Can you shape your children's taste in music?

baby headphones

Many parents can't help but try to shape their children's taste in music. But is it an effort doomed to failure, or worse, will it make children hate the music their parents love, and love the music their parents hate?

It might be something like this. Great-grandparents like classical (Mahler), grandparents like jazz (Ellington), parents like rock (Queen), children may be ready to graduate from In the Night Garden to Gangnam Style.

Parents have an interest in finding some musical common ground with their children, if only for five-hour car journeys.

"Every father wants his son to follow his own football team," says Jeremy Summerly, a British conductor and lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music.

"And I imagine that every parent has some kind of innate desire to want their child to enjoy the same kind of music that they did."

But times change.

"The sort of music that was fashionable to the parent may have become distinctly unfashionable by the time the child is of the same age," says Summerly.

One parent who is navigating these reefs at the moment is Tom Hodgkinson, satirist and author of The Idle Parent. Hodgkinson is well aware of the risks in trying to shape a child's taste.

Children play at the London Jazz Festival's toddler sessions

"There's an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer's in the car playing his 70s rock to the kids, and they just groan," says Hodgkinson.

But nonetheless he has tried, gently, to shape his children's' taste.

"For a while the four of us, my wife and I and the children, had piano lessons together. At the moment my son has got into the ukulele and he wanders around the house playing it. He's also in a band called Purple Inferno.

"Sometimes I'll be driving and I'll ask Arthur, my 12-year-old, if he knows the first two albums of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he'll download them and play them in the car," says Hodgkinson.

"The other day I heard him playing along to the bass line of God Save the Queen - the Sex Pistols version, not the national anthem - and I felt pleased. I thought, 'That's my boy,'" says Hodgkinson who played in a punk band at university.

kid at festival

The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber thinks that you can't impose your taste on your children but you can guide them, as he did with his own son David.

"You want to introduce your child to the things you believe are the best. When my son was eight years old I took him to see [the Russian cellist Mstislav] Rostropovich. That's a special thing to have seen and it will stay with David all his life," says Lloyd Webber.

In other homes, the musical influences are passed on less deliberately.

"I can't say that I ever tried to shape my children's taste in music or thought about doing so," says Jem Finer, artist and founder member of The Pogues.

He says his daughters, Ella and Kitty, had to live with whatever was being played in the house and deal with whatever musical instruments were lying around.

Music for hipster kids

  • US band They Might Be Giants have released several records for children including Here Comes Science, a Grammy-nominated educational CD
  • Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian compiled LP for kids called Colours Are Brighter, including tracks by Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and The Divine Comedy
  • Electronic duo Lemon Jelly played a Saturday morning gig for children in 2003, entitled Jelly Tots, featuring bouncy castles, clowns and balloons

While Finer was playing Captain Beefheart, the blues, Greek, Irish, Spanish and Turkish music, Finer's wife, the artist Marcia Farquhar, was playing the girls Bernard Bresslaw's comic songs, Beethoven and - when their father wasn't around - the Pogues.

Clearly something rubbed off. Ella, 29, has just completed a doctorate in the voice in theatre and Kitty, 27, is an artist and songwriter.

But sometimes despite all the efforts of the parents there isn't much effect.

"Some children follow what their parents say and what their parents like. They enjoy living in the image of their parents, and other children do precisely the opposite," says Summerly.

"If the parent goes Mahler, the child will go Lady Gaga."

Employing a bit of "child psychology" might be an idea. Knowing the tendency of children to rebel, if you want them to like your music, perhaps you might consider banning it in the home, says Summerly.

"You might find that all of a sudden the child thirsts for the string quartets of Haydn and takes to listening to them in private."

It seems that the musical environment at home does not necessarily influence what a child grows up to enjoy.

"I grew up in a house where, predominantly, classical music was played. And I couldn't stand classical music," says Finer.

mahler gaga Will playing Mahler make your kids turn to Gaga?

"I remember [Sergei Prokofiev's] Peter and the Wolf being bought for me as a child and having no interest in it whatsoever," says Finer.

"I could only respond to much more basic, primal music, like rock'n'roll, until my mind developed," says Finer.

But what happens when the effort to shape the child's taste actually works too well?

Start Quote

I would kind of like to go see Metallica with my son but there's something terrible about dad and son being into the same band”

End Quote Tom Hodgkinson

For those parents tempted to wean their children off the current playground hit in favour of late classical and early romantic music - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, say - Summerly has a warning for you.

"You have to be very careful that if you introduce your child to that and they do follow you, they might alienate themselves from their friends at school.

"You could be stopping your children from growing up in a normal way with other children whose musical diet will be that of CBeebies," says Summerly.

Hodgkinson is well aware of the other problem that parents can find themselves in.

"I would kind of like to go see Metallica with my son but there's something terrible about dad and son being into the same band. It is my responsibility to hate it," says Hodgkinson.

Can Mozart make your kids smarter?


Perhaps what Hodgkinson wants to guard against is a kind of arrested development.

"At the moment I am getting into medieval and baroque music. When I play it in the car my son just groans. Part of me feels that children ought to like different music from their parents," says Hodgkinson.

For most parents the desire to shape a child's taste is positive - emerging from the wish to share what they love.

Summerly believes that music can profoundly educate and guide our feelings.

