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Introducing Music Education with Picture Books

For those who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket or never learned to play a musical instrument or read music, the music education of their children seem to be a major challenge. Music lessons are one good solution, but learning to appreciate and understand music can begin even before you feel your child is ready to take on piano lessons.

As with most subjects, I like to introduce new ideas by reading my children excellent picture books. Music is no exception. There are picture books that cover all kinds of musical topics. Picture books are perfect introductions, because by nature they keep the text to a minimum. It's so easy to get overwhelmed by facts when your first starting out exploring a new body of knowledge. Picture books tend to give you the highlights, the juicy bits, the parts that make you want to find out more.

There are so many ways of approaching music. You can learn about the instruments that play music, the great performers, or the different styles of music. The great thing about music is that an orderly progression isn't required. You can start by looking at a famous singer like Ella Fitzgerald. From there you can explore scat, jazz and the blues. You can find out what else was happening in American music in the twentieth century. Your learning trail might take you to Leonard Bernstein's "Rodeo." Bernstein's "Appalachian Spring" leads you on to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." You find yourself listening to music composed three centuries ago. Once started the journey never really ends.

The following are reviews of a number of excellent picture books about various aspects of music. You can choose one of these as a jumping off point into the world of music for yourself and your children. We also have an extensive selection of other picture book possibilities you can sift through. They are available for purchase. Most of these books should also be available through your public library. You may just want to head to the library's music section (Dewey Decimal 780) and find a book that appeals to you.

More Music Picture Books

Ah, Music!
by Aliki

In this richly layered compendium, Aliki shares her keen insight about music and all its themes and variations. Ah, Music! is about composers and instruments. It's about artists and performers. It's about history -- from the earliest music through classical, modern, jazz, and popular times. It's about diversity and pleasure.

by Leontyne Price

With profound depth, diva Leontyne Price retells Verdi's famous opera about the beautiful princess of Ethiopia who is captured by Egyptian soldiers and forced into slavery.

Animal Music
by Donald Saaf (Illustrator), Harriet Ziefert (Author)

First comes Mr. Lion's Marching Band, with an elephant on the drum, a tiger on the trumpet, and a zebra playing the clarinet. With a boom-a-boom and a rat-a-tat-tat the menagerie parades loudly by. Next to perform is the Sheep's Dance Band, with a goose on the mandolin and a cow playing the cello. The band's lively music calls all the farm animals to an uproarious dance! The cornucopia of musical merriment in this festive book never misses a beat and will have children stomping their feet. Saaf's brilliant paintings are the perfect complement to this joyous rhyme.

Apt. 3
by Ezra Jack Keats

In his apartment building in the city, Sam hears voices, barking dogs, snoring, and all kinds of other noises. One rainy day he also hears the sad sounds of a harmonica, and wonders who's playing. Sam's search leads him to Apt. 3, where he finds not only the source of the music--but a new friend.

A Band of Angels
by Deborah Hopkinson (Author), Raul Colon (Illustrator)

A Band of Angels is fiction, but it is based on real events and people. The character of Ella was inspired by Ella Sheppard Moore, who was born February 4, 1851, in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was able to free himself and young Ella from slavery, but before he could buy freedom for Ella's mother she was sold away. Ella was raised in Cincinnati, where she took music lessons. At fifteen, she was left penniless when her father died. She arrived at Fisk School in 1868 with only six dollars.

Fisk was opened in 1866 as a school for former slaves and began offering college classes in 1871. That year, in a desperate attempt to save Fisk from closing, a music teacher named George White set out with a group of students on a singing tour to raise money. Although at first they only sang popular music of the day, they soon became famous for introducing spirituals to the world.

Ella Sheppard was the pianist for the Jubilee Singers on their historic concert tours, which raised enough money to save the school and build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent structure in the South for the education of black students. Ella later married George Moore, had three children, and located her mother and a sister. She died in 1914. Today her great-granddaughter is a librarian at Fisk University who shares the history of the Jubilee Singers with visitors.

Although none graduated from Fisk, the original Jubilee Singers were recognized with honorary degrees in 1978. Today, Jubilee Singers at Fisk University continue to keep alive a rich musical tradition that includes such songs as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Many Thousand Gone," and "Go Down, Moses."

Bantam of the Opera
by Mary Jane Auch (Illustrator)

Luigi the rooster wins fame and fortune when the star of the Cosmopolitan Opera Company and his understudy both come down with chicken pox on the same night.

