Title: “Early Adolescent Music Preferences and Minor Delinquency”

Author(s): Tom F.M. ter Bogt, Loes Keijsers, Wim H.J. Meeus

Publisher: Pediatrics

Year: 2013

URL: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/01/02/peds.2012-0708.full.pdf+html

Topics: arts education, music, delinquency

Methods: longitudinal analysis of data from Conflict and Management of Relationships study. 309 Dutch adolescents participated from age 12 through age 16 (2001-05).

What it says: The study’s purpose is to test Music Marker Theory (MMT), which is a rather complex series of assertions amounting to the notion that early preferences favoring certain types of music presage later adolescent delinquent behavior. MMT does not claim that the music causes said behavior per se, but instead acts as a kind of sorting mechanism that draws youths with similar proclivities into close contact with one another and begins a self-reinforcing cycle of rebelliousness. While individual elements of MMT have been well established according to the authors, the longitudinal aspect of the theory had not been tested before this study. The students were asked to rate their preferences for different musical genres on a scale from 1 to 5 as well as report problem behaviors in which they had engaged in the past. The authors controlled for personality factors and school commitment/achievement in their analysis, using the following proxies: Block and Block’s personality types, Utrecht Management of Identity Commitments Scale (UMICS), and educational level. The analysis found that students who preferred heavy metal, hip hop, gothic, punk, R&B, rock, techno/hard-house, and trance at age 12 were more likely to have reported delinquent behaviors at age 16; the correlations were especially strong for rock, metal, gothic and punk. Negative correlations between music preference and delinquent behavior were found for classical music and jazz. Notably, the relationships between age 12 music preferences and age 16 behaviors were stronger than those between age 12 preferences and age 12 behaviors, age 16 preferences and age 16 behaviors, and age 12 behaviors and age 16 behaviors.

What I think about it: The study presents a fairly compelling case that early adolescent music preferences have predictive power for later deviant behavior. MMT’s assertion that music serves as a kind of signaling mechanism for adolescent appetite for rebellion seems nuanced and makes intuitive sense. It’s important to understand, however, that the study does not establish, nor does it claim to establish, a firm causal relationship between listening to music and acting out. Furthermore, the analysis itself suffers from some drawbacks. Perhaps most significantly, since neither Likert scale is truly cardinal (i.e., rating one musical genre a 4 doesn’t mean you like it twice as much as someone who rates it a 2), the highly quantitative statistical procedures used in the analysis are not as reliable as the researchers make them seem. Since delinquent behaviors were self-reported, there is some cause for concern as to whether social desirability bias might influence responses to those questions differentially across musical genres. Finally, as a study of Dutch teenagers, there is limited generalizability to other cultural contexts.

What it all means: As a rare study indicating potential negative effects of exposure to the arts, this is a useful reference to keep in mind. It’s not clear whether the delinquent or deviant behaviors of the students in the study are really all that damaging to anyone, and the social and intrinsic benefits of the exposure to music are not considered, so this is certainly not proof that heavy metal is a public health threat or anything like that. But it is useful to know that if your kid is headbanging to doomcore before he or she is out of sixth grade, you might want to steel yourself for a rough few years.