Let’s get this out of the way: there are way more than 15 famous musicians kids should know, and we fully acknowledge this is far from a definitive list. That being said, these performers and songwriters span the genres, introducing kids to everything from opera to Motown. Use this list as a jumping-off point to explore other famous musicians and bands in each of these genres, giving your kids a wider world of music to enjoy their whole life long. They’ll thank you for it!
1. The Beatles
What Makes Them Great: It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t like The Beatles! Possibly the most famous musicians of all time, John, Paul, George, and Ringo created dozens of unforgettable songs. Listen to their albums in chronological order to hear their style grow and change throughout the years—”I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is very different than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Try This at Home: “Yellow Submarine” is a fantastic place to start when introducing kids to The Beatles. The song tells a story to fire the imagination, and the brightly-colored video seems as if it was made with kids in mind. After you watch the video, listen to more music by The Beatles while coloring the free downloadable pictures found here.
2. Ella Fitzgerald
What Makes Her Great: When it comes to jazz, Ella Fitzgerald is undoubtedly one of the greats. Known as “The First Lady of Song,” she dominated the American music stage for over fifty years, collaborating with many other well-known musicians at the time (like Louis Armstrong below). As an African American woman, Fitzgerald faced discrimination despite her enormous popularity, and her story is as inspirational as her talent. She remains one of the most famous musicians of all time, and a Barbie doll was recently made in her honor.
Try This at Home: Fitzgerald was especially well-known for scat singing, a style in which nonsense syllables replace words so that the melody and rhythm take precedence. Kids will absolutely love singing scat (many of them do it all the time without realizing it anyway), so start by viewing this fun Sesame Street video, then give it a try yourself.
3. Louis Armstrong
What Makes Him Great: No one who hears Louis Armstrong’s voice can ever really forget it. It’s unique and full of emotion, surely one of the reasons he’s one of the most famous musicians of all time. His music spans the jazz songbook, and like Ella Fitzgerald, he was a master of scat. But don’t forget to explore his trumpet playing, where he was a true virtuoso. From humble beginnings in New Orleans to a stage career spanning decades, Armstrong’s story inspires as much as his music does. His appeal to white audiences made his outspoken participation in the civil rights movements of the 1960s a powerful force for change.
Try This at Home: For younger kids, listen to Armstrong’s famous “What a Wonderful World,” then try illustrating the lyrics, or making a list of what makes the world wonderful for you. For older students, learn more about Armstrong’s participation in the civil rights movement with this free video and lesson from PBS Learning Media.
4. Dolly Parton
What Makes Her Great: Dolly Parton’s journey is a true rags-to-riches tale. Born very poor in the Smoky Mountains, her life changed at age 10 when she started performing professionally. Her music spans a wide range of genres, from folk tunes to pop hits, with plenty of homey country style. Her effervescent personality makes her a joy to watch, and her song-writing skills are legendary. Dolly is a huge literacy advocate; she founded Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which mails free books to young children in participating communities. Kids will love her catchy songs and sweet voice.
Try This at Home: Dolly’s mastery of the banjo is well-known, so check out this DIY project that turns jar lids into mini banjos your kids can play. Plus, don’t miss the “Goodnight With Dolly” series; she’s reading a classic children’s book every week with that special Dolly Parton touch that little ones will love.
5. Johnny Cash
What Makes Him Great: Johnny Cash is another one of those famous musicians whose early struggles led to an amazing career. His mix of country, folk, blues, and rock—coupled with his distinctive voice—made him one of the most respected musicians of his time. Cash’s compassion for his fellow humans took him everywhere from prisons to the White House, and his music touches everyone who hears it. He recorded many hits with wife June Carter Cash, a stellar musician in her own right.
Try This at Home: One of Cash’s best-known hits is “I’ve Been Everywhere” which is really a geography teacher’s dream. Pull out a map and track down every place listed in this song, then try writing your own version based on places your family has traveled (or wants to go someday).
6. Joni Mitchell
What Makes Her Great: Mitchell’s simple music is easily accessible for kids of any age, but her lyrics are more complex and inspiring. Her folk songs perfectly captured the mood of the late 1960s, and her style changed as she grew. Mitchell has long been an activist for civil rights and the environment, and many of her songs (“Big Yellow Taxi”) reflect those ideals.
Try This at Home: One of Mitchell’s best-known songs is “Both Sides Now,” sometimes also called “Clouds.” For younger kids, listen to the first verse as she names some of the things she sees in clouds, then head outside to lay in the grass and find your own shapes in the clouds (play some more Joni Mitchell for a soundtrack). Older kids can take a deeper look at the lyrics, and discuss or write about how they themselves feel about “both sides” of life, love, and other topics.
7. Frank Sinatra
What Makes Him Great: Frank Sinatra was one of the first singers that truly made teenage girls swoon. Long before Justin Bieber, Sinatra was wooing the girls of the bobby-sox generation with recordings of love songs, jazz hits, and musical theater numbers. His swinging performance style came to define the genre, and inspired fellow members of The Rat Pack like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. He starred in multiple musicals and movies too. So many of Sinatra’s songs have become classics that you won’t have any trouble finding some to appeal to kids of all ages.
Try This at Home: Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter, but he knew and worked with the best. When he performed, he worked with musicians known as “arrangers” to create a version of each song that best fit his style. He played with tempo, rhythm, and even lyrics to put a personal twist on every tune. Give kids a hairbrush microphone and encourage them to do the same with any song they love: don’t just sing it as written, but give it their own improvisational style!
