Given my earliest memories of classical music, it's a miracle I still love the stuff. At the age of six, I remember being forced to listen to Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony one hot, stuffy summer day at school. Sitting on an uncomfortably hard, wafer-thin carpet among a sea of other equally bored, wriggling children, the waves of big, doomy music never seemed to end. After rolling over and accidentally kicking my neighbour, I was told off and made to stand in a corner. Is there any wonder I've never quite got over my unreasonable but entrenched dislike for Mendelssohn?
Introduced in this heavy-handed way to classical music, many parents worry about putting their children off classical music for life by similar treatment. Waiting for children to be "grown-up enough" for it, however, is a real missed opportunity - classical music's scope for deepening children's cognitive abilities is well-documented. If you get children familiar with classical music at a young age, they will also be spared the fears of many adults, who are often interested in it but scared off by its seriousness and dauntingly huge repertoire.
It's a mistake to see classical music for kids as being solely about education and self-improvement, though - expose them to the incredible beauty and variety of the repertoire, and you'll be creating memories that hook in their brains for life. Surely, anyone would want to open up this new world to their children - but how to go about it? A good start is to present music as part of play, not education. My father (a classical-music obsessive) was very good at this: he used to tell us that the booming opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony were the sound of a big bad wolf knocking on a cottage door. When we heard them, we would squeal with delight and run for cover behind the sofa, an impulse I still haven't shaken.
Other good strategies are to encourage children to draw pictures to illustrate short pieces of music - what sort of place does the music sound like? What colour would it be? You can also encourage them to dance, or even sing along. The latter may produce little more than an atonal racket, but children enjoy it and are often unaware of how awful they sound. As a child I was convinced I could sing the impossibly elaborate Die Hölle Rache from The Magic Flute perfectly.
Showing children musical films such as Disney's Fantasia is another good option (beyond the excellent animation, the classical pieces in the film are performed very well), as is hunting down footage of talented children on YouTube. Clips such as the one of German teenager Robin Schlotz singing the very same aria from The Magic Flute I mention above can show them that classical music isn't necessarily the preserve of adults alone.
Music lessons are also a great idea, but speaking from personal experience I'd avoid starting them too soon - I started the violin at the age of three (yes, three) but never graduated beyond Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, always loathing the discomfort of the hard violin rubbing my chin. It depends on how keen your children are, but I'd think twice about starting anyone but a prodigy-in-the-making before the age of eight.
As for picking out music to play them, where should you start? There are no fixed rules, but episodic music that includes some sort of storyline often helps capture children's attention. Likewise, music that includes some form of gasp-inducing virtuosity also goes down very well. As a useful starting point, here are 10 pieces of classical music particularly popular with children:
Tchaikovsky's flair for melody makes much of his music very popular with children, but this ballet suite featuring toys and dolls and packed with delightful music-box tunes is probably the best place to start.
This portmanteau piece that matches animals to pieces of music veers between the witty and the lyrical - from the slow cancan of tortoises to the lush sweetness of the swan. Brief and full of incident, it's a piece that children often adore.
This piece written in the 1930s for a Moscow children's theatre attracts kids' attention with its fairy-tale story and showcases the different sections of the orchestra nicely.
The delightful, breathtakingly inventive music of this comic opera is perfect for children - child singers even feature in the cast. The whole work would be too much for most young people, but even tiny children love the incredible vocal acrobatics of Die Hölle Rache, the Queen of the Night's famous aria.
Memorable, hugely varied and even rather catchy, Mussorgsky's piece that describes three paintings is a great one to draw pictures along to, with the score taking inspiration and much colour from Russian folk tales.
Perhaps better for older children, this intense, occasionally frightening ballet score is packed with drama and variety. Older children are often fascinated with the ballet's ghoulish subject - a young maiden being made to dance until she dies as a sacrifice for the pagan gods.
This symphony's opening bars are the most iconic piece of classical music for a reason - thrillingly dramatic, it shows children early on just how rich and powerful an orchestra can sound.
The seasons really come alive in this deservedly popular piece, with instruments mimicking buzzing flies, and barking dogs. There's also some incredible bravura violin playing that can command the attention of even a toddler.
A wonderful expression of pure joy, this famous excerpt from The Messiah always gets children's attention with its beautiful counterpoint and bounding excitement.
Britten's variations on a theme by Purcell are a bit too self-consciously instructive to hide their educational purpose - but for children who are already fascinated by instruments, or considering learning one, it is a clear, un-patronising way of discovering what they sound like.