When Erin was born, my mom gave her a little tape player and a couple of cassette tapes of music, compilations of selections from classical music that were varied, pleasant, simple and tuneful. We're a family that "does" classical music, so it was a suitable welcome to the family. There was no Baby Einstein agenda at work; music is a language we enjoy, and it seemed right to share some of our favourites with her from infancy. We listened to them at home and in the vehicle. Over the years we added to those tapes. By the time Noah was born we had four or five, and we also created a new tape specifically for him, with a 'bouncy' side and a 'settling down' side. By the time Sophie was a tyke, we were burning CDs and the kids had CD players in their rooms. Fiona has her listening selections on a little hand-me-down MP3 player.
The principle behind the compilations is the same, regardless of the medium. We're trying to deliberately expose the kids to a small selection of good music covering a range of composers, styles and timbres for repeated listening so that over the months and years, these pieces become their friends.
Recently I found the cassette case of one of those first compilation tapes Erin had. The tape had been eaten years ago but listed on the liner was the Mozart G Major violin concerto. I'd long forgotten that it had been on one of her tapes. But there it was, and it explained to me why last year, when her violin teacher offered her a choice to learn either the G Major or the A Major concertos, she had chosen the G Major without a doubt. That piece was an old friend from way back in toddlerhood, even though she'd probably only heard it once or twice between ages 3 and 12. She plays it beautifully and will be performing the first movement as a soloist with the community orchestra in a couple of months.
Someone recently asked me for a list of recommendations for creating a similar compilation for her child. It's very easy now to purchase by the track at iTunes or a similar service and create a CD for your child's bedroom or for the vehicle, without having to go out and purchase dozens of CDs. Here are the suggestions I offered.
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are amazing. Numbers 3 and 5 are mostly strings. The others include lots of recorders, trumpets, horns, etc. as well as strings. Lots of joyful melodies.
Bach's Orchestral Suite in No. 3 in D includes some amazing movements. I love them all. I always put the famous "Air" on my kids' compilations, in a set of slow pieces.
Two other Bach slow movements that are drop-dead beautiful in my opinion are the 2nd movement of the Bach Double for 2 violins in d minor BWV 1043 and the 2nd movement of the Bach Double for violin & oboe in c minor BWV 1060.
Handel's Water Music Suite is full of great melodies and interesting timbres.
Vivaldi's "The Seasons" is justifiably famous. Many of the strong melodic/rhythmic elements evoke sounds of the natural environment. "Summer" has a terrific thunder and rainstorm.
Mozart's Clarinet Quintet is a stunner. The "Requiem" is choral and not exactly bright and chipper, but the music is gorgeous and I thought it was nice to have some choral music on the compilations. Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" is a very famous orchestral suite that has nice short recognizable tunes.
I have a special fond spot for Haydn's "Lark" string quartet but almost anything by Haydn is a good bet. And the Haydn Horn Concerto in D major 1st movement is terrific. As are any of the last movements of Mozart's E-flat major horn concertos (my personal fave is K. 495, last movement.
Another fun suite is the "Kindersinfonie" or "Toy Symphony" attributed commonly to Haydn but probably actually written by Leopold Mozart. All three main movements are fun. Whistles, cuckoos, rattles, toy trumpets are played and the tunes are terrific.
Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, no. 6. The whole thing is beautiful and evocative. It depicts scenes and natural occurrences like thunderstorms and brooks.
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata 1st movement is famous and beautiful as part of a set of calm pieces.
Prokoffiev's "Peter and the Wolf" is worth owning in toto. It's a narrated Russian folk tale set to music. The instrumentation and themes are used to depict the various characters and the tunes are wonderful.
Saint-Seans' "Carnival of the Animals" is also worth owning in toto. Evocative short tunes depicting various animals. An interesting range and combination of instruments, including piano and all the orchestral groups.
Late Romantic & Impressionist Eras
Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suite no. 1 is excellent fun stuff, from the famous "Morning Mood" to the equally famous "In the Hall of the Mountain King"
Debussy wrote some wonderful pieces that are great for children, many for solo piano, sometimes arranged for other instruments too: "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," any of the "Arabesques," "Claire de Lune." They're lovely combined with other slow pieces.
Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (arranged most famously for orchestra by Ravel) has many great movements which interpret paintings at an art exhibition. The most famous movement is "Great Gate of Kiev" but there are lots of little gems in here.