By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 12 May 2011)
What Are the Emotional Effects of Listening to Heavy Metal and Grunge Music?
Although some researchers have found that heavy metal music can trigger depression or anger, these effects don’t normally occur when heavy metal is the listener’s musical preference (Becknell et al., 2008). In fact, a study of more than 1,000 gifted students aged 11-18 conducted by Stuart and Campbell of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at the University of Warwick found that metal fans actually use heavy metal music for cathartic release and to dissipate negative emotions (University of Warwick, 22 March 2007).
Another study found that after listening to grunge music, subjects reported increases in fatigue, tension, sadness, and hostility, as well as decreased mental clarity, vigor, relaxation, and compassion. However, grunge was likely not the musical preference of these subjects – a study of grunge fans might have produced different results (Kemper & Danhauer, 2005).
Some studies have found that individuals become more hostile, aggressive, or angry after listening to heavy metal music. In particular, Mast and McAndrew (2011) found that after listening to heavy metal music with violent lyrics, male college students put more hot sauce in a cup of water they thought another research subject would have to drink than did students who listened to non-violent heavy metal music or no music at all. But other studies have found no aggressive response after heavy metal music exposure, and a few researchers have even found that subjects who were angry to begin with become happier, calmer, and more relaxed after listening to heavy metal if it’s their preferred musical genre.
Does Listening to Heavy Metal Music Increase the Risk for Suicide?
The suicide rate is higher than average among heavy metal fans, and some studies show that a small subgroup of metal fans become more negative after listening to their preferred genre (Scheel & Westefeld, 1999). However, there is evidence that the majority of at-risk youth who listen to heavy metal are using it to elevate their moods. A study of students with psychiatric disorders who were also heavy metal fans found that listening to metal improved subjects’ moods (Wooten, 1992). Other studies of depressed subjects have yielded similar results, suggesting that metal fans use this music to help treat their depression rather than becoming depressed as a result of listening to it (Becknell et al., 2008).
Schwartz (2004) found that, on average, heavy metal fans tend to be more sensitive, discontented, moody, and pessimistic than those who prefer light music, and they are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem. But numerous studies indicate that those who already have depressive tendencies are drawn to heavy metal music; in other words, this preference may signify at-risk teens, but it’s unlikely to be the cause of their depression or suicidal ideation (Scheel & Westefeld, 1999).
As for whether heavy metal music makes teens more accepting of suicide as an option, studies have generated mixed results, with some finding increased suicidal ideation and others no effect (Burge et al., 2002). Interestingly, Stack (2002) found opera fans to be more accepting of suicide (in response to dishonour) than fans of other musical genres, and Burge et al. (2002) found that male fans of pop and country music scored higher on suicidal ideation than heavy metal fans.
Does Listening to Heavy Metal Music Impact Academic Achievement?
Took and Weiss (1994) found that adolescents of both genders who listen to heavy metal tend to have lower grades in school. However, the researchers assert that this is likely due to aspects of personality or environment (such as high stress) rather than any direct effects of the music itself, a theory that is supported by the fact that metal fans with lower grades tended to have academic problems before they began listening to heavy metal. Also, those who don’t feel close to their families and thus lack a sense of family support are more inclined to prefer heavy metal music to other genres (Schwartz, 2004). Therefore, family problems rather than music may be the trigger for underachievement.
Another interesting finding is that college students whose musical preferences are alternative, rock, or heavy metal actually obtain higher IQ test scores on average, particularly on questions where abstraction is required (Walker & Kreiner, 2006).
Burge et al. (2002) argue that it’s difficult to determine which traits, behaviours, emotions, or cognitive strengths and weaknesses are linked to certain musical genres because most people enjoy more than one type of music. Those who like heavy metal often like alternative music or punk rock, and many country music fans like pop music as well. This makes it hard to pinpoint which type of music may actually be triggering any particular effect.
Are Heavy Metal Fans More Likely to Do Drugs or Commit Crimes?
