Steady on, science: Listening to extreme music can still make you angry

Dillinger Escape Plan - Derek Bremner Photography

Dillinger Escape Plan – Derek Bremner Photography

Last Thursday, I received my faithful biweekly edition of recent research from Neuromusic (Foundazione Mariani). One abstract in particular caught my attention, from the University of Queensland in Australia: Extreme metal music and anger processing. For you scientists/curious general public, here is the abstract, from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience:

The claim that listening to extreme music causes anger, and expressions of anger such as aggression and delinquency have yet to be substantiated using controlled experimental methods. In this study, 39 extreme music listeners aged 18-34 years were subjected to an anger induction, followed by random assignment to 10 min of listening to extreme music from their own playlist, or 10 min silence (control). Measures of emotion included heart rate and subjective ratings on the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS). Results showed that ratings of PANAS hostility, irritability, and stress increased during the anger induction, and decreased after the music or silence. Heart rate increased during the anger induction and was sustained (not increased) in the music condition, and decreased in the silence condition. PANAS active and inspired ratings increased during music listening, an effect that was not seen in controls. The findings indicate that extreme music did not make angry participants angrier; rather, it appeared to match their physiological arousal and result in an increase in positive emotions. Listening to extreme music may represent a healthy way of processing anger for these listeners.

My initial reaction was “Great – I’m glad someone else is joining the research.” Two days later, I began receiving emails/texts/tweets from friends and colleagues as the resulting Telegraph.co.uk coverage invaded the internet. This is when I began to take issue:

At first glance, the headline of “Want to calm down? Listen to Slipknot or Judas Priest, study finds” evoked everything from mild anxiety (I’ve written on both those bands before, and the academic guilt of taking a few days off from thesis writing was strong indeed) to serious skepticism. Even after the great chocolate letdown of 2015, the media seemingly hasn’t learned much about the ethics and potential detriment of click-bait science. As potential benefits of listening to heavy or extreme music is my current research and focus of my forthcoming thesis, I respect quite fully that though potentially warm and fuzzy (or growling, distorted, and occasionally packed with capacious riffs) on paper, it’s just not that simple.

We all know that the most difficult rhetoric from which to discern validity is often that which is filled with both obvious conjecture and truth. Thanks to direct access to the research, some positive elements of the study immediately arise:

  • Strong supporting theoretical literature
  • Very useful summary of previous work
  • Though an understandingly still-controversial idea, they allowed listeners to choose their own music for the intended therapeutic purposes, as opposed to music therapy’s all-too-common ‘one size fits all’ approach (which, ironically, at the same time arguably contributes to the limitations of this study)

These strengths acknowledged, I’d strongly advise caution in depending on general media coverage for the story (or any scientific finding). Even if you get a portion of the story, you’re likely not getting the whole story, and that in itself is often where bunk journalism stakes its claim. Let’s look at some weaker points:

