Practice Instrument Differentiation With "Peter and the Wolf"

Introduction to Sergey Prokofiev's Famous Children's Composition

Flute player in orchestra
Learning to differentiate between the sounds of musical instruments is easy when you listen to "Peter and the Wolf". Hybrid Images / Getty Images

"Peter and the Wolf" is a story accompanied by a musical composition, both of which were written by Sergey Prokofiev in 1936. "Peter and the Wolf" has become Prokofiev's most notable work and serves as a great children's introduction to music and the instruments of the orchestra.

It was initially composed for Russia's Central Children's Theater in Moscow, but since its first performance the composition has been adapted into a Disney short film and continues to be performed in concert halls around the world.

Who Is Sergey Prokofiev?

Born in 1891 in Ukraine, Sergey Prokofiev starting composing music when he was only 5 years old. His mother was a pianist and noticed his talent, so the family later moved to St. Petersburg where Prokofiev studied music at St. Petersburg Conservatory and developed into a skilled composer, pianist and conductor.

During World War I and the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev left Russia to live in Paris, the United States, and Germany. He returned to the USSR in 1936. 

Given his popularity, time spent in the United States and innovative style, Prokofiev was a target for Soviet composers. In 1948, the Politburo banned many of Prokofiev's works and denounced him for creating music that was against the principles of classical music. As a result, he was reduced to writing Stalininst Soviet music. Because of Cold War animosities between the US and USSR, Prokofiev lost his standing in the West as well. He died on March 5, 1953. Because that was the same day Stalin died, his death was obscured and barely noted.

Posthumously, Prokofiev has found a lot of praise and critical attention. While "Peter and the Wolf" is one of Prokofiev's most famous works, he also composed symphonies, ballets, operas, film scores and concertos for the piano, violin and cello that continue to be performed today. Second to Richard Strauss, Prokofiev is the most performed composer in the United States in terms of orchestral music.

Plot and Themes

The story's main protagonist is Peter, who is a Young Pioneer, or Russia's equivalent of the American Boy Scout. Peter lives with his grandfather in the forest. One day, he decides to go out and play in the forest. He watches a duck swimming in the pond, a bird flittering around and a cat stalking the bird.

Peter's grandfather comes out and scolds him for being outside alone, warning him about the wolf. However, Peter defiantly tells his grandfather that he is not afraid. 

Later on, a wolf appears outside the house and swallows the duck. The daring Peter goes outside and figures out a way to cleverly capture the wolf. Hunters then appear and they want to shoot the wolf, but Peter convinces them to take the wolf to a zoo.

Although a simple story, "Peter and the Wolf" contains Soviet themes. The grandfather represents the overly conservative and stubborn older generation contrasted with the valor younger generation of Bolshevik youths. The capture of the wolf also represents the triumph of man over nature.

Characters and Instruments

Prokofiev used instruments from four instrument families ( stringswoodwinds, brass and percussions) to tell the story. In the story, each character is represented by a particular musical instrument. Because of that, listening to "Peter and the Wolf" is a great way for kids to practice differentiating between instruments.  

Refer to the table below to see a list of characters from the story and the specific instrument that represents each character. 

Characters and Instruments
Peter Strings (Violin, Viola, String bass, Cello)
Bird Flute
Cat Clarinet
Grandpa Bassoon
Duck Oboe
Wolf French horn
Hunters Timpani