Studies regarding a link between heavy metal music and drug use have generated mixed results. One study found that teenagers who listen to heavy metal are more inclined to use drugs, though they aren’t more likely to use them excessively or become addicted (Arnett, 1991). Other researchers have found no link between music preference and drug use or drug-related values (McNamara & Ballard, 1999). Overall, use of alcohol and/or drugs by parents has the greatest influence on adolescent drug use (Farrell & Strang, 1991).
Those who prefer rock or heavy metal music are more inclined to be reckless sensation seekers who take risks (Becknell et al., 2008). This is a personality type rather than a direct effect of the music; sensation seekers have less reactive nervous systems, so it takes more intense stimuli to generate a sensation of happiness or excitement (McNamara & Ballard, 1999).
Some researchers have found associations between heavy metal preference and increased likelihood of committing crimes and engaging in antisocial behaviour (Schwartz, 2004), but this doesn’t necessarily mean that heavy metal music exposure causes crime. Evidence suggests that risk takers prefer more energetic music and more dangerous pastimes as a result of innate personality and physiology. In other words, music isn’t causing them to turn to a life of crime; rather, they are predisposed by temperament to engage in risky behaviours, a tendency that can be channeled into positive activity (rescue work, law enforcement, sports, etc.) or negative activity (crime and substance abuse). Family influence and immediate environment (neighbourhood, school, peer group, etc.) are usually the forces that push young sensation seekers down one path or the other.
Took and Weiss (1994) may have found a simple reason for higher crime rates among heavy metal fans that vindicates metal as a trigger: the majority of those who prefer heavy metal are adolescent males, and male teens are statistically more likely to behave aggressively or irresponsibly and commit crimes than those of any other demographic. When gender is controlled for, differences between heavy metal listeners and those who prefer lighter music are nearly nonexistent.
Interestingly, Schwartz (2004) found that although heavy metal listeners are, on average, less responsible than youth who prefer lighter music, pop music fans are more conforming and more concerned about fitting in and being accepted by their peers, which could potentially put them at greater risk for succumbing to peer pressure. This is unsurprising, given that many pop music songs glamourize aspects of co-dependency. Study results also indicate that soft rock and Top 40 listeners are more uncomfortable about their developing sexuality than metal fans. Overall, Schwartz found that those with ecclectic tastes (youth open to a variety of musical styles ranging from metal to soft rock) were the most well-adjusted.
Does Heavy Metal Music Promote Negative Attitudes Toward Women?
Hansen & Hansen (1991) found that heavy metal fans had less respect for women, and in a study conducted by Lawrence & Joiner (1991), after listening to sexually violent heavy metal or Christian heavy metal, undergraduate men held more stereotypical perceptions of sex roles, viewed women more negatively, and were more accepting of rape. This effect was more pronounced in those with an extrinsic religious orientation (dogmatic and strict); men with an intrinsic religious orientation (emphasizing private spirituality) were the least inclined to adopt negative attitudes toward women in response to music cues.
Interestingly, a control group in the study who listened to classical music reported higher levels of sexual arousal afterward than those in either of the heavy metal groups.
How Does Heavy Metal Music Affect Animals?
A student named David Merrill subjected mice to the music of a heavy metal band called Anthrax 24 hours a day to discover how it would affect their ability to solve mazes, but instead of completing Merrill’s maze, the heavy metal mice all killed one another, battling it out until just one remained alive. In a subsequent experiment during which the music volume was lower and the mice were separated from one another, the heavy metal mice soon grew worse at solving the maze than they had been when they had first encountered it, and they fought one another when Merrill tried to put them together (Wertz, 7 February 1998). Although this result is interesting, research indicates that reactions to music are shaped by whether or not it is the genre of choice, and it’s highly unlikely that mice (if capable of preferring any sort of music at all) would have chosen Anthrax.
Visit the Music Psychology page for more articles on the psychological effects of various music genres, the link between personality and music preference, musical healing, and more.
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- Becknell, M.E.; Firmin, M.W.; Hwang, C.; Fleetwood, D.M.; Tate, K.L.; & Schwab, G.D. (2008). “Effects of Listening to Heavy Metal Music on College Women: A Pilot Study.” College Student Journal, 42(1), 24-35.
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