The Bat Boy And His Violin
by Gavin Curtis (Author), E.B. Lewis (Illustrator)

Reginald loves to create beautiful music on his violin. But Papa, manager of the Dukes, the worst team in the Negro National League, needs a bat boy, not a "fiddler," and traveling with the Dukes doesn't leave Reginald much time for practicing.

Soon the Dukes' dugout is filled with Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach -- and the bleachers are filled with the sound of the Dukes' bats. Has Reginald's violin changed the Dukes' luck -- and can his music pull off a miracle victory against the powerful Monarchs?

Gavin Curtis's beautifully told story of family ties and team spirit and E. B. Lewis's lush watercolor paintings capture a very special period in history.

Beethoven Lives Upstairs
by Barbara Nichol, Scott Cameron (Illustrator)

See Ludwig van Beethoven through the eyes of Christoph, a 10-year-old boy who lives beneath the musical genius. Young readers get to know Christoph and Beethoven through elegant illustrations and a series of letters the boy writes to his uncle. The correspondence reveals the composer's great talent as well as his eccentric behavior and the problems he faced after losing his hearing.

Bravo! Brava! a Night at the Opera
by Anne Siberell, Frederica Von Stade (Introduction)

A delightful introduction to opera, Bravo! Brava! A Night at the Opera teaches elementary school children what opera is by showing how it is made. "Who writes the words?", "Who makes an opera happen? "Who is backstage?"--these questions and more are answered with easy-to-understand explanations and are illustrated with whimsical watercolors by the author. From composer, choreographer, and costume designers to the conductor, lighting and special effects crew, and, of course, the singers, the excitement builds as Anne Siberell explains each person's role in producing an opera. Bravo! Brava! A Night at the Opera reveals details of the most famous operas' plots and characters along the way and includes synopses of 27 popular operas, a glossary, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

Carnival of the Animals: By Saint-Saens
by Barrie Carson Turner, Sue Williams (Illustrator), Camille Saint-Saens

The animals are having a carnival, and the guests are arriving. There's the majestic lion, the braying mules, the dancing elephant, and the bouncy kangaroos. Even the fossils join in with a fast and rattly dance. Everyone is invited!

Nearly 150 years ago, the composer Camille Saint-Sans was asked by his pupils to write a musical joke for them. He wrote the Carnival of the Animals, a piece people enjoyed so much that it has now become one of Saint-Sans's most famous works.

This accessible commentary, in a picture-book format, helps children follow each section of Saint-Sans's classic piece while they listen to the CD. Whimsical illustrations, a simple text, and evocative melodies create an ideal introduction for young children to the world of classical music.

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop
by Chris Raschka

Introduces the famous saxophonist and his style of jazz known as bebop.

Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa
by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Brian Pinkney (Illustrator), Andrea Davis Pinkney, J. Brian Pinkney (Illustrator), Scat Cat Monroe (Contributor)

Ella Fitzgerald began her life as a singer on the stage of the Apollo Theater when she was just seventeen years old. Her rich voice and vocal innovations brought her fame and a remarkable career than spanned half a century and won her generations of fans around the world. Acclaimed author Andrea Davis Pinkney has told Ella's inspiring story in the voice of Scat Cat Monroe, a feline fan whose imagined narrative sings with the infectious rhythms of scat. Two-time Caldecott Honor winner Brian Pinkney's dramatic perspectives and fantastical images offer a jazzy improvisation all their own.

The Farewell Symphony
by Anna Harwell Celenza, Joann E. Kitchel (Illustrator)

Includes a full-length CD recorded by the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

History and music come alive!

Prince Nicholas isn't easy to work for--just ask composer Joseph Haydn. When the prince isn't demanding chamber music, operas, and ballets to entertain his guests, he wants dance music for balls and dinner music with his meals. Haydn and the other musicians are kept quite busy at the prince's summer estate in Hungary. As summer fades into autumn, however, the musicians grow increasingly homesick. When Haydn mentions the musicians' distress, the prince threatens to fire the entire orchestra! How will the talented composer convince the mighty prince that it's time to bid farewell to the summer palace?

Memorable characters, carefully researched text, and expressive illustrations tell the story behind Haydn's famous Symphony #45.

