A couple of events have coincided during the last day or so to bring a question to my attention. That question is essentially, What music should I provide for my small children to listen to? I would like to answer that question by providing general suggestions concerning music to Christian parents for their children. For the most part, these recommendations will reflect the approach that I took with my children when they were small. As a parent, I wanted my children’s music to meet several criteria.
First, it had to be good music, worth listening to in its own right. Like good children’s literature, good children’s music should be as worthwhile for an eighty-three-year-old listener as it is for a three-year-old listener. In other words, it should be seriously musical, even when it is not being serious. Children’s music can certainly be humorous—even uproarious—but it should not be merely silly, trendy, or vapid.
Second, it had to be music that children would enjoy listening to. By this I do not mean that a child should get to listen to everything that she or he wishes to hear. What I do mean is that the music should be interesting enough to attract and hold a child’s interest, especially with adult involvement. Children’s music should be capable of seizing the imagination—and not only the imagination of a child.
Third, I wanted music that would allow me to engage my children in conversation. I wanted it to be music that we could discuss while and after listening to it. Good music provides the opportunity for teaching both about the music itself and about the extramusical world.
Fourth, it had to be music that was readily available and widely heard. Just as one purpose of play is to prepare children for adult responsibilities, one function of children’s music is to prepare children for participation in real culture. I wanted my children to hear and understand music that they would be hearing for the rest of their lives rather than music that they would abandon after adolescence or that they would find embarrassing outside of their cultural ghetto.
In addition to the foregoing, I relied upon the distinction between music that is heard and music that is overheard. I would play one kind of music when I specifically wanted my children to listen. I might play different music for them to overhear in the background while they were doing other things.
These principles apply equally well both to music for general listening and to music for Christian instruction. At the moment, however, I am not particularly interested in discussing Christian music per se. My suggestions are really aimed at music for general listening, the kind of music that will help children to become active listeners to music of all kinds.
Three compositions stand at the center of the children’s listening repertoire. These are Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Camille Saint Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. All three of these pieces fulfill the above requirements admirably.
Probably the first composition that captured my son’s imagination was Tchaikovsky’s Overture Solonnelle “1812.” The music uses readily distinguishable themes and moods as it tells its story. Even a two or three year old can tell when the music is happy, when it is sad, and when it is angry. For our children, identifying these moods became a game. My son used to pester his mother and me with requests for the “happy and sad and mad music.”
Nearly any piece of program music can be used in a similar way (though not all programs are equally suitable for children). The opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, or Smetana’s The Moldau all tell stories that are enjoyable for a child to learn and follow. Borodin’s On the Steppes of Central Asia is a hauntingly beautiful tone poem that also initiates children into an acquaintance with counterpoint.
In their active moments, children love a sound that is bold and brassy. They may not be drawn to Sousa’s marches, but they will almost certainly like some of the noisier stuff put out by the Empire Brass or the Canadian Brass—particularly when it is accompanied by pipe organ. This is music that they will enjoy both hearing and overhearing.
Small children tend not to focus attention upon a single thing for a long time. Longer compositions will often be lost on them (unless, like the 1812 Overture, the music varies considerably within the composition). Collections of shorter pieces are more likely to appeal to them. Brahm’s Hungarian Dances, for example, offers a selection of twenty-one lively tunes that are good accompaniment for playtime. Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music, and selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker are also collections that appeal to many children.
When playtime is over and quiet time comes, gentler music is in order. Gentle does not have to mean dull, however. What the music lacks in drive it should make up for in beauty. Some of Christopher Parkening’s guitar recordings fulfill this requirement wonderfully, as does the sound track from Ken Burns’s Lewis and Clark.
Speaking of sound tracks, parents should not overlook film music as a source of children’s listening. Not that children should be subjected to entire film scores—that would be too dull even for most adults. Nevertheless, some of the anthologies from Erich Kunzel or John Williams provide interesting music that is quite accessible to children.
While some parental selectivity is necessary, children are often delighted by Peter Schickele writing as P. D. Q. Bach. While this music is often silly, it is never merely silly. Even at his most farcical and satirical, Schickele usually has a musical point to make. As a child grows in sophistication, these lighthearted parodies can be highly instructive, particularly when the child is in a position to compare them with the original music that Schickele is spoofing.
Naturally, I have not provided anything like a comprehensive discography here. How could I? The world is full of good music. All one has to do is to take a few moments to find it. Even so, these suggestions should offer a starting place from which interested parents can explore on their own.
Of course, with the easy availability of computer rips and downloadable tunes, parents can tailor their children’s listening as never before. Parents are in a position to provide their children with richer listening more easily than at any time in history. As a father with two grown children who love music, I suggest that the investment is worthwhile.
from A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687
John Dryden (1631–1700)
When Jubal struck the corded shell,
His list’ning brethren stood around,
And, wond’ring, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound,
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the blest above:
So, when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,