical Kids series of CDs and DVDs showcasing child-friendly pieces by great composers while emphasizing that these artists were also real-life human beings. This particular recording offers movements from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor and Symphony No. 7 in A major, as well as pieces such as the composer’s Flute Serenade (Opus 23) and his popular piano composition Für Elise.
The children’s media review organization Common Sense Media has praised this series as particularly suitable for kids ages 5 and up. The website’s review of the video version of Beethoven Lives Upstairs notes the vividness and accessibility with which it portrays the composer’s complex personality and depth of artistic expression.
2. Classical Wonderland - Classical Music for Children
The album Classical Wonderland - Classical Music for Children, produced by Sony Music, offers a compilation of 11 recordings by various artists. Selections range from staples of the classical repertoire such as “The Flight of the Bumblebee” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan to “The Swan,” one of the creatures portrayed in The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. The former piece depicts the antics of the prince when he disguises himself as a bee, while the latter paints a musical portrait of one of nature’s most graceful and elegant creatures.
3. My First Tchaikovsky Album
Available online at the Met Opera Shop and in other venues, My First Tchaikovsky Album, from Naxos Records, offers kids some of their favorite melodies from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite and excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and other works. A companion recording, My First Mozart Album, similarly extracts some of the most listenable tunes from that composer’s oeuvre.
Naxos also offers kids My First Classical Album, featuring 21 Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms, Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák, and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.
4. Stories in Music
The Stories in Music series, produced and sold by the music education company Maestro Classics, aims to make learning about great music even more fun through highlighting the entertaining tales its rhythms and beats tell. In albums of recorded music performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Classics offers retellings of works with extra-high kid appeal, such as the rollicking magical hijinks of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas and Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.
The genesis for these productions was a series of family classical concerts by the late Stephen Simon and his wife Bonnie Ward Simon. Mr. Simon was a well-known conductor who established, among other programs, an annual Handel festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
5. Various Recordings for Play and Rest
The youngest children often respond enthusiastically to classical compositions cause them to whirl, twirl, leap, and kick up their feet to a rapid beat. Music educators often suggest playing to toddlers’ need to move by using recordings of such extra-lively pieces as Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, and pieces from Gioachino Rossini’s comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville.
The Barber of Seville offers even greater opportunities for nostalgic fun when parents share with their children the vintage 1950 Looney Tunes cartoon version. Called “The Rabbit of Seville,” the cartoon short features characters Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in their now-classic bit.
Other favorites to get the blood flowing for toddlers and their families include the “Hoe-Down” section from American composer Aaron Copland’s iconic ballet Rodeo, the energetic Russian Dance “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and the whirligig rhythms of “Sabre Dance” from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane. “Sabre Dance” continues to enjoy broad recognition in popular culture as a common theme played in movies and television shows.
Soothing music at bedtime can contribute to more restful sleep, as well as to an increased appreciation for music among children and their families. Music educators often recommend playing pieces such as Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello as lullabies. These collections of dance compositions—featuring gavottes, sarabands, minuets, and more—are among the most frequently performed works for the resonant instrument. Recordings such as Janos Starker’s Bach: Complete Suites for Solo Cello on the Mercury Living Presence label, for example, offer the slow, steady beats and flights of fancy that promote focused relaxation for parents and children alike.
One of the most serenely lovely compositions ever created may be the Concerto for Flute and Harp by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Among suggested recordings of this dream-like piece is that featuring violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin as conductor with the English Chamber Orchestra, available in various recorded editions.
There are a number of methods and sets of practices, some generations-old, for teaching the techniques - and the enjoyment - of music to children. Here are brief summaries of four of the best-known and most widely used of these methods throughout much of the world.
1. The Kodály Method
In 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization placed the music teaching method devised by 20th-century Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály on its UNESCO World Heritage List. The method’s ability to help preserve traditional folk music and make it easier to learn earned it a place on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage practices.