Gabriella's Song
by Candace Fleming (Author), Giselle Potter (Illustrator)

In the streets and canals of Venice, Gabriella can hear nothing but sweet music. The drying laundry goes slap-slap, the church bells go ting-aling-ling, and the lire go jing-aling-ling. Soon, Gabriella is humming her way through town -- and everyone hears her song! Some find it sad, others smile when they hear it -- but none can forget the beautiful melody. Before long, a certain struggling composer is inspired by Gabriella's song -- and a beautiful symphony is born.

Gobble, Quack, Moon
by Matthew Gollub (Performer), Judy Love (Illustrator)

A host of barn animals cheers up Katie the cow by staging a ballet party on the moon. Includes narration on audio CD set to blues, waltzes, and rock ‘n’ roll.

The Great Poochini
by Gary Clement

By day, Signor Poochini is just a dog sleeping in front of his master's fire. But by night he is the Great Poochini, the most acclaimed singer in all of doggie opera. One evening, a locked window threatens to keep Poochini from the opera house where his eager fans await. When a cat burglar appears, the disaster becomes Poochini's opportunity to save both his master's house and his performance.

The Jazz Fly
by Matthew Gollub, Karen Hanke (Illustrator)

A singular story about musical insects celebrating language and the inventive spirit of jazz. Includes narration set to a jazz quartet on audio CD.

A fly, who speaks jazz, asks different critters which way to town. “Rrribit,” replies the frog. “Oink,” says the hog. Although baffled, the fly hears music in their words, and that evening he stirs up a solo that sets the dinner club a hoppin.’ The computer enhanced artwork of Karen Hanke perfectly complements the text and CD. Get ready to tap, snap, and swing to the beat as Nancy the Gnat, Willie the Worm, and Sammy the Centipede take the stage.

by Robert McCloskey

Lentil cannot sing or even whistle; longing to make music in some fashion, he provides himself with a harmonica and practices constantly wherever he is, especially in the bathtub, because there his tone is improved 100 percent. A book that, along with its fun, truly illustrates the American scene.

Mama Don't Allow
by Thacher Hurd

Saxophone-playing Miles and his Swamp Band find a bevy of sharp-toothed, long-tailed alligators who love to listen to their music. But little do Miles and his band know what the alligators plan for them at the close of their jubilant all-night ball! Inspired by a traditional song, this vibrant picture book is "ebullient, fast-paced, and funny."

Max Found Two Sticks
by Brian Pinkney

It was a day when Max didn't feel like talking to anyone. He just sat on his front steps and watched the clouds gather in the sky. A strong breeze shook the tree in front of his house, and Max saw two heavy twigs fall to the ground.
So begins this story of a young boy's introduction to the joys of making music. Max picks up the sticks and begins tapping out the rhythms of everything he sees and hears around him...the sound of pigeons startled into flight, of rain against the windows, of distant church bells and the rumble of a subway. And then, when a marching band rounds Max's corner, something wonderful happens.

Brian Pinkney's rhythmic text and lively pictures are certain to get many a child's foot tapping, many a youngster drumming.

Meet the Orchestra
by Ann Hayes (Author), Karmen Thompson (Illustrator)

Have you ever met an orchestra? Well, here's your chance! Meet the rabbit with her flute...the koala cellist...the tuba-playing warthog...the alligator on the drums...This unusual introduction to the orchestra describes the instrument-strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion- and offers interesting information about them. Playful illustrations show the animal musicians as they gather for an evening's performance. Then the conductor lowers his baton, and the wonderful music begins....

Mole Music
by David M. McPhail (Illustrator)

Mole has always led a simple life, but he begins to think that something is missing. When he hears a violin playing for the first time, he longs to make beautiful music. At first, Mole can only make horrible screeching noises on the new violin he gets, but he practices and practices. Finally, his patience and dedication are rewarded. Mole creates a magical gift that unbeknownst to him has the power to erase hatred from the hearts of all who hear his music.
A Junior Library Guild Selection.
A Children's Book-of-the-Month Club Selection.

Moses Goes to A Concert
by Isaac Millman (Illustrator)

Moses and his deaf classmates attend a concert where the feel the vibrations of the music through balloons. They meet a deaf percusionist who explains how she became a musician. The book integrates American Sign Language throughout.

