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Lighten up parents, heavy metal can boost teens' moods


Professor Bill Thompson

Growling guitars and singers screaming violent lyrics might set parents’ teeth on edge, but there’s little to fear from their children’s heavy metal music fandom. 

Fans of extreme heavy metal actually get a mood boost from listening to their favourite tunes, along with a positive sense of community and identity. 

Previous research has suggested that heavy metal can cause aggressive thoughts in listeners, but those studies did not account for music preferences, which have a significant impact on how people respond to music. 

Previous research on heavy metal music tested listeners who were not fans of this style of music. And surprise, surprise: it turns out that if non-fans are forced to listen to music like thrash and death metal that they do not like, by the end of it they tend to be irritable or even hostile. 

But when you test people who are passionate fans of the music, the response is very different and they're able to extract a lot of positive benefits – benefits to mood, a sense of identity and a feeling of community. There are even physiological benefits because fans are often physically active during heavy metal concerts. 

Failing to account for the different effects of extreme metal on fans and non-fans has led to some very misleading research – research that has created unnecessary fears for parents about the potential for violence in their children. 

Some of this research even encouraged the American Psychological Association to declare that media involving violence will cause kids to become violent themselves, and the fear surrounding media violence has led to certain bands being censored, and some extreme metal groups banned entirely from performing in Australia. 

Admittedly, the lyrics in some extreme metal music can be confronting, so our approach has been to say to concerned groups: Look, you’re not crazy for raising questions, we understand your concerns about exposing teens and young adults to media violence over long periods of time. That’s why it’s important to investigate the issue. 

But what we ended up finding was that this music doesn’t stir up anger in fans, but the opposite kind of emotions, including joy, empowerment, and awe. Moreover, fans are typically not misogynistic or violent by nature. Instead, they process violent lyrics in the same way people might watch a horror movie. They don’t take those lyrics seriously, and they certainly don’t act aggressively after listening to this kind of music. 

It’s also important to remember that not all heavy metal contains violent or misogynistic lyrics. 

Death metal music often centres around scenes of death or biology, but it's not necessarily violent. 

However, there is a sub-genre of death metal and other extreme metal that really does feature violent lyrical themes, including themes of murder and decapitation. That is where our research is focused. 

This is why it’s so important to test the response of fans, rather than choosing study participants at random – even when we are dealing with the darkest of lyrics the impact is largely positive. 

My advice for concerned parents is to buy a pair of earplugs and rest easy in the knowledge that the music making them hostile is having an entirely different impact on their children. 

Bill Thompson is a Professor of Psychology at Bond University’s Faculty of Society and Design 

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