16 Examples Of Classical Music To Teach Emotion (With Activities)

classical music to teach emotion

I don’t think classical music should be the only thing we teach in the music education world, but I do think it’s worth making an intentional part of our curriculum. 

In my experience teaching and working with people of all ages for over a decade, the one thing that holds people back is that they have a hard time organizing the larger-scale classical pieces in their minds. 

Accessing this music people aren’t as familiar through a lens they understand is critical to widening our students’ worldviews to new music genres. 

For this reason, I wanted to talk about 16 of the classical music pieces I use to also teach emotion. 

Combining emotional regulation and self-understanding with a whole new world of music for our kids? It sounds like a mega-win to me! 

Let’s dive in (and don’t forget to check out the activities to do with these pieces toward the end of the article)!

Happy/Excited Classical Music

First, I like to start with the most accessible and engaging musical emotion of music: happiness and/or excitement. 

These pieces are great to use with any grade level, and I usually start with this type of emotion with classical pieces before moving on to the more serious styles. 

The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba

This classical piece by Handel is a sleeper hit. 

To be honest, while I’d heard it in my history of music classes, I didn’t remember it. 

Now, I’ll never forget it! 

At three and a half minutes, this song is the perfect length for the youngest age of kids, and it lends itself to some pretending to be royalty as students march around the room. 

The Typewriter

If you haven’t shown your students this piece by Leroy Anderson, you’re missing out. 

Not only is the form easy to analyze and the song’s melody enjoyable and catchy, but the shtick of the song is also that one of the main instruments is literally a typewriter. 

It’s clever and fun and one I’m sure you’ll want to add to your list “write” away. 

(I do enjoy puns!)

William Tell Overture

We often find the best of music sticks around in our culture with classical pieces, though it’s often repurposed into other areas. 

The William Tell Overture by Rossini is one of those pieces your students have probably heard but have no idea where it came from. 

Not only is this song a ball to move with and play some instruments, but it also presents a great launching point for a discussion on how music is used and changed over time. 

Flight Of The Bumblebee

Everybody knows this song, even if they don’t know the name. 

It’s fun and even has a ton of expressive movements made up by music teachers for it. 

One of my favorites comes from the Move It series. (Click the link to view on Amazon.)

For music educators who want to include more classical music, this set of movements created by movement experts is a must-have. 

Sad/Somber Classical Music

I tend to get on my soapbox when sharing sad and somber music and stories with our students. 

I think it’s critical we offer our kids a safe place to act and experience these feelings to better handle this emotional experience when it arises in life. 

This is why movies that have sad/serious themes like Coco are so important for our kids to experience. 

Along these lines, we can help by sharing sad and somber classical music. 

No, it’s not going to leave you feeling chipper and happy, but you will feel in a safe and healthy way. 

The value of this cannot be overestimated. 

(Mini-soapbox rant over.)

Adagio For Strings

Barber’s Adagio for Strings has remained in the human ear for good reason. 

There are few pieces that more accurately express our human emotion of melancholy than this piece. 

It’s appeared or been sampled in countless other forms of media for this reason, and I love sharing this piece. 

My older students struggle to process the emotions they felt in the piece with words, and so some will try to play it off as a joke. 

They don’t know how to deal with it. 

But my younger students aren’t usually afraid of the feeling. They enjoy it, though it’s not a happy feeling. 

The biggest drawback of this piece is its 9-minute length. Usually, I like to keep my pieces between 2-5 minutes when we listen in class. 

For this one, I often assign a drawing assignment or something to do while they listen to help them stay in the moment. 

This conducted video of the piece helps a lot too. 

But honestly, you’d be surprised how well even Kindergarten will pay attention to this meaningful piece. 

Nimrod

Elgar is one of my favorite composers of all time, and Nimrod from the Enigma Variations is a classic expression of remembrance. 

It’s often played at British funerals and orchestral concerts as a piece dedicated to members who passed. 

It was written partially to express the feeling of being overwhelmed with worries, only to rise through it and write more and more beautiful music. 

Mozart’s Requiem: III. Lacrimosa

The whole Requiem Mass in D Minor by Mozart is an insanely powerful piece, but the third movement here is a great length for students and still hits this sad and somber emotion. 

As a plus, this piece uses a choir, and the story is interesting to kids. 