"If a parent believes that music is first a mirror of the soul or secondly that it can actually encourage good behaviour or that it is a major part of educational development, then it stands to reason that the parent will try to foster the child's engagement with a particular kind of music," says Summerly.

Playing even the simplest musical instrument and playing together with other people is something that should be open to all.

"When I grew up... I was told I was tone deaf," says Finer, "so I wasn't even worth considering for any kind of music lessons."

Finer now plays the banjo, guitar, hurdy-gurdy, mandola, and saxophone.

Whatever parents do or don't do to shape their children's taste, they seem to find what they like. Perhaps all that parents need to do is to open the doors for children, introduce them, in Lloyd Webber's phrase, "to some of the greatest achievements of mankind" and let them explore at them their leisure.

"There are no mistakes, they will find their own taste anyway," says Lloyd Webber.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    My kids are five and inevitably they listen to my stuff at the moment but they will develop their own tastes which is a good thing. Tastes do develop though and I find myself sharing a lot of musical tastes with my father, which if you told me I would when I was 15, I would have laughed at you! If my kids don't like Duran Duran, they will have to move out though!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The whole point of having children is to indoctrinate them in whatever you see fit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    As an original '77 punk, most of the fun was the horror with which our parents regarded it, the music, clothes, everything. If my parents had approved, even slightly, I think I'd have hated it.
    Of course, I'd love it if my own son liked punk, but as a dad, it's now my responsibility to apparently detest whatever he likes (whether I really do or not), just so he can have the same fun I did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    If it's constant "X-Factor" type drivel, It's boardering on cruelty IMHO.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I think parents should rebel against their kids, who listen to bland, heavily-marketed X-Factor nonsense. Where are all the brilliant new and inventive bands ? The past brought us Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols, Blur, Kraftwerk etc etc, but today all we get is talentless orange-faced X Factor crud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "I would kind of like to go see Metallica with my son but there's something terrible about dad and son being into the same band". Too right, I remember being mortified when my Dad told me he saw Hendrix! I hope most of the music my kids listens to 'just sounds like noise' (but maybe they sneak a look at my record collection on the sly!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    These guys had their music taste shaped by their father....!

    "All these men were under the supervision of their father for the music of the temple of the LORD, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry at the house of God" 1 Chr 25:6

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.


    Genres/artist followers need music but don't have the ability to know what sounds good and bad - they are musically dyslexic. "

    Everybody who listens to music is musically dyslexic? That's a bit of a sweeping statement isn't it ?!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I am guilty of this to some extent. I have played guitar for years, less so these days, but I couldn't resist buying my 6/7 yr old son a guitar in the hope that he would develop an interest. He loves AC/DC, but so far has shown little interest in learning how to play the instrument. He prefers Olly Murs at the moment !

    Early days, but I won't ram my taste down his throat, it doesn't work..

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I always grew up listening to music with my dad and borrowing his copies of the NME (which he has got every week for the last 35+ years!) but I never felt it was forced onto me. As a 8 year old my taste was quite unusual (I preferred Blur, Lush and the Manics rather than the boy bands everyone else liked), but as I got older it was definitely seen as cool that my dad would take me to gigs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.


    That's a bit of a sweeping generalisation you've just made there. It's not that simplistic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Parents should not indoctrinate their offspring in anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I share a lot of my parents' taste in music - I'm not sure if that was their intention or not but I love that we do!
    Now in my mid- twenties I've found that my music taste is a lot more "acceptable" than it was when I was at school. I do enjoy some modern music, so long as it involves talent and the actual playing of musical instruments. None of this x-factor production-line rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I find it odd that parents want to shape children's musical tastes. I can understand the desire to get them into sport or to learn a language, or expose them to a range of cultural influences. I can even understand wanting them to learn an instrument (evil parents!). But surely you can leave music alone. It's literally a matter of taste, like whether they prefer Indian or Chinese food. Who cares?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    #8 thedukeofhunslet
    "Genres/artist followers need music but don't have the ability to know what sounds good and bad - they are musically dyslexic."

    That's a strong candidate for the most arrogant comment ever posted on the BBC website. People's taste is a personal thing and therefore can't be good or bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Music evolves but never before has then been such a wide diversity available. Kids are particular with tastes and move towards generality and so it might be a generation before this creative lull before a storm explodes into new horizons, true one world music. Don't see any rebellion in our youth culture today, but fear abounds and that is driving todays musical conservatism. It will pass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I think parents' music can help to broaden those of their children. Mine certainly did but just by listening and watching how they enjoyed the it.

    But I do feel those who revel in their offspring's ability to recite the first four verses of some obscure track or those brought to festivals and made to wear ear defenders are sadly more of a fashion accessory and nothing to do with the music!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Much better to indoctrinate them with something saying no to drugs and looking both ways before crossing the road! They will only be influenced by what their friends are listening to anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Music taste is a function of what we're exposed to; either in support or rebellion against it. Our early exposure typically comes at home, so we first hear what our parents like.
    In today's saturated environment (TV, movie, web, radio,advertising, etc.), exposure is more constant and varied, so music taste is likely to be influenced more widely than before. We know more, so we like more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A true musician does not have a 'taste' in a particular genre or artist. Every song can be appreciated in it's own right.
    Genres/artist followers need music but don't have the ability to know what sounds good and bad - they are musically dyslexic. There are people who know songs for their lyrics because they don't hear a tune as well as people who hear the tune but don't hear the obscene lyrics.


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