Music in the Home: New Evidence for an Intergenerational Linkby S. A. Mehr

Journal of Research in Music Education


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Journal of Research in Music Education 2014, Vol. 62(1) 78 –88 © National Association for

Music Education 2014

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DOI: 10.1177/0022429413520008


Music in the Home:

New Evidence for an

Intergenerational Link

Samuel A. Mehr1,2


This study had three goals: (1) to investigate the potential connection between music experiences in early childhood and later music making as a parent, (2) to report the frequency of music making in a sample of American families with young children along with parents’ opinions on possible benefits of music classes, and (3) to compare frequency data to two previous studies. Parents of 4-year-old children were surveyed on the frequency of music activities in the home, their early arts experiences, and a variety of topics concerning arts education. An intergenerational link was found: The frequency of parental song in childhood significantly predicted parents’ later music behaviors with their own children, adjusting for other aspects of the early artistic environment. Parents reported high frequencies of music activities in the home, with most parents singing or playing recorded music to their children on a daily basis.

Notably, the frequency of parental music making was unrelated to family income or to participation in music classes. Parents’ opinions on the effects of music education reflected a widespread belief that music classes confer a variety of nonmusical benefits.

Keywords family music, early childhood, song, parenting

Music educators have expressed concern that in recent history, the quality of the young child’s home musical environment has declined (e.g., Feierabend, 1996;

Gembris & Davidson, 2002; Papoušek, 1996), but evidence for this trend is limited.

Six studies (Custodero, Britto, & Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Custodero & Johnson-Green, 1Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, USA 2Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

Corresponding Author:

Samuel A. Mehr, Harvard University, William James Hall 1120, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA.

Email: 520008 JRMXXX10.1177/0022429413520008Journal of Research in Music EducationMehr research-article2014 at KAI NAN UNIV on March 24, 2015jrm.sagepub.comDownloaded from

Mehr 79 2003; de Vries, 2009; Ilari, 2005; Youm, 2013; Young, 2008) quantitatively document the frequency of parents’ music making with varied results, but differences in their findings may be attributable to differences in the ages, locations, and demographics of children involved. Only two report on American families, with data collected over a decade ago: in 1996 by Custodero et al. (2003) and in 2000 by Custodero and Johnson-Green (2003). To date, no analyses directly comparing frequency data have been published; thus, the degree to which the home musical environment has changed in recent years, whether positively or negatively, is not yet known.

A link between childhood music experiences and later parental music making has been proposed by music educators (e.g., Gordon, 1997; Kodály 1963/1989); but few studies have tested this possibility empirically. Custodero and Johnson-Green (2003) found a significant association between being sung to by a parent in childhood and the frequency of singing to one’s own child, but Ilari (2005) found no corresponding relationship between mothers’ music experiences and the frequency of parental song. A caveat against the evidence for such a link is the possibility that parents who were frequently sung to as children also had other early advantages, such as exposure to music classes or a generally enriched artistic environment, which later led them to sing more to their own children. No published study has controlled for this potential confound.

American families participate in a wide variety of early childhood music programs, many of which are designed to improve the quality of the home musical environment (for review, see Flohr, 2005). A recent large-scale survey of American adults reported 88% agreement with the statement, “Participating in school music corresponds with better grades/test scores” (National Association of Music Merchants, 2011, p. 175); thus, parents’ reasons for participating may include the belief that music classes enrich not only children’s musical development but also areas of cognition unrelated to music.

The current study has three goals: (1) to investigate the existence and extent of an intergenerational link in the music of childhood and the music of parenthood, (2) to report data on the frequency of parental music behaviors in a sample of American families with young children along with parents’ opinions on the potential nonmusical benefits of music education, and (3) to conduct an analysis comparing current frequency data to two previous studies.



Families with 4-year-old children were recruited through a lab database and via flyers offering “free creative arts classes” throughout the Boston area, for two longitudinal studies on the cognitive effects of arts education (Mehr, Schachner, Katz, & Spelke, 2013). Approximately 90 parents responded, of which 78 were invited to participate in the study. To qualify, children could not be attending a music class already and a professional musician could not be living at home with the child. Families were randomly assigned to music (n = 38), visual arts (n = 14), or no classes (n = 22). Following a at KAI NAN UNIV on March 24, 2015jrm.sagepub.comDownloaded from 80 Journal of Research in Music Education 62(1) period of weekly instruction, parents were surveyed on their childhood arts experiences, the frequency of music activities in the home, and opinions on possible nonmusical benefits of children’s music classes. Four families discontinued participation in the study before completing the survey, for a 5.1% rate of attrition. Parents previously had completed a demographic questionnaire and the Advanced Measures of Music