Heavy metal music, arguably more than any other genre, has a reputation for the effect it has on its listeners’ behaviours and mental health. Studies have suggested a link between listening to heavy metal and increased suicide risk or desensitisation to violence, but these have often failed to take account of outside factors, such as poor family relationships, drug abuse and feelings of alienation. On the plus side, a recent study at Macquarie University in New South Wales found that music with violent themes does not make fans more violent.
The idea that the music a person chooses to listen to can inform their behaviours is not new. Aristotle believed that music shapes a person’s personality, saying “…if over a long time [a person] habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.” However ignoble the passions that heavy metal music ignites, the effect it has on its fans isn’t quite so negative as you might expect.
It doesn’t desensitise you to violence
According to the researchers at Macquarie University, regular listeners, although much more blasé about the contents of the lyrics in heavy metal music, responded equally to violent imagery as non-listeners.
Fans’ sensitivity to violence was tested using a standard technique known as binocular rivalry. Test subjects are shown two different images at the same time, one to each eye. The brain, which is used to combining two similar images to produce one three-dimensional images, chooses one to perceive while the other is suppressed.
One of the images presented is violent in nature, while the other is neutral. Ordinarily, the brain prioritises the violent image, which helps it to identify and assess threats. The researchers asked both fans and non-fans to indicate when they perceived each image, and found that both groups showed the same bias for processing the violent image.
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It can make you happier
In fact, for fans of the genre, the energetic, powerful music could be helpful, providing emotional release.
A 2015 study of fans of extreme music from the University of Queensland made their participants angry, allowed them to listen to the music of their own choice, and then assessed how their emotional state had changed. The researchers found that, instead of making them angrier, listening to extreme music improved their emotional state, and could help with processing anger.
In a 2018 study at Macquarie University, fans of death metal reported using the music’s emotional charge to motivate them or to work through feelings of anger.
This effect appears to extend to vulnerable listeners, and in particular adolescents. A 2001 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that, when taking outside factors into account, heavy metal did not influence suicide risk among adolescents. Further to this, teenage girls who used the music as an emotional release were actually at lesser risk.
It can help you join a community
One common feature of many of these studies is that the uninitiated find listening to heavy metal music to be an extremely unpleasant experience. However, for fans, the opposite is true.
Anthropology PhD student Lindsay Bishop studied the heavy metal community around the world and found a strong sense of community, inclusivity, and even well-defined mosh pit etiquette. While most listeners would find the music distasteful, their fans can be perfectly pleasant.