Is it wrong to try to shape my child's taste in music?

ByDeana Bianco

On the bus ride to an event called ‘The Music of Prince,’ my friends and I reminisced about The Purple One’s life. We speculated what the cover band would play live, all while our children played in the back seat, more concerned with Pokémon than Prince.

The Music of Prince is just one of many family-friendly concerts presented by The Rock & Roll Playhouse. They also have shows that highlight different bands and genres like Hip-Hop for Kids, Reggae for Kids, and even The Grateful Dead for Kids. According to the company's website, their shows incorporate live music, movement, and games.

The week leading up to the concert, I listened to Prince non-stop; in excitement and to prepare my kids for the upcoming show. In the car, I sang in a falsetto tone along to "It's Gonna Be Lonely." My two sons stared out of the car window.

This is pretty much the dynamic with my children. As a music lover and DJ at a community radio station, I pride myself on giving my sons a musical education; playing them albums that are meaningful to me, hoping that it sparks an interest. Nevermind the fact they usually ask me to turn down the music or switch to The Dinosaur Train theme song.

I know I’m not the only parent obsessed with making sure their kids inherit their taste in music. When I saw the 2012 Portlandia skit "Shooting Star Preschool," the music lover in me felt seen. In it, the PTA discusses the music available to their children at school. After emphasizing that Harry Nillson, Kraftwork, and Noid should be available to their children, Carrie Brownstein’s character points out, "What they listen to here, will affect them for the rest of their lives."

I feel like Elton John would have loved that skit. In a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, the legendary singer talked about playing some of his favorite songs for his twin boys when they were babies. “We put on [the iPod] lullaby versions of 
songs by Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and the Beatles. Linda Ronstadt’s Dedicated to the One I Love, Carole King’s Tapestry, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Kate Bush, because we love her so much.”

But according to experts, neither I nor Elton John has the power to influence our kids’ music preferences. Robert Cutietta, author of Raising Musical Kids: A Parent's Guide, says a parent's effort to expose their children to their favorite music is usually in vain. When we spoke, he said parents shouldn't be playing their children one type of music, and that wanting a kid to like your taste in music is, "a dead end." He maintains that offering your kids a diverse music selection is important, but what your kids need to know is not what kind of music you love — only that you love music. "They see the parent involved with music whether it's listening, whether it's dancing, whether it's playing, and that's what's remembered, and that's what's learned."

Lili M. Levinowitz, Ph.D., co-founder of Music Together, a music and movement program for parents and children, affirmed the importance of music participation with children. Her advice: “Sing to it. Dance to it. Don’t be passive.” She also stressed that children should be surrounded by an assortment of music. “Diversity is important just because of the kinds of musical experiences they're going to get and the music [is] what we like to call ear food [buffet].”

"They see the parent involved with music whether it's listening, whether it's dancing, whether it's playing, and that's what's remembered, and that's what's learned."

The importance of being engaged in music together is more than just a nice idea; there’s data to back it up. A study by the University of Arizona surveyed 157 young adults about shared musical experiences with their parents — whether it’s listening to music, attending concerts together, or playing instruments together — and how it affected their relationship with their parents. The study found that kids raised with familial musical experiences had a better bond with their parents than kids who weren’t raised with music.

After talking to experts and looking at the research, it seems that the musical landscape I’m surrounding my children with isn’t necessarily in vain. Writing this story actually helped me see that not only have I made an effort to introduce my kids to the music I love, I’ve also had the opportunity to experience music I would have never been exposed to if not for my kids. And truth be told, some of it is phenomenal.

I now know every word to the Moana and Frozen soundtracks. I have a new appreciation for Raffi and I adore Casper Babypants aka Chris Ballew, formerly the lead singer/guitarist of the rock group The Presidents of the United States of America.

I emailed Ballew to inquire whether he tried to influence his children's taste in music. He wrote, "I suppose it crossed my mind that whatever I listened to while my kids were young would be influential, but it didn't influence what I chose to listen to in their presence. I like an incredible variety of music, and I exposed them to all of it.” He added, “As they've grown up we've exchanged influences, and they've turned me onto music that I've come to really love."

While at the grocery store the other day, “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong played over the speakers. I’d regularly played Louis Armstrong at home because it reminded me of my grandfather, who played the trumpet. As my six-year-old swayed to the music and started to sing along, I felt like patting myself on the back. All of my musical efforts with my children were paying off, I thought. After the tune ended, my son explained to me about how he discovered that song from the film Finding Dory.