After all, Mozart essentially died while writing the piece, and it was finished by another composer. 

So in a way, he wrote the music for his own funeral. 

Angry/Intense Classical Music

Right after or even tied with happy music, kids love to experience angry and intense classical music. 

Anger and frustration is an emotion we all experience, but society encourages us to deny, crush, or control those feelings. 

Often, this causes more issues with anger down the road. 

These pieces allow students the chance to act out these musical emotions in a safe and healthy way. 

The Comedians: Pantomime

I love this short movement from The Comedians by Kabalevsky. 

It’s two minutes of intense feelings while still having a wide range of musical styling any classical musician would love to play. 

The Imperial March

Yes, the Imperial March is stretching the definition of classical music for some people. 

I think of movie music as one of the types of music that still accesses a serious musical expression. 

Because most students will have the background knowledge of Star Wars, they won’t need as much of a shtick to help them pay attention to the piece, and it still helps with the expression of emotions, especially the intensity of evil in the form of Darth Vader. 

Night On Bald Mountain

Mussorgsky’s piece featured on the 1941 Disney’s Fantasia is a great example of intensity in music. 

This could also be placed in the scared/afraid section too. 

The animation done by Disney may be a little intense for some classes, so be sure to screen it for yourself and decided on your own what’s right for your kids. 

Still, this piece is enjoyable to listen to, but a listening map will go a long way in helping organize this piece. 

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

If you’ve come across a lot of my articles on this site before, you’ll quickly find that Beethoven is one of my favorite composers to listen to and teach about. 

His story of writing beautiful music despite not being able to hear it is beyond inspirational, and my students find it fascinating to talk about him. 

I kept myself to a single piece of his on this list, and the iconic opening of this piece is one that really demonstrates anger and intensity. 

Of course, much of the rest of the movement doesn’t show this emotion, but that’s OK. 

Music is the artful expression of what it means to be human, and this musical expression is vital. 

Humans hold much more than one emotion at a time, and music should too. 

Plus, the Line Rider is pretty cool to watch! 

Afraid/Scared Classical Music

A lot of being a kid must be kind of terrifying if you think about it. 

They have little to no control over their lives, and every stressful experience to them must be ten times more powerful because it’s a brand new one for them! 

No wonder they love to act out being afraid. 

This emotion is sometimes different to sort out from intensity and anger. 

It’s almost as if the two are related…

Anyway, here are a couple I love to use. 

In The Hall Of The Mountain King

This piece by Grieg is perfect for use in so many ways, including the regulation of emotion through play. 

Here are some other valuable ways this song connects to music and musical knowledge: 

  • Quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rest repeated rhythms
  • Gradual crescendo and dynamic levels
  • Gradual accelerando and changing tempo
  • It uses a minor key

The Hut On Fowl’s Legs

I love Pictures at an Exhibition. Everything about it is amazing. 

Each movement is a study in emotion in and of itself. 

You could do this whole article on each movement of the piece and the emotion of each one. 

But this is one of my favorite movements. 

It’s very intense and funky and acts scary/afraid. 

I like to do a broad contrasting A and B section movement activity with this. 

Relaxing/Calm

I love to relax, and I know our kids often need to learn how to relax better. 

One of the keys to emotion regulation strategies is to learn deep breathing and relaxation. 

These pieces are perfect for releasing negative emotions and regulating the arousal of negative emotions later on. 

Aquarium

There is no shortage of movements for this relaxing piece, but the one I use I learned from my host teacher back in my student teaching, Paul Rose. 

  • Students swim like a fish slowly and smoothly around the room. 
  • During the descending pattern after the first phrase, students spin slowly while lowering themselves to the ground. 
  • Students stand and return to swimming slowly and smoothly around the room. 
  • On the descending pattern, spin downward again. 
  • Students stand and swim. 
  • During the contrasting section, they take a slow bow to each other. 
  • One final descent to laying down on the ground. 

Clair De Lune

When it comes to calming songs, Debussy’s Clair de Lune is one of the pieces most people think of. 

For this one, I enjoy doing drawings, yes, but I also spend more time with this one practicing deep breathing and specific tactics I’ve learned from music therapy to help with emotion dysregulation. 

VeryWell Mind has some great resources for those who want to learn more about this. 

Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, Movement 2

The beautiful horn solo that comes from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony is one that I love to use in feeling calm and relaxed. 