8. Ray Charles
What Makes Him Great: When Ray Charles lost his sight at the young age of 6, no one could have imagined he’d go on to pioneer the genre of music known as soul, with a career spanning over 50 years. His true joy in music shines through when he performs, and songs like “Hit the Road, Jack” will captivate even young listeners. His “America, the Beautiful” is considered the definitive version of that song and clearly envisions an America for everyone, symbolic of a man who was active in a range of humanitarian and political causes.
Try This at Home: Watch the well-reviewed biopic Ray with Jamie Foxx with older kids (it’s rated PG-13) to learn more about his incredible life. Younger kids will get a kick out of seeing him explain Braille and sing with Elmo on Sesame Street.
9. John Denver
What Makes Him Great: John Denver brought bluegrass to the masses, with folk songs rendered in a clear, pure voice that made him one of the most beloved famous musicians. Hits like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” will appeal to kids. Take some time to learn about his environmental activism, and explore his photography too.
Try This at Home: John Denver performed on The Muppet Show in 1979, and the result was so popular that they recorded a holiday special together that year, followed by Rocky Mountain Holiday in 1983. These aren’t currently available in their entirety to stream online, but many clips are on YouTube for you to find and watch with your kids. You can also purchase the holiday album, John Denver & The Muppets: Christmas Together, or stream it for free on Amazon.
10. Aretha Franklin
What Makes Her Great: When Aretha Franklin demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T in 1967, the world responded and gave her her due. She was the original Queen of Soul, a singer-songwriter-pianist who was also a major civil rights activist. Like so many famous musicians, Franklin’s early life was challenging; her family moved around a lot, eventually landing in Detroit. This positioned Franklin perfectly to be part of the emerging Motown scene, and her music is so beloved today that she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush and performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 .
Try This at Home: Dig deeper into the world of Motown by holding a dance party to the compilation album Motown for Kids. Have older students learn more about Franklin’s life and career, then write on essay or give a presentation on exactly why she deserves so much respect.
11. The Beach Boys
What Makes Them Great: The vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys make their music something special, and encapsulates the easy West Coast vibe of their music. The members started as a garage band in Hawthorne, California in 1961, creating a genre that came to be known as the “California Sound.” Kids will dig the bouncy tunes and catchy lyrics of songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Good Vibrations” from an early age.
Try This at Home: Can’t get to the beach? Pull a kiddie pool up next to the sandbox and crank up The Beach Boys catalog while you build sandcastles, toss a beach ball around, splash in the water, and relax in the sun (don’t forget the SPF!).
12. Elvis Presley
What Makes Him Great: If Frank Sinatra was one of the first singers to inspire teenage obsession, Elvis Presley might be the most well-known. His swinging hips thrilled teenage girls (and horrified parents at the time), while his music charmed all listeners. He quickly became one of America’s most famous musicians, with hits like “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Elvis’s flashy style captivated audiences around the world, and his early death was one of the music world’s great tragedies.
Try This at Home: Make up a batch of Elvis Presley’s favorite food, fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, to snack on while you watch some of his movies like Jailhouse Rock. Then grab a cheap pair of canvas sneakers and use Sharpies and rubbing alcohol to create your own “blue suede shoes.” Budding stylists will enjoy trying to recreate some of his most iconic hairstyles.
13. John Williams
What Makes Him Great: Imagine Star Wars without the blast of brass as the opening crawl begins, or Indiana Jones swinging through the jungle with no triumphant trumpets playing. John Williams created the music that made great movies into amazing movies, from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Harry Potter. In fact, kids will be amazed to find just how pervasive this prolific composer has been, creating theme songs for TV shows like Gilligan’s Island and even the Sunday night football theme!
Try This at Home: To truly understand the importance of movie soundtracks, watch this video of iconic scenes from Star Wars movies … without the music. Then try listening to the soundtrack of a John Williams movie your kids haven’t seen yet, and ask them to create a story to match the music. (Plus, make a note to try to catch a live performance of an orchestra accompanying one of his films when concerts resume someday.)
14. Yo-Yo Ma
What Makes Him Great: The cello was more of a background sound until Yo-Yo Ma came along and introduced the world to the incredible beauty and range of this stringed instrument. He was a true child prodigy as he began to perform at age 5 and appeared before John F. Kennedy by age 7. His passion comes through in every stroke, bringing classical pieces to life like never before. Help kids connect with his music by listening to some of the movie soundtracks he contributed to like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Try This at Home: Learn about the sections of an orchestra with this interactive orchestra tool, which lets kids click to learn more about each instrument and hear recordings of them in action. Then expose kids to more classical music with a viewing of Walt Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia and the follow-up Fantasia 2000, both streaming on Disney+.
15. The Three Tenors
What Makes Them Great: Opera is admittedly a hard sell for a lot of kids, but The Three Tenors are so entertaining to watch, it might just change their minds. When they gave their groundbreaking concert in Los Angeles in 1995, these three famous opera singers—Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras—enjoyed a camaraderie that made opera music feel accessible to everyone. This is the way to introduce young listeners to the beauty of opera.
Try This at Home: Explore the stories behind famous operas with the book Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Stories for Children, and seek out a few numbers from each to listen to. Also, yes, there are operas written in English! Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is one of the most popular. Listen to it with your kids and act out some of the scenes together.
Need more music in your life? Check out these free resources from Carnegie Hall.
Plus, try these Spotify playlists, perfect for learning at home or in the classroom.