June 16, 2010

Heritability of music tastes

While reading an interesting discussion about power pop at Steve Sailer's, I recognized some of the names and style descriptions as ones that appealed to me, and then looked up this list of the 100 best power pop songs. My dad is stuck in 1965, so I heard a lot of the groundbreaking songs as a little kid -- during car rides, on the tape player in his apartment, coming from his 12-string acoustic guitar, wherever -- and my brothers and I used to watch the Help! movie at least a few times a month. To the extent that kids could get into music, I was into that stuff; son resembled father. (I recall around age 8 answering that my favorite band was The Beatles, i.e. pre-Revolver.)

As a teenager I got into alternative and indie and forgot about all the music my dad still listened to. When adolescents are trying to forge their own group membership badges, it's not necessarily their parents who they're rebelling against -- it's just that to be a new, unique group you have to adopt things that no one has adopted before (at least not within memory). Now as father walked by the filial mirror, he halted to stare at a completely different face looking back. What happened to my son?!

No longer fettered by teenage worries about "Will my friends think it's cool?" I've been free to listen to whatever I want. My tastes had already grown to include what Wikipedia music geeks label "jangle pop" (no hits in the NYT before 2006, so it's an example of post-hoc label proliferation). That is, power pop music that was popular, mostly from the 1980s: Tom Petty (who covered "I'll Feel a Whole Let Better"), "There She Goes" by The La's, some of The Smiths and The Cure, and so on. Last week I went to the used record store and picked up CDs by The Byrds, The Searchers, and The Beach Boys, and they've been in heavy rotation since. Oh my god, I'm turning into my dad!

(Although I hated any kind of dance music as a teenager, I've grown to love it. That part I get from my mother, who labored to drag my stubborn dad out to dance clubs when new wave and synth pop exploded into the mainstream circa 1983 or '84.)

Music tastes are like height or IQ where children resemble their parents more as they mature into adulthood. When you look at toddlers, a fair amount of the variation you see in their heights or IQs could reflect environmental differences among them, like some having intensive reading programs so early on vs. others not, or some being temporarily more deprived of key nutrients than others. However, when you look at them as adults, a lot of those environmental effects have gone away because most people in our society aren't more deprived of key nutrients than others forever (they may get free lunches once they go to public school), and eventually those toddlers who didn't start reading and writing at age 2 will wind up in literacy-building programs in kindergarten. As adults, therefore, genetic differences between them have come to play a much stronger role in distinguishing one person from another.

The temporary environmental effect that keeps teenagers from resembling their parents is the requirement to only adopt approved group membership badges, and again these will usually have to be novel and so different from those adopted by the parents. The teenager's personal tastes get mostly buried underground, only to rise from the grave once the adolescent slumber is over. This is a great reminder that, despite all of the posturing about "I'll do what I want, mom," those who truly bind teenagers in a cultural straitjacket are their friends and allies -- "Sorry, but we don't dress like that, we don't listen to that music, and we don't hang out there." As an adult, you get to say, "Sorry to hear that -- that's too bad for you."

These tastes are an awful lot like personality traits, which are moderately heritable, so over time we expect to see children come more to resemble their parents. That doesn't mean they'll like the exact same music groups or even the same genres, but there will be some basic taste that is highly similar to the parent's. Maybe it's a general taste for stripped-down, natural, abandoned music as opposed to built-up, artificial, self-conscious music. This abstract taste could be satisfied by listening to different groups -- perhaps father chooses The Byrds, and son the early Bangles. Still, at some level they're listening to the same music. Neither would go for the pretentious, overwrought later Beatles or that goofy, aware-of-the-camera crap by Jason Mraz.


  1. "...despite all of the posturing about "I'll do what I want, mom," those who truly bind teenagers in a cultural straitjacket are their friends and allies"


    Having the "correct" taste amonst one's teenage peers, for fear of social (and by extension, sexual) ostracism, probably makes kids give "mouth honor" to bands, singers, movies, and political opinions that they secretely find distasteful.

    This extends to politics when the same kids get on campuses, and they will give mouth-honor to political initiatives that they privately regard as incorrect out of social fear. This is not lost on the left.

  2. My mother listened to gospel, elvis, and country music. My father hated music and never listened to it or allowed it to be played aloud when he was around.

    I, as an adult, like jazz, nerdcore hip-hop, some techno/dance, and some classic rock.

    I disagree that music is heritable. Rather, as you yourself demonstrate, it's learned from childhood. Though even then it's not entirely true.

    I could go on naming friends whose musical tastes in their 3os and 40s are nothing like their parents or, in some cases, the exact same as their adolescence.

    It's an interesting idea but I doubt data would bare your anecdotes out.

    I'm willing to be proven wrong though if you can drudge up a study.

  3. Oh, I forgot classical music.

    Am I just an outlier or are you going to argue for some connection between gospel and jazz?

  4. Maybe it's more biological in that songs from your childhood whether they be Beatles songs or nursury rhymes raise seratonin levels in your brain, thus producing happy, warm feelings. So all of the happy memories you have of listening to songs while riding around in the car with your dad present themselves when you hear these songs again decades later and thus raise seratonin levels in your brain making you happy, nostaligic and wanting to continue to listen to these bands to perpetuate the warm, fuzzy feelings. In the case of the mom who loved gospel and Elvis, your dad's negative attitude toward music possibly made you associate the music that was present in your childhood home with feelings of fear or anxiety because you knew if you heard it playing and he caught you or your mom that he would have a negative reaction. So, the music that you prefer is nothing like that of the music that you were exposed to as a child and; therefore, does not harbor any negative associations for you.

  5. Perhaps, but I'm not completely convinced. Interesting that my son shares more musical tastes (as you've outlined) with me than I do with my own parents. Of course, my son's environment more closely resembles my own childhood environment that my environment resembled my parent's which was drastically different due to cultural and socio-economic factors.

    I suspect that if I had grown up in a similar situation as my parents, my musical tastes might mimic theirs...but it doesn't in the slightest. Although, come to think of it, I have grown to appreciate sorrowful, down-in-the-dumps old Country music in recent years which my dad used to listen to years ago.

  6. Nah, it's not imprinting on what I heard as a kid because I rarely or never heard the new wave and dance music that my mom was into. I only found that out in the past few years.


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