This experience-based teaching method is comprehensive in its teaching of how to read and write music as part of a basic musical curriculum. Singing, folk songs, and solfège - training the ear to understand pitch and pattern - are all central components of the curriculum. Kodály believed that learning to express oneself through singing the songs of one’s native land should be a foundation stone of a child’s musical education.
The Kodály Method begins with helping children develop a sense of rhythm, and with teaching sight-reading and basic pitch through a series of hand signals that assist in demonstrating the relationships between musical notes.
Kodály, a collaborator with his fellow Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, gathered and published major collections of Hungarian folk songs. He was an important figure in the spread of music education throughout Hungary. His method puts such strong emphasis on folk songs because he believed the genre possesses every quality necessary for inculcating a deep love of music in each child.
2. The Suzuki Method
The Suzuki Talent Education Method starts music training early, with teachers striving to ensure that children learn mental focus and fine muscle control when they are young enough to make these skills an integral part of their personalities.
This method involves parents in their children’s music education as co-educators and co-learners. Parents may learn to play an instrument before their child does, and they serve as reinforcing influences in the home for the lessons provided by the classroom teacher.
The Suzuki Method concentrates on teaching music the same way that children acquire language: through listening and repeating. Every day, a Suzuki student listens to recordings of the same piece of music he or she is engaged in learning. Regular review allows students to incorporate new techniques into material already mastered. Reading music waits until the student has begun to master actually playing an instrument.
The method’s inventor, Japanese violinist Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, based his method on the way children naturally acquire spoken language, calling his program a “mother tongue” approach. He emphasized the joy involved when children, parents, and teachers participate in studying music together. He was less concerned with training professional musicians than he was with enriching children’s lives so that their natural sensitivity and awareness of the world around them would blossom.
3. The Orff Method
In the Orff Method, a child learns music through movement, singing, and acting out musically-themed stories. Students may use xylophones, drums, maracas, tone blocks, and numerous other percussion instruments to practice melodies within a learning framework that emphasizes the importance of play and fun.
Teachers also encourage their students to compose their own pieces of music, and to practice improvising already-known pieces. Student improvisation is, in fact, one of the cornerstones of this method, as children have the chance to follow their own creative ideas during lessons.
The Orff Method is known in the original German as Orff-Schulwerk (Orff Schoolwork), and also called simply “Music for Children.”
The 20th-century composer Carl Orff is today best known for his 1937 oratorio Carmina Burana, a work that exemplifies his passion for strong rhythm and movement. He also assisted the gymnast Dorothee Günther in establishing a school focused on music, gymnastic training, and dance. During his time working with the school in the 1920s and 1930s, he came up with the ideas that would form the basis for his own musical education system.
His book, entitled Orff-Schulwerk, which appeared in English translation as Music for Children, is based on the lessons he devised in collaboration with Gunild Keetman, a former student at the Günther school. The method is now taught in dozens of countries and is the subject of increasing interest around the world.
Teachers using the Orff system create their own lessons based on the needs of their individual students. A typical lesson might begin with a teacher reading a poem aloud to the class, followed by students acting out a short drama based on the poem. The students then repeat the poem, this time adding sound by accompanying the story with musical instruments.
4. Dalkroze Eurythmics
Dalkroze Eurythmics is a music instruction method anchored in using ear-training, movement exercises, and improvisation to awaken and develop a child’s inborn gift for music and rhythm.
Created by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, a 20th-century composer and professor of harmony in Geneva, Switzerland, the method is centered on its author’s tenet that rhythm-based, ear-training process cements musical concepts into a student’s muscle memory. This increases musical proficiency and builds a deep understanding of the physical demands on the musician. Dalcroze believed that students learn best through engagement of multiple senses, and that in order to gain a true understanding of his method, it is necessary to actually experience it.
Dalcroze designed his method to teach music on a deep level, building an understanding of how it works to express a range of meaning and emotion, as well as how it relates to other arts and to the daily life of human beings. His work has been influential in the development of the performing arts and art therapy.