  • Though the results show that extreme music matches and helps to regulate anger, this effect may be particular to fans of extreme music that are not experiencing any symptoms of distress (unless given an anger induction exercise in a sterile lab setting). One only need sit my mother down with a bit of Megadeath to learn that the media headlines are grossly flawed in asserting “In order to calm down, one can just listen to Slipknot.” Believe me – this is not a universal response.
  • Enter David Huron, we don’t typically listen to sad music to feel more sad; we listen to sad music because it is capable of facilitating a type of catharsis (through which I loosely refer to as vicarious/empathetic/intentional listening). The same is possible of upbeat, “happy” music (although deeply subjective a term), and the same is likely of metal. Though arguably important, this is not news to the majority of us.
  • Leading bias. Participants were recruited via an advertisement for a study examining the “potential benefits” of extreme music. Though this may have been accurate, this is fairly largely frowned upon due to the need for objectivism in the scientific method.
  • As my good friend (and expert in all musics heavy and extreme) Troy recently pointed out: Though it seems all aggressive music is heavy, not all heavy music is aggressive. One of the greatest challenges I had in drafting my first paper on extreme music came to exactly that: What specifically constitutes heavy music? As the study seems to emphasize aggression and anger (and the concurrent media certainly bank on it), given the option to self-select musical stimuli, there’s going to be some lyrical and timbral disparity in which of the extreme music is by definition aggressive, and which is not. This should also be taken into account when measuring anger/arousal response.
  • 39 (40 original) participants. Though a great start, it will be good to see further research with a larger pool.
  • As the study points out, “the influence of negatively valenced music on listeners appears to depend on the listening context, their current mood, and moderation by other personality traits.” I need not go into detail here regarding the critical impact context, mood, and personality have on affect and arousal, but as I’ve recently argued, it is vital. Even those with sensory processing sensitivity or misophonia (myself included) will tell you there are absolutely times we could go for some Ne Obliviscaris full blast (I generally feel this way, truth be told). There are also times when a pen dropped two rooms over simply grates on my nerves, extreme music be darned.
  • Though the ‘self-selected music’ didn’t cause an increase of arousal after the anger induction, neither did silence (their one control condition). Conversely, the participant’s heart rates were reduced after anger induction during the silence control.* This poses some pretty hefty problems for a headline suggesting if one desires to “calm down” they should listen to extreme music.

Despite its sometimes rather severe reputation (remember Vance vs. Judas Priest?) there are many potential benefits of listening to extreme or heavy music. Whether or not an immediate reduction in arousal and /or heart rate (aka calming down) is universally, unfailingly one of them is up for debate.

That being said, through working with great organizations such as The You Rock Foundation, I’ve seen firsthand how heavy music can influence, enlighten, and even change people’s lives. Research in music psychology has shown music capable of providing listeners with relief from stress, a heightened sense of self, peace, meaning, solidarity, and community (Christenfeld, 2004; Huron, 2011; Moore, 2013; Shafer, Smukalla & Oelker, 2013). Music, in just the right setting, can also be detrimental. As can video games. Antidepressants. The kitchen sink. Cheese. One would do well to remember that consciousness, responsibility, and intentionality are key when examining the pros and cons of any stimulus or behavior.

So, regarding the outcries of the scientific media, in any regard: let’s all calm down just a bit, and if Slipknot/Metallica/Opeth is your thing – more power to you. If you’re quite content with Brahms/Ligeti/Bebop/Norah Jones – that’s okay, too.

Abstract: Sharman, L., & Dingle, G. A. (2015). Extreme metal music and anger processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 272.

*However, there was no significant difference among music listeners between heart rate during Time 2 and Time 3, p > 0.999, indicating that the increased heart rate following the anger induction was sustained for the music listeners, but not for those in the silence condition.

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2 thoughts on “Steady on, science: Listening to extreme music can still make you angry

  1. Great points especially on the fact that the effects of listening to heavy metal aren’t directly generalizable to the population.

    One big shortcoming IMHO is the lack of any matched control condition. “Is X different from nothing?” is maybe the most boring scientific question ever. Of course they are going to observe *some* effect when you measure 11 different factors between “listening to my favorite music” and “sitting in silence for 10 minutes”. And I’m not surprised that ones who got to listen to music were happier than the ones who were just asked to “wait quietly for the next part of the experiment” then left alone (without their smart phones or Twitter, no doubt) for 10 minutes. I would have much preferred to have a matched control group (ABBA? Chopin?) so they could make a stronger claim about heavy metal versus some other kind of music for this subpopulation.

    • Thanks so much Justin.

      And yes – absolutely. Any student with a control of nothing seems fairly straightforward, to me (not sure why they bothered, as the data they gathered arguably exists, and has for some time). Actually, I feel like a similar study has been done against a control of a different genre. Either that, or I ruled it out as being not significant enough to research (otherwise, I may have done so myself). I’m in the process of drawing up my own, at the moment, and using silence as a control really never occurred to me. It’s great to challenge the stigma surrounding the music, but I feel like there are more profound ways to do so (for example, the research out of Canada that found it can be used in reducing suicidal ideation amongst teen girls – Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Suicidal Risk, Lacourse, 2001).

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