Heavy metal. Punk rock. Hardcore. Screamo. Metalcore. The heavier side of the rock genre has evolved and diversified plenty since its breakout years in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many regard it as the antithesis to the jams of the “free love” movement in the 1960’s that clashed with the sociopolitical upheaval of the era (like the continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam). Consequently, a new form of expression found its way into pop culture through angst-ridden themes and heavier tunes.
From the big four (Metallica, Megadeth, Antrhax, and Slayer) to newer groups making waves like A Day to Remember, Parkway Drive, and System of a Down, the list goes on and on of bands who have a following transcending generations. Although the sub-genres have accumulated a broad and dedicated fan base, debate still rages regarding metal’s link to inducing anger and facilitating delinquent and violent behaviors. For too long these antagonistic claims have been founded on loose assumptions and generalizations, but it is not an accurate representation. That’s right, metal may have a myriad of positive effects on the health of its listeners, like facilitating personal development, enabling the ability to deal with difficult emotions and process anger, and even creating communities.
Metal has too often been dissected and labeled as “problem music.”
Now more than ever, many artists like We Came as Romans, August Burns Red, and Rise Against, just to name a few, are breaking away from this as they lyrically delve into concepts of self-improvement, equality, and developing greater awareness of an individual’s worth and the world they inhabit.
Misguided Perceptions of the Genre(s)
Extreme music has been characterized by chaotic, loud, heavy, and powerful sounds, coupled with emotional vocals. Fixing mindsets perhaps too abundantly, an argument put forth by the Parents Music Resource commits the logical fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation, associating unhappy youth with hardcore music and believing it to prime delinquent behaviors. Although misguided, this prejudice has created negative associations with the genre and neglected further thought on the prospect that heavier rock music could pose potential benefits for mental health.
Drawing on two prominent psychological theories, Bushong (2002) suggested that the heavy metal debate was rooted in drive reduction and social learning. While the latter believes metal to inspire imitation and push listeners to act violently, the former may be more common. Listening to extreme genres appears to sublimate aggression and provide a cathartic release for frustration, ultimately preventing potential real-world aggression.
As Rafalovich states, “the academic inclination to view the culture of heavy metal as an instigator for antisocial behavior is a stubborn belief limiting our understanding of individuals and society.”
Considering the value of music therapy, Brown and Hendee (1989) make the claim that music is resistant to traditional research methods because of how subjective and open to interpretation the content can be. While it is a given that some genres clearly aren’t for everyone, could it be the case that metal improves the well-being and development of many of its listeners?
The New Groove
In recent years, two studies out of Australia have engaged the fan base to get a better understanding of how people are affected by their music taste. Hines and McFerran (2014) dubbed their study Metal Made Me Who I Am. They examined self-reports of individuals to investigate adolescent and adult perspectives on their music taste and life experiences between the two times. In another study, Extreme Metal Music and Anger Processing, Sharmon and Dingle (2015) conducted an experiment to investigate whether or not the claim that extreme music causes anger (and expressions thereof) had any truth to it. What each study found came as a surprising contradiction to the accepted notions of what kinds of effects metal could have on you.
1. Growth and Development
In the study Metal Made Me Who I Am, the seven participants were from diverse nationalities and each submitted reports based on the questionnaire provided by the researchers. The e-mail interviews were composed of questions asking what their initial inspirations were as they gained interest in the genre, as well as how often they listened, the meaning they took from the content, if they learned any lessons from it, and if they had any personal reflections from it.
In early adulthood, most participants cited metal as inspiring values of self-acceptance and identity development. Through the music, these individuals developed their own coping mechanisms and a higher sense of consciousness. An overwhelming proportion of responses even noted that the music offered energetic qualities, boosting their courage and self-esteem.
2. Creating Communities
Metal Made Me Who I Am subjects also considered their music preference to play a significant role in creating social opportunities. Attending live concerts granted individuals the chance to meet with peers who had similar music preferences. Together, subjects remarked their ability to share social values and learn from others.
3. Processing Difficult Emotions
While many themes were discovered, a common theme amongst all of the participants in Metal Made Me Who I Am was that their musical preference engaged and validated their feelings. Through the music, the participants reported their ability to channel their emotions more effectively and ultimately find greater levels of calmness and relaxation.
4. Relieving Anger and Granting Catharsis
Sharmon and Dingle’s study achieved empirical support to oppose the claims that listening to extreme music induces anger. For their experiment, subjects were randomly assigned to a “music” and “control” condition. They were asked to fill out self-reports of their emotional state, as well as having their heart rate taken across intervals.
The first interval established a base rate. Then, subjects underwent a 16-minute “anger-induction,” after which those in the music condition had the opportunity to listen to their preferred extreme music, while the control condition sat in silence. What they ultimately found was that extreme music listeners didn’t experience an elevated heart rate, and showed no increase in hostility or irritability.
Despite the small sample sizes, the experiences of the participants is surely relatable to the avid fans of shredding guitars and devastating breakdowns worldwide. In light of this new research, restricting and demonizing metal seems to be an ill-placed stereotype. Everyone has their own tastes, and the positive implications metal can have on a person make it all the more progressive.