The benefits of experiencing, learning about, and playing music don’t end with childhood. Not only does music enhance the lives of all adults, but it plays a major role in strengthening the cognitive abilities of seniors in particular. Scientists—and music teachers—have long understood that music stimulates parts of the brain responsible for higher mental and emotional functions. Here is an outline of how that works:
1. Greater mental acuity
The early benefits that accrue from studying a musical instrument can make your brain more resilient over the course of your life. These benefits have even been shown to help people overcome multiple deficits that come with normal aging. Older adults who played a musical instrument during their childhood tended to hold onto the early gains in brain functioning.
A study conducted by the Emory University neurology department demonstrated that seniors who played a musical instrument for at least 10 years scored higher on tests of memory and general intellectual ability than did their counterparts who did not have any musical training.
When older adults take part in music and arts programming, they also experience improvements in their overall physical and social health. This participation strengthens their sense of being part of a community, their ability to form bonds with others, and their sense of personal identity. And when seniors participate in creating music or even in listening experiences, they also tend to experience more satisfaction with their quality of life and well-being.
Music lessons may also play a role in preventing some aspects of physical aging. One group of researchers found that senior musicians’ auditory cortexes—the part of the brain involved in the sense of hearing—did not age as much as those of their non-musical counterparts. These seniors were therefore less likely to experience hearing loss with age. Experts point out that even for those who begin musical training far beyond childhood, similar benefits can occur.
2. Improved memory
In one recent study at the University of California, Irvine, researchers determined that after listening to classical music, adults with Alzheimer’s disease showed improvements in their performance on memory tests. Another study showed that older adults between the ages of 60 and 85 who took half-hour piano lessons every week and practiced for an additional three hours demonstrated significant gains in their ability to memorize and assimilate information after only a few months. These older adults went into the study with no prior serious musical experience.
Additional research has shown that background music had a positive effect on older adults’ memories. This held true for both semantic memory—dealing with facts—and episodic memory—dealing with personal experiences—as well as for the ability to rapidly absorb and understand new information. In this study, the test subjects were adults who were not musicians and who had a mean age of 69 years.
In the study, researchers used recordings of pieces by composers Mozart and Mahler, and introduced a white noise control segment and another control segment without music. They tested the subjects’ performance for each of these four segments, with the musical pieces and the white noise played as the background both prior to and during tests that included memorizing lists of words and creating as many words as possible beginning with a particular letter.
By listening to both Mozart and Mahler, seniors demonstrated improved performance on examinations of semantic and episodic memory. Mozart, in particular, fostered an increase in the speed of mental processing. On the other hand, Mahler did not seem to aid in mental processing speed over the white noise or the “music-less” segments of the test.
One reason why the seniors performed better while listening to Mozart may be that they identified the composer’s music as being more conducive to feelings of happiness. They found Mahler, an early 20th century composer noted as a pioneer in the incorporation of massive dissonances in his music, to be sadder in tone. The researchers theorized that when their test subjects felt happier, their speed of mental performance increased. They also noted that the pieces by both composers used in the test lacked lyrics and theorized that the distraction of listening to lyrics during the testing might have impaired memorization.
3. Reduced stress
Participation in music-related activities has also been shown to decrease stress levels in adults. An analysis of hundreds of studies has demonstrated music’s ability to reduce feelings of depression and produce a more calm, focused state of mind in adults of all ages. When adults listen to a musical performance or play music themselves as part of a group, their levels of the chemicals oxytocin and dopamine tend to increase. Oxytocin in the body promotes feelings of trustfulness and closeness to others, while increases in dopamine levels are associated with better concentration and a general elevation in mood.
Other research even finds a correlation between listening to music and experiencing a reduction in pain. For example, in one study, adults demonstrated a reduction in chronic pain symptoms by more than 20 percent and in feelings of depression by as much as 25 percent when listening to music.