The melody itself seems to float above it all. 

But in the entire movement, there are several moments of tension, so is this really a good piece for calm?

I’d say yes, for sure! 

The tension and release are important for a lot of people to help in relaxing. 

In fact, one common tactic to help people meditate or go to sleep is to flex each muscle group for ten seconds and then relax it, starting at your feet and moving up to your head and neck. 

Another twist on this is to press on your limbs with your hands for ten seconds and then release. 

The increased tactile awareness followed by a release of pressure is proven to cause a sense of relaxation in the brain.  

5 Classical Music For Teaching Emotion Activities

Each of these pieces of classical music can have any number of activities attached to them specifically. 

But when it comes to accessing the emotional sides of the music, I always end up going to one of the 5 types of activities. 

Actually, I’ll often use several of these spread out over several lessons. 

I kept these activities more general, so you can adapt them to fit your needs depending on specific piece and grade level needs in your music education endeavors. 

Movement

Movement is one of the easiest and most effective ways to access our emotions and connect them with music. 

Movement can be free, where students move in response to a simple prompt. 

A good example of this is with Aquarium. I’ll often tell students to listen to the music and imagine they are fish floating and swimming freely in the sea. 

Then, I’ll ask them to move how the music tells them to with this idea in mind. 

Another type of movement that works just as well and is more organized is mirror movement. 

In this case, you’re giving the students the exact moves to do while the music happens. 

A good example of this is in the Move It! lessons that come with songs like the Pantomime. 

This type of movement usually has more controlled classroom management and matches the form of the song more effectively, but it uses less student creativity. 

Both are great and effective, and I tend to use them both in equal parts. 

Whatever the movement, ensure your class has a good experience by: 

  1. Practicing the movement before adding the music. 
  2. Setting up clear behavior expectations before starting. 
  3. Reinforcing positive behavior and redirecting negative behavior as needed. 
  4. Using prompts to keep students working together. 

You may also consider using props such as scarves to help with students who feel shy about such free movement. 

Drawing

I’m no artist, but you don’t have to be to enjoy drawing and draw emotional connections from the visual and musical arts. 

I don’t often use this as the first activity we do with a piece; I want them to be more familiar with it first. 

But when I do the drawing, I keep it pretty open. 

I want to see how the students process the music in their minds. 

It’s fascinating to see what they come up with. 

If I give too many prompts, I’ll end up with a lot of the same pictures. 

So I usually just say something like: “Draw what the music makes you think of.”

Then, I get a wide range of products. For example, here is what I’ve gotten from a piece like The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba: 

  • Happy faces
  • Kings and queens walking around
  • Candy and ice cream (because this makes the students happy)
  • Geometric shapes following the direction of the phrases
  • A landscape
  • Many different pictures or shapes, each following the form of the piece
  • An array of colors

I always ask students why they picked that picture, and most of the time, they can at least kind of explain why they picked what they did in a what that connects to the music. 

Listening Journal

Listening journals are more for older students, but it’s possible to do them with younger students as well. 

Essentially, you’re giving them a series of questions to answer or prompts to write about regarding a piece they’re listening to. 

I like to keep the questions the same from piece to piece with this activity because it highlights the differences between the different pieces. 

Here’s an example of a few questions I may ask: 

  • What instruments do you hear?
  • How would you describe the speed or tempo? Does it change? How?
  • How would you describe the volume or dynamics? Does it change? How?
  • What do you think the feeling the piece is trying to show? Why?
  • How old do you think this piece is?

Listening Map 

Listening maps are more about making the organization and structure of each piece more apparent. 

It works well with all pieces, but it’s almost a must for really long pieces (and remember, for kids, anything over 5 minutes is really long for them). 

I’m not great at making these up, so I’ll get these from Teacher Pay Teacher or my friends over at Maestro Classics. 

Maestro Classics has a huge number of resources to use in your classroom right away all around classical music. 

From listening maps to stories to worksheets, this place is my go-to for easy and quality resources for my music room. 

Story Telling

I love stories! When I was in my undergrad, I volunteered with our local storytelling group and learned a lot about this lost art. 

Telling a story with a song is a great way to connect with the feeling of a piece as well. 

It’s almost like a two-for-one when you hear a story and the music. 

So get creative about the song and tell a story that exemplifies the emotion of the music too. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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