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 227.

    My parents didn't try to influence our taste in music; they merely listened to their own music while we were around. So did I. As a result I like almost everything that was released up until 1973 ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    It does absolutely no good trying to force your musical tastes on your children, they go through the phase of trying to be like there peers. At 14 my daughter hated 'old' music. 4 years later and she derides One Direction et al and in fact has just completed buying the complete Beatles output on CD. My 11 year old son is now going through the same phase, I just hope he gets through it quickly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    My personal preferences include, as they always have, Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Modern music may well be good, but I cannot get along with it. Frankly, what I really, really like is silence. Supermarkets could do with a very large dose of it on their players.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    Exposing and teaching music and conventions is what culture is about. Asking whether we should do this is really asking whether culture should exist and whether we are fascists to try to interfere with our offspring's 'natural' discovery.
    It does seem as if current ideology is all about pulling down our common culture. I liked our culture and I want my children to appreciate it too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    The Milliband brothers weren't indoctrinated by their father in any way at all were they? :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    I don't think it matters at allw hat music your children like. What I do dislike is the attitude that music is something you listen too rather than create. Children should be encouraged to sing and learn to play an instrument themselves so they can create rather than just be passive observers..

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.


    On the other hand, Steve Jobs and co have also done a greta job of creating devices where people can play their music blaring out on long bus journeys for all to hear, like it or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    It matters less nowadays. On a long car journey, everyone will have their iPods (or similar devices) on listening to whatever they prefer. Similarly, the kids will be sitting in their bedrooms listening through headphones. Steve Jobs has done those of us who don't want to hear other people's music (of any genre) blaring out a great favour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    My experience says parents do shape taste. My father refused to have 'modern rubbish' in the house and only played classical. I like classical, whereas my brother hates it. One of us went one way, one the other, but we were both shaped by dad's bigotry.
    As for children being alienated by classmates, well so what? Looking at modern kids I am glad I was alienated, and I hope my kids will be too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Whether you want to or not you will influence your children's taste, especially whilst they are young. They don't rebel until teenage years.

    It *can* cause friction with their peer group though. But if that peer group is narrow minded and unaccepting, I'd rather my child wasn't in it. I care less what my child's views and tastes are, but more that she has the confidence to have them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    The annoying thing about this article is that it assumes that different genres of music are mutually exclusive. Why isn't it possible to appreciate Mahler AND Gaga?

  • Comment number 216.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    One of the ironies with the music churned out by the industry is that there are so many covers; so kids end up listening to their parents music in the end anyway. You just have to explain to them how old some "new" tracks actually are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    my parents music had a huge impact on me when i was growing. (am 21 now). i was introduced to the beatles at 4 years old from then onwards music became a big part of my life. i am now a lead vocalist and guitarist of a local sunderland punk band. parents should get there children into the classic music of the day as it does cause a huge impact on children of the sound they hear and the joy from it

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Some people hear music others listen to it.

    There's only 3 kinds of music, good, bad or indifferent, regardless of era or genre. Music is a continually evolving organic legacy, gospel begat blues begat jazz begat r&r/r&b begat hip hop begat this that and the other & so on & on & on.

    To some, music is just a fashion statement/accessory, to others, see above, it's much much more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    111. RayCraig

    This guy can't be real.

    I smell a troll.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    @209 m59e

    That comment, ironically reminds of a song by Tool called Vicarious :)

    Check out the lyrics and you'll see what I mean. Good tune, haunting and powerfully insightful

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    I was once at a black metal show, and prior to the opening number, a man walked past my little party into the pit. With a 7-year-old on his shoulders. How do I know he was 7? The dad told us, and proceeded to tell us that he wanted his son to have the mosh pit experience. Parents? Sharing your love with your kids is great. But, um, be safe. That pit was too scary for me and I was not 7.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    @23.Keith Burtons

    There is some 'new and inventive' stuff out there but it is true that you need to look harder for it than you did when the artists you mentioned were in their prime. I still say though that music must be a personal choice and if people don't want 'new and inventive' then that's up to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    I don't think it's any coincidence that after 20 years of exploring many different genres, I have found myself returning to the music my dad used to play when I was a kid. CCR, Pink Floyd, Boston, Vangelis etc.
    I compose and produce dance music but don't listen to it these days, as most of it is dross.


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