Books that Hit the High Notes: Instruments & Orchestras

Forget the “Mozart effect.” I’m less concerned about the link between IQ and classical music listening, and more concerned about level of peace in my home! We’ve played classical music for our bookworms since they were itty babies, not in hopes of improving their spatial abilities but because we enjoy it. It pervades our home with tranquility, and if it reaps benefits in their brain development, that’s bonus!

music appreciation orchestra books

Now at 3.5, Preschool Bookworm is obsessed (literally considered the idea of being a conductor for Halloween. Not the train kind). Before his third birthday he was able to name the instruments in the orchestra and distinguish their sounds. My only encouragement in this area was introducing the Beethoven channel on Pandora and selecting books & audiobooks about instruments.  No flashcards here.  Following his lead, we’ve attended two children’s programs run by local symphonies.

The books below are the best we’ve found, and we adore them! We borrowed one through interlibrary loan, and Preschool Bookworm insisted that his stuffed chimpanzee needed to have it for Christmas! (I guess he’s more spoiled than PB who never gets what he asks for! HA!)

Gentle disclaimer: I’m not a musician (10 years of piano lessons to my name, but I am no expert!). These books have been our favorites, and they have been both entertaining and inspiring to Preschool Bookworm. I can’t speak to the intricacies or completeness of the musical content.

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss. Audiobook. Caldecott Honor. I have mentioned this book a few times before on the blog, but I can’t fully describe how special it is to our family. It was Preschool Bookworm’s first foray into classical music (and audiobooks), and I’m amazed that the CD still plays considering how many times we’ve had it on repeat.  It teaches counting, sophisticated vocabulary, and pairs each instrument when introduced in the text with its sound, eventually building from solo, duo, trio, quartet… to nonet and full orchestra. The illustrations won Marjorie Priceman the Caldecott Honor. Toddler Bookworm loves searching for the animals on each page amidst the instruments. (I’m not certain if the library binding of this book comes with a CD or not. There does appear to be an Audible version! Check your library, of course.)

Little Pig Joins the Band by David Hyde Costello. Audiobook. Quite different from the other recommendations on this list, Little Pig Joins the Band is a picture book with a story about leadership, jealousy, and ingenuity.  Little Pig is left behind due to his size when his older siblings drag out Grandpa’s old marching band instruments, until he steps up and saves the day with his quick thinking. One by one as each instrument is introduced in the text, its sound is introduced on the audiobook. A simple, fun way to hear a variety of instrument sounds within a cute story.

The Story of the Orchestra by Robert Levine. With CD. We had to borrow this through interlibrary loan, and we received it from a local high school. I think Preschool Bookworm is not the intended audience for this offering, but he LOVES it. It is excellently produced with an accompanying CD featuring 41 tracks, to highlight each section of the book, whether illustrating a particular period of music, composer, or instrument.  While it is thorough, the text is easy to understand. I learned a lot myself, and I love that PB now has adopted certain songs as “his,” including Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.

Can You Hear It? by William Lach. With CD. From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this book pairs a work of art with a famous orchestral piece: Brueghel’s A Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap brings to life Vivaldi’s swirling ice skaters in The Four Seasons: Winter.  In the book, each CD track is labeled beside its corresponding art, and a sidebar asks listeners to identify 3-4 clues (“Can you hear the first skater out on the ice, showing off in big loops and figure eights? The solo violin plays the skater, using quick notes to show the gliding motion. Can you also hear a clumsy skater, turning, crashing, and falling? The North wind blowing hard?”) Includes 13 tracks (although we skip the skeletons of Posada for now), a 6 page introduction to musical instruments, and an appendix with more information about each piece.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf retold by Janet Schulman, ill. by Peter Malone. With a fully orchestrated and narrated CD. Commissioned by the Moscow Children’s Theater in 1936, Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf as a means to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra and to the concept of music telling a story. Each character in the story is played by a different instrument (e.g. Peter by the violins and strings, the bird by the flute, the wolf by the French horns). The text is disproportionately shorter than the musical score, and in Prokofiev’s words, “for me, the story was important only as a means of inducing the children to listen to the music.” In this version, the story is narrated expertly, and a happier twist given to the unfortunate duck who is swallowed whole by the wolf (“the wolf felt guilty and finally coughed her out”).  Preschool Bookworm loves this audiobook version, although he admitted it’s “a little bit scary but not too much.”

Meet the Orchestra by Ann Hayes. While this isn’t a perfect book, I do love the language the author uses to describe the sounds and feelings evoked by each instrument:  “[The violin’s] song can be bright as laughter, light as air, soft as a whisper, or sad as a tear” and “[The oboe’s] voice may remind you of faraway castles at sunset, autumn leaves, and the sadness of saying good-bye to someone you love.” The poetic language provides a template for budding musicians to learn to describe music. Hayes also provides basic information about 15 instruments, the conductor’s role, and the arrangement of the instruments in the orchestra. The animals in the illustrations are a cute touch.

Books mentioned should be available at your local library, or at the Amazon affiliate links provided. Thanks for supporting Librarian in the House if you choose to purchase! 

Do you enjoy classical music with your littles? Share your tips and favorites in the comments or on our Facebook page.

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