time to change the way we view music and the arts

(Non)-Conformity, Correlation, Causation…Calm Down!

American Academy of Pediatrics logo

American Academy of Pediatrics Logo
(Cit. PBWorks.com)

Seems that yet another piece brought to the public’s attention by The Atlantic has inspired some level of connected discussion for me.

Editorial fellow, Lindsay Abrams, who writes with the Atlantic Health channel, brought to light a study (online version with updated information here) recently published by “Pediatrics,” the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Abrams’s succinct write up and easy to digest summation of the study’s content,  especially its objective and conclusion, hit hard and fast in the territories of human behavior and musical variation, right from the title:

“Study: Kids Who Like ‘Unconventional Music’ More Likely to Become Delinquent”
Anyone with a vested interest in psychology, parenting and or music certainly couldn’t be blamed for being drawn into combing over what this study has to say and how it went about ascertaining its results. Upon doing so, there have been at least a few (myself included) who had a rather strong reaction to such an implication and jumped right up to deliver contesting remarks, examples and just vent some plain frustration at what can come across as a research endeavor of rather myopic proportions.
This reaction, whether justified or not, (read on) is not directed at Ms. Abrams or the Atlantic in and of themselves and is more so about the study. Conducted by three Ph.D. scholars from Utrecht University in Utrecht, Netherlands, this study concentrated on making observations about adolescents and early music choices, to investigate connections between preferred genres and particular negative behaviors or lack thereof. To quote the introduction just before the given abstract,

WHAT’S KNOWN ON THIS SUBJECT: Adolescent music preferences have been linked to problem behavior in cross-sectional studies. Particularly, preferences for loud, rebellious, and so-called “deviant” music predict externalizing problem behavior, such as minor delinquency and substance abuse.

WHAT THIS STUDY ADDS: There is a theoretical rationale for associations between music preferences and minor delinquency. Preferences for rock, African American music, and electronic dance music indicate later minor delinquency. Music preferences are better markers of later delinquency compared with early adolescent delinquency.   

Now, as a reflex, based on the fact that this study observed a mere 300 person sample, is published in an American research journal but is drawing on observations of Dutch children, this seemed off right from the start. Why would American doctors, psychologists, parents…etc. want to reference this study when the observed group is

1) So limited in number
2) Confined to a country where cultural norms concerning the definition of adults, adult activities and the general definition of “delinquent behavior” varies from that of the country of the journal of publication?

Let us, for argument’s sake, move past these details. In fact, let’s move past much of the study’s methodology altogether. Despite feeling the desire to contest the findings and bring that subsequent set of examples to the attention of the internet, what actually permeates my thoughts at the moment is wondering what society as a whole does with this kind of information.

Studies have to be (or at the least should be) re-visited from time to time because findings become outdated and lose relevance in the research community if left unattended for too long. As such, even though bringing up the topic of “this music is ‘better for you’ than that music for XYZ reasons” feels like the beating of the same long dead horse, its necessity is understandable -especially given the continually changing and expanding landscape of music styling and method of dissemination. (Spotify was not even much of a pipe dream back in the days of Winamp and dial-up.)

Okay, so results of this study reaffirm the sometimes accurate scenario that early preference for “so-called deviant music” can indicate oncoming problematic behavior while adding in new correlations between music preference and indicators for deviant behavior in a child’s later adolescent years rather than earlier ones. Even if one’s first instinct is not to fight the research at hand, what becomes of the conclusions? Does the music industry as a whole take stock of these kind of data pools? Do parents of the currently young and impressionable generation catch wind of the study’s general abstract and develop opinions out of context? These are things I think about, as a person who believes context can make all the difference in both influencing behavior and spurring informed exploration.



This study, even if accurate in its discoveries, takes only a small snapshot and generalization of its conclusion could easily move among children’s figures of authority as a topic of discussion, not much different from how the public openly discusses their opinions on topics sensitive to kids like guns, video games, controversial books and so on. Mostly, I am wondering if parents or teachers out there are at least willing to look at what this study has to say while keeping other factors of exposure in mind alongside.

When it comes to the United States, at present, I don’t believe it would be completely unfounded to point out a general level of this knee jerk” sensationalism across the topics mentioned just above here. Those in charge of molding today’s youth seem to be developing a stronger voice across publicly and widely accessible forums and, it is much easier to know what the “court of public opinion” thinks should be done to mitigate anything that might bring forth a danger to children in this country. As with any debatable issue, there are two sides available for choosing and at its most extreme, opposition to something of “potential danger” can translate to total elimination or stigmatization thereof.

If we are to see this youth-fueled study as sound and worthy of future consultation, one has to wonder if there is also a potential for such actions of extreme opposition to blend with the implication of “conventional pop (chart pop) and highbrow music (classic music, jazz) deferring acts of delinquency” and lead to the further instillation of what one could call a “sanitized vacuum.”

Knowing that there is an existing debate about parenting methods, as well as an ever-growing foot coming down upon creatively controversial material, if this trend were to continue long term and simultaneously augment, it could be proposed that decades down the line, the scope of creativity that is accepted and encouraged by the public would only become narrower and end up greatly suppressing stylistic diversity. Subsequently, such a scenario could possibly reverse headway made over the years relating to the push for open minded disassociation of sub-cultural elements paired with today’s many artistic veins.

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