Music Is
by Lloyd Moss, Philippe Petit-Roulet (Illustrator)

Music is magical. Whether it is fast or slow, loud or soft, haunting or uplifting, music makes our world a richer place. Some people dance to it, some write, play or sing it, and others just listen. Music's power is that it touches everyone in different ways. It can be enjoyed by a crowd or by one person alone; it can mark grand occasions or bedtime.

We're so used to having music in our lives that we may not always notice how it affects us. In this lilting tribute, Lloyd Moss and Philippe Petit-Roulet lead us to think about how different the world would be if we didn't have music.

Mysterious Thelonious
by Chris Raschka

Matches the tones of the diatonic scale to the values of the color wheel in presenting a portrait of the work of the Afro-American jazz musician and composer of "Mysterioso."

Our Marching Band
by Lloyd Moss, Diana Cain Bluthenthal (Illustrator)

Ralph loves the tuba. Maureen fancies the flute. Betsy likes the glockenspiel, and for Calvin it's the drum. Belinda prefers the trombone, Harry craves a clarinet, and Sam longs for a saxophone. And then there's Mae McCall-a natural born leader with a baton.

What's a group like this to do? Form a marching band, of course. It's not all beautiful music at first-when the kids play, the grown-ups cringe and cover their ears. But these kids aren't giving up, and before long they have even the mayor convinced that practice does make perfect!

Peter and the Wolf
by Sergei Prokofiev, Michele Lemieux

Retells the orchestral fairy tale in which a boy ignores his grandfathers warnings and captures a wolf with the help of a bird, a duck, and a cat.

Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera's Book of Opera Stories for Children
by Jane Rosenberg, Luciano Pavarotti (Introduction)

In this vibrantly illustrated collection, 15 thrilling opera stories are brought to children in a most enjoyable way. From The Barber of Seville to Aida, these all-time favorite will stimulate a child's interest in the magic and passion of opera.

The Story of the Incredible Orchestra
by Bruce Koscielniak

Have you ever seen an orchestra perform? What are all those different instruments and how do they all play just the right note at just the right time? In this fact-filled and entertaining picture book, Bruce Koscielniak gives us a lively look at the history of the orchestra and all the instruments that make up this wonderful gathering of sound. From the "tooter, strings and beaters" of the 1600s to the keyboard synthesizers of today, this playful exploration follows the developments and trends of music and instruments over the past four hundred years.

Story of the Orchestra : Listen While You Learn About the Instruments, the Music and the Composers Who Wrote the Music!
by Meredith Hamilton (Illustrator), Robert T. Levine

Eye-catching illustrations, engaging text and delightful musical selections on the accompanying 70-minute CD lead children ages 8 to 12 (and parents, too!) on an exciting and educational tour through the instruments and music of the orchestra. Illustrated in exquisite and colorful detail with over 100 original drawings and photographs, this package is a fun and exciting musical journey for children. The engaging text is broken into three sections: an introduction to each instrument of the orchestra from the cello to the timpani, the stories of famous composers from Bach to Stravinsky and an explanation of different musical styles from Baroque to Modern. Each step of the way, children can listen to actual musical examples of what they are learning about. Young readers will hear the sound of an actual violin as they study the instrument and enjoy the playful tune of a Mozart minuet as they read about the composer's precocious exploits as a child.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson
by Pam Munoz Ryan (Author), Brian Selznick

Marian Anderson is best known for her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, which drew an integrated crowd of 75,000 people in pre-Civil Rights America. While this momentous event showcased the uniqueness of her voice, the strength of her character, & the struggles of the times in which she lived, it is only part of her story. Like the operatic arias Marian would come to sing, Ryan's text is as moving as a libretto, & Selznick's pictures as exquisitely detailed & elaborately designed as a stage set. What emerges most profoundly from their shared vision is a role model of courage.

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin
by Lloyd Moss (Author), Marjorie Priceman (Illustrator)

When this book begins, the trombone is playing all by itself. But soon a trumpet makes a duet, a french horn a trio, and so on until the entire orchestra is assembled on stage. Written in elegant and rhythmic verse and illustrated with playful and flowing artwork, this unique counting book is the perfect introduction to musical groups. Readers of all ages are sure to shout "Encore!" when they reach the final page of this joyous celebration of classical music.

More Suggestions

Handel Who Knew What He Liked

Frog Went A-Courting: A Musical Play in Six Acts

Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra

John Coltrane's Giant Steps

Philadelphia Chickens

Nate the Great and the Musical Note

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