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Is Heavy Metal Music Good for your Mental Health?

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Throughout human history, people have often blamed certain arts such as music for some of the problems facing their society. In the middle ages, the church prohibited the use of the ‘Tritone interval’, a musical interval composed of 3 adjacent whole tones, which they believed could summon the devil. Today, rap and hip hop music are often blamed for violent crime, and artists of Drill Music such as Abra Cadabra have been targeted as part of the reason behind the rise of knife crime in London.

However, there are very few genres of music that have been demonised and scapegoated as much as ‘Metal’ and its various subgenres. Over the course of its history, numerous attempts have been made to directly link Metal to violent crime and mental illness. Some of the most infamous examples include:
• Judas Priest were accused of creating songs with subliminal messages causing people to commit suicide
• A serial killer confessed to killing 6 people claiming that he would listen to Linkin Park before and during his murders
• A 16 and 22 year old in San Bernardino claimed that they were inspired by Slipknot to murder their friend
• Marilyn Manson’s music was blamed for inspiring the Columbine High School Massacre in 2002

Whenever a tragedy arises, and a link between Metal and a victim or perpetrator arises, the media is often quick to focus on it. Several correlative studies from have been cited by proponents of this view, stating that there is a link between Metal and an increased risk of suicide or desensitisation to violence.

However, critics of these studies have claimed that they fail to take into account other factors, of which the effects are well known, such as drug abuse, poor family relationships and alienation. They have pointed out that the research is often designed to look for correlations based on speculation about their mental health and uninformed public opinion. Unfortunately, when the mass media hear that researchers find a correlation between something, they aren’t really equipped to scrutinise the claim properly and are happy to just run with it as it fits neatly into a pre-packaged narrative.

While it is unwise to rule out a link between the two, the issue raises deeper moral questions about how we react to tragic events. It may actually be more harmful to allow people to rid themselves of accountability by giving the burden of their wrongdoing to someone else.

What is it about the music that makes it a prime target?

As there are so many Heavy Metal genres; its content varies a great deal. However, many genres tend to focus on the darker aspects of the world and themes of rage, revenge, despair, death and many far darker themes.

Nu Metal, which most of you will have heard from the 1990s well into the 2000’s was quite varied in subject and sound as it was also inspired by other genres such as rap and hip hop. Artists like Linkin Park had lyrics about loss, betrayal, drug abuse and alienation. Other artists in the genre such as System of a Down targeted the government / ‘the system’ and society with criticism. Bands such as Slipknot have themes of pure rage.

In the 1980s there was a great paranoia about the rise of satanic cults. Genres such as Death Metal and Black Metal exploited this gleefully by including religious themes about satanism, hell and the occult. Genres like Death Metal also tend to have themes of horror, gore and extreme acts of violence. However, it’s often too difficult to understand the lyrics due to the guttural vocals.

Other inflammatory themes running through most genres include drug abuse, Sexual themes and violence. It is these points in particular which have aggravated and antagonised critics from all sides. However, genres such as Power Metal, don’t fit into this at all and instead tend to have very uplifting lyrics focussing on fantasy, mythology, valour and overcoming great struggles.

Does Metal de-sensitise people to violence?

Interestingly, recent evidence from researchers at the Macquarie University found the opposite. They found that “fans and non-fans of violent music exhibited a general negativity bias for violent imagery over neutral imagery regardless of the music genres”. They did, however, find that fans of violent or aggressive music did not have the same negativity towards these themes in music, but were able to derive a positive emotional experience from it, which was not seen when processing violent imagery.

Are Metalheads angry and depressed?

A study from The University in Queensland in 2015 showed that fans of extreme music, such as Heavy Metal, used the music to process anger, regulate sadness and enhance positive emotions. The study involved angering the participants for 16 minutes, allowing them to listen to songs of their choice for 10 minutes and then they were subjected to 10 minutes of calm silence. Those that listened to Heavy Metal were much calmer after listening to their favourite genre. This is because this type of music enables listeners who identify with it to experience an emotional release. This seems to fly in the face of claims that this type of music makes people angry or depressed.

An interesting point found by researchers at the University of South Australia in 2018 is that strong communities are found among Metal fans which actually have a protective effect against many of the causes of mental health issues. As well as finding others with similar interests, these groups help to counteract potential causes of mental health problems such as bullying, being marginalised, having a lack of identity and by helping them to feel part of a proactive community.

What are the Metalheads of yesteryear like today?

Another study in 2014 titled “Three Decades Later: The Life Experiences and Mid-Life Functioning of 1980s Heavy Metal Groupies, Musicians, and Fans” found that those who identified as Metalheads in the 1980s were significantly happier in their youth and better adjusted now than their current middle aged or college aged counterparts. This was in direct contradiction to research in the 1980s that this group was at risk of poor developmental outcomes, research that was of course never followed up until now.

So what next?

Judging by the findings above, if you don’t listen to Metal maybe you should add a couple of new albums to your collection or switch on a Metal playlist on Spotify or Youtube. There are a variety of different genres with different strengths, characteristics and moods. For example, when I’m writing an essay I like to be listening to something that tells a story allowing you to escape from the vice of normal distractions. One type of music good for this is classical music, another is progressive Metal, so I’ll crack on with something by Tool or Dream Theatre in the background.

Next time you’re trying to relieve some stress at the gym, get those extra reps in with the heavy riffs and aggressive vocals of Pantera or Lamb of God in your lugs. If you’ve had a bad day, crack the volume up to eleven and bang your head to the classics from Metallica, wash away your anger by venting with Slipknot or get swept up by the percussive sounds of Disturbed. Fancy a bit of a boost with great sing along value? You might want to check out some Power Metal starting with Blind Guardian or Dragonforce.

Sources:
https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.181580
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00272/full
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jcop.21949
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15298868.2015.1036918?journalCode=psai20#.VZoLPvlVhBc
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-998-1007-6
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