Guest Post by Zach VanderGraaff

As a musician and music teacher, I love music of all kinds, and classical music is one of my favorite genres.

There’s something about the depth of emotion and feeling classical music imparts that isn’t always reached in popular music styles.

But as an elementary music teacher and parent of young kids, I know not every kid loves it as much as I do.

A big part of this is because they don’t understand the complexities of the music.

When given exposure to these pieces and a framework for understanding, they enjoy it as much as any of the rest of us do.

With this in mind, I wanted to share 5 quick tips for sharing classical music with kids.

Let’s open some minds to beautiful and powerful music!

#1 Pick The Right Length

One of the things I love about classical music is how the pieces are so much longer than popular music. Because it’s longer, there’s more chance to develop the themes and build more complex forms.

However, with young kids, they don’t have that kind of listening stamina. In education, there’s a general rule of thumb that goes something like this:

Kids can only pay attention to one thing for a maximum of 1 minute + their age.

This means a five-year-old has a six-minute attention span, at maximum. Given that many classical pieces are longer than this, it means they won’t be able to actively listen to such music. To expect them to is to expect them to do something greater than their brain development is ready for.

Listening in the background is fine if they’re doing something else, but I want kids to actively listen. So when I use music, I make sure to find pieces that fit within the 3-6 minute range.

In some cases, you may have to get creative and listen to arrangement of sections of pieces or single movements at a time.

My kids at home and students love to listen to Pictures at an Exhibition, and I think it’s perfect for young kids. It’s easily paired with visuals, and each movement or even a couple of movements strung together to make it well within the proper time length.

The Berlin Philharmonic does an excellent rendition of this on Classical Archives here at the link. See the album HERE.

#2 Choose Easily Understood Forms

Musical form is one of the best ways to help students develop listening stamina and better understand more traditional music. Think about it: the first time you listened to a whole movement or piece in Sonata-Allegro form, you probably enjoyed it, but you were likely overwhelmed. I’ll bet you got confused in the middle.

I’m convinced the number one reason people don’t enjoy classical music is that they have a hard time organizing it in their heads. Musical form is the way to help them better comprehend and enjoy the complexities of such amazing works.

With young kids, start out more simply. Find movements in binary or ternary form. Rondo form is another great one for kids, especially if you pair it with movements or something to do when the refrain or repeated A section keeps coming back.

For this, the classic Rondo Alla Turca does an amazing job of proving this point.

Watch a performance HERE.


#3 Find An Engaging Visual Or Video

Humans process information in different ways, and we each have our own preferred venue of learning. Dr. Howard Gardner named several of these in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basically, he said in order to better learn and better teach, we need to present or practice information and skills in different ways, including:

  • Kinesthetic (movement with it)
  • Spatial / Visual (see it)
  • Musical (yes, there’s a music one)
  • Inter- Intra-personal (social)
  • Linguistic (talk/write about it)
  • Naturalist (do it)

For kids, the two we ignore the most are often visual and movement in music. Or rather, these are the two most people tend to align with.

This being said, look for an engaging video that helps students engage with the music. Many of us remember the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons where their crazy antics were synched with classical pieces and opera. I remember as a kid an episode of Hey Arnold! that did a whole version of the opera Carmen. I still remember all the words of the parody to this day.

It would be silly of us not to look for this when sharing our love of music with young people. One of the biggest hits in my music classroom is this Line Rider of In The Hall Of The Mountain King.

Watch a performance HERE.

#4 Add Movements

As mentioned above, kids and all people learn in different ways. One of the best ways to present something to kids is through movement or the kinesthetic intelligence. Not only do many young people learn best this way, but it’s also a great way to channel their…ample amounts of energy.

This can look like many different things. It can be a free dance movement to a short piece. It can also be an organized mirror movement where the child copies you as you move matching the form and feeling of the work. Dr. John Feierabend has had a lot of success with his Move It! series of videos and instructions on exactly this idea.

I like to offer stories and imaginative play movements and music a lot. If we look at a piece like Dvorak’s Humoresque, we see three main sections with three distinct feelings. I ask students to pretend they’re rabbits and to act out different parts of a story when they hear the music shift. Here’s a quick rundown of what I do:


Section Feeling* Story Idea
A Light, bouncy Rabbits wake up and hop around the forest.
B Slow, calm Rabbits come back home, get ready for bed, and fall asleep.
A Light, bouncy Again, rabbits wake up and hop around the forest.
C Dramatic, aggressive Dark clouds come in and start a rainstorm. The bunnies walk slowly around the woods to find shelter.
A Light, bouncy The rabbits dry off and hop around the forest.
B Slow, calm Rabbits come back home, get ready for bed, and fall asleep.

*If you like to connect classical music and emotion, head on over to my website at the link where I talk about even more pieces and ways to teach classical music to kids.

Bonus! Did you notice this one is hitting all the tips from above too? It’s under 6 minutes long, it uses something like a Rondo form, and now we’re using movement. Add in a visual cue or “map” of the form, and you’ve got an awesome way to share this piece.

Here’s a link to Humoresque on YouTube.

#5 Play Along With An Instrument

Whether a child or young person can play a band instrument, orchestral instrument, sing, or simply play on a drum or drum-like item, they can play along with classical music. Create some repeated rhythm patterns if there’s an ostinato (as in Bolero) or have them play along with the simple melody of something like the New World Symphony.

See the album on Classical Archives HERE. 

Playing along in any manner gives the young musician some ownership over the listening, and it increases what they understand about the piece. (For those of you wondering, yes, this covers the naturalist and musical intelligences of learning). This one takes some creativity to implement, but the playing doesn’t have to be complex. Even a simple beat can be enough to attract their attention and get some buy-in with the music.

If we don’t share the love of classical music with the world, who will? It all needs to start with our youth, but we also need to make it accessible to them. These tips are a quick starting place. Now go and listen to your favorite piece with a kid!

Zachery VanderGraaff is a K-5 Music Teacher in Bay City, Michigan with 12 years of teaching experience, and the founder of Dynamic Music Room, a music resource website for music teachers, parents, and musicians of all ages.