This Beethoven action figure is left without a leg to stand on, thanks to an overenthusiastic young fan. (photo: Benjamin K. Wadsworth)

Classical Music and Today’s Youth: A Parent’s Guide

Benjamin K. Wadsworth | 21 MAY 2020

During this time of COVID-19-inspired social distancing, those parents with young children might be looking for fun, yet somewhat forgotten toys and hobbies. What about the soccer net we haven’t used in three years? Does that inflatable pool still work, or do we need to brave another risky shopping trip at Walmart to find a replacement?

With extra time on our hands and live entertainment options curtailed, we have been advised to seek culture online. Last week, upon the urging of friends, I poked through digital tours of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and then the Louvre. In music, specifically classical music (of which I am an advocate), which resources online might ignite my children’s interest? (In full disclosure, my kids are currently 11 and 9 and take piano lessons, although if asked they normally gravitate to Top-40 pop.)


One path toward classical music appreciation appears to be good, simple hardware. An LP lying around with Beethoven Symphonies, a cassette tape with Chopin Nocturnes, anything might inspire a child’s curiosity as long as they can turn it on and play, all the while taking ownership of the experience. Of course, dangers abound: my son was playing roughly with our Beethoven action figure, and Beethoven—of course—got the worst of it by losing both legs. But overall, he has gravitated to Beethoven symphonies by playing his record player, and has talked about how much he likes Beethoven—even if he listens to Beethoven maybe 3–4 times per year, and a predominantly electronic lifestyle appears to be in force for this summer.

Another easy strategy is to disguise classical music within the package of a blockbuster movie. Here, we can give our undying thanks to John Williams for his creative theft from Richard Wagner, Gustav Holst, and Igor Stravinsky. We have had luck with the first four Harry Potter movies, in the last year going to hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra perform The Prisoner of Azkaban while the movie played on the screen. (The final Harry Potter movies might be too somber and dark for many young children, so this tack has limited staying power.) And of course, there are Williams’ film scores from the Star Wars franchise, which are stylistically indebted to a variety of composers – once again, Wagner, Holst, and Stravinsky come to mind. (For more on Williams’ compositional influences, see this fine introduction.)

Composer John Williams at Avery Fisher Hall in 2007. (source: Wikipedia, credit: TashTish, cropped. CC BY 3.0)

Composer John Williams at Avery Fisher Hall in 2007. (source: Wikipedia, credit: TashTish, cropped. CC BY 3.0)

After hearing these kinds of soundtracks, parents can branch out to standard classical repertoire. My kids have heard Bruckner symphonies on the car radio and remarked that “this sounds like Star Wars.” Along this vein, one could start off with the initial film scores to Episodes IV, V, and VI of Star Wars, and then branch out to the music that inspired Star Wars, or works similar to them: snippets of Mahler’s Second Symphony (“Resurrection”), Holst’s The Planets, especially the “Mars” movement; and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Of course, some children might be fans of one movie franchise more than another. Mine have inexplicably favored Harry Potter over Star Wars, but maybe other families will feel differently?

Once some classical repertoire is introduced and hooks a young person the next question is how to sustain the momentum. In my own childhood in the 1980’s, I was an aspiring classical pianist whose parents bought cassette tapes by the then-elder statesmen of the piano: primarily Claudio Arrau, but also Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. These cassette tapes were often stocking stuffers at Christmas, and I would listen to them in my new, up-to-date Walkman. As I became a teenager, I then explored other recordings of these artists. Especially in my middle school years, I plunged into the more esoteric reaches of Beethoven’s oeuvre. In particular, I was drawn to his late string quartets because a late uncle of mine – one of my most beloved family members – criticized the Grosse Fuge, which I then had to listen to and purchase as a CD. At the time, this sufficed as teenage rebellion.


My own upbringing, however, is unusual in that my exposure to pop and rock music was equally limited. The momentum one can see in my own past is rather unusual. For a young child to become “hooked on classical music” would depend upon their interests, motivations, and available technology. Is a preteen is a budding gamer? In that case, a parent could buy some sheet music of the Legend of Zelda, and perhaps that preteen would explore other video game scores on their instrument. Or a teenager is into sports, and their parent convinces them to join a band or orchestra. Perhaps the group interaction of either ensemble will “hook” them on similar ensemble works. Nowhere is it guaranteed that a child will go on to support symphony orchestras and other bastions of the western musical canon.

A parent’s takeaway must be: there are many different paths toward an appreciation for classical music, and many paths away to other musical languages. At this point, we can leave the conundrum where it belongs: between parents and their children. If you are a parent, what interesting hardware and experiences can you give your child? If you are a child, be open to new musical experiences and cultivate an interest in music that moves you. And perhaps today’s youth will move toward an appreciation of classical music, while the classical music world will reinvent itself to reflect their tastes.   ■

Dr. Benjamin K. Wadsworth is Associate Professor of Music Theory at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, GA.