Extreme Metal Music, Sadness and Anger Processing

Leah Sharman

Leah Sharman

Music is a widely available form of media with the ability to influence attitudes and manipulate emotions (Juslin and Sloboda, 2010; Wheeler et al., 2011), and listeners are drawn to music that reflects or improves their emotional state (Saarikallio, 2011; Thoma et al., 2012; Papinczak et al., 2015).

Heavy metal, emotional (emo), hardcore, punk, screamo, and each of their subgenres form the category of “extreme” music. Extreme music is characterised by chaotic, loud, heavy, and powerful sounds, with emotional vocals, often containing lyrical themes of anxiety, depression, social isolation, and loneliness (Shafron and Karno, 2013).

Perhaps, due to these musical characteristics, it has been claimed that extreme music leads to anger, and expressions of anger such as aggression, delinquency, drug use, and suicidal acts (Selfhout et al., 2008).

Indeed, the evidence is available regarding the effect of a listeners’ emotional state on their choice and preference for music listening even when angry. Research on anger processing has found that approach motivation (defined as the impulse to move forward) may be activated by anger (Carver and Harmon-Jones, 2009), such that after experiencing anger we then look to act out approach motivated behaviours, for example, angry facial expression and physical retaliation.

Considering the highly arousing nature of the music, along with negative themes commonly contained in the lyrics, extreme music has been interpreted as eliciting anger among its listeners, and that this may activate aggressive behaviours (Gowensmith and Bloom, 1997). It is equally plausible, however, that extreme music may be chosen when a listener is angry, because the arousing nature of the music may match the already present internal arousal of the listener and allow him/her to explore and process this emotional state. This article will explore these alternative hypotheses about the influence of extreme music listening on anger processing in a sample of extreme music listeners under controlled experimental conditions.

Extreme music genres began to emerge in the early 1970s with the decline of the “free love” and optimistic culture of the 1960s (Stack et al., 1994). Due to the consequences of the 1960s era of drug experimentation, decline of peaceful protest movements, and the continuation of the Vietnam War, angry and pessimistic themes began to emerge in new genres of music (Reddick and Beresin, 2002). Thus, punk and heavy metal music were dedicated to notions of anarchy and destruction (Stack et al., 1994; Reddick and Beresin, 2002; Lozon and Bensimon, 2014).

Following the rise of punk and heavy metal, a range of new genres and subgenres surfaced. Hardcore, death metal, emotional/emotional-hardcore (emo), and screamo appeared throughout the 1980s, gradually becoming more a part of mainstream culture. Each of these genres and their subgenres are socio-politically charged and, as mentioned earlier, are characterised by heavy and powerful sounds with expressive vocals.

At the forefront of controversy surrounding extreme music is the prominence of aggressive lyrics and titles, such as ‘Pure Hatred’ by Chimaira and ‘Violent Revolution’ from the band Kreator. In a series of five experiments involving first-year psychology students and student volunteers (unselected concerning demographic characteristics or musical preference), Anderson et al. (2003) played musically equivalent songs with and without violent lyrics to the participants. They found that listening to songs with violent lyrics increased participants’ state hostility relative to listening to non-violent songs. However, this effect was fleeting and it was disrupted when the participants did intervening tasks. Other research shows that lyrical content is one of the mechanisms linking music with an emotional response, although many other musical variables, contextual variables, and individual listener variables also play a role (Juslin and Västfjäll, 2008; Juslin et al., 2008).

The powerful vocals that exist in the most extreme genres such as screamo, where nearly all lyrics are screamed at the listener, may account for the perception by outsiders that this music is angry. From this stems a stereotype that extreme music fans, and especially heavy metal fans, are more aggressive, agitated, and more aroused than the general public (Arnett, 1991; Alessi et al., 1992). Furthermore, extreme music has been held responsible for social problems like depression, suicide, aggressive behaviour, and substance misuse (Shafron and Karno, 2013). Some researchers have used the term “problem music” in reference to these genres, meaning music that is associated with psychological vulnerability and social deviance (North and Hargreaves, 2006; Bodner and Bensimon, 2014; Lozon and Bensimon, 2014).

In the case of substance use, for example, a correlational study of 7,324 Dutch adolescents found that when all other factors were controlled, preferences for punk/hardcore, techno/hardhouse, and reggae music were associated with more substance use, whereas preferences for pop and classical music were linked to less substance use.

A preference for rap/hip-hop only indicated elevated smoking among girls and, interestingly, a preference for heavy metal was associated with less smoking among boys and less drinking among girls (Mulder et al., 2009). This evidence does not support a causal view. Extreme music typically does not contain themes of illicit drug use, although some songs do contain lyrics related to alcohol use.

Indeed, the movement is known as “straight edge” is a subgenre of hardcore punk, whose adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, and other recreational drugs. Furthermore, there are documented examples of rap music being used in therapeutic ways with samples of people who misuse substances (Baker et al., 2012; Lightstone, 2012).

A review by Baker and Bor (2008) found a relationship between various genres of music and antisocial behaviours, vulnerability to suicide, and drug use among young people. However, there was no evidence in these studies for a causal link, and it was instead suggested that music preference is a reflection of emotional vulnerability in these young listeners.

More recently, Bodner and Bensimon (2014) investigated personality traits and uses of music to influence emotions among 548 middle class university students aged 18–43 years, who were subdivided into two groups based on their preference for “problem music” genres (N = 255 fans of heavy metal, punk, alternative rock, hip-hop, and rap) or “non-problem music” (N = 293 who did not endorse any of these in their top three musical genres). There were no differences between the two samples across the big five personality dimensions (extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness).

In terms of uses of music to influence emotions, there were no differences between groups in their use of music for entertainment and strong sensation; however, there were small differences in use of music for revival, diversion, emotional discharge, mental work, and solace. In each case, the problem music fans used music for emotion regulation slightly more than the non-problem music fans. The authors interpreted their findings to mean that listening to these types of music allows problem music fans to regulate their mood in a more sublimated way, instead of externalising negative emotions, which in turn could lead to engaging in antisocial acts.

Some evidence is available regarding the effect of listeners’ emotional states on their choice and preference for music listening when angry.

Shafron and Karno (2013) examined music preferences in a sample of 551 university students and divided the sample into two groups: those who preferred heavy metal and hard rock genres (57%) and the rest. The heavy music fans showed significantly higher symptoms of depression and anxiety than the non-fans; however, there was no difference between the two groups on trait anger.

Gowensmith and Bloom (1997) found that heavy metal fans did not show an increase in anger after listening to heavy metal music. In this study, heavy metal music was highly arousing to both fans and non-fans, and in fact, measured state-arousal was greater among heavy metal listeners.

Despite the arousing influence of the music, heavy metal fans displayed no difference in self-reported anger whether they were listening to a non-preferred music genre (country) or heavy metal. Non-fans, on the other hand, did display greater self-reported anger after listening to heavy metal. It is unclear whether the non-fans were angry as a result of the musical characteristics, or because they were being asked to listen to something they did not enjoy. So, although there is evidence that heavy metal increases state arousal (Stack et al., 1994; Gowensmith and Bloom, 1997), there is as yet insufficient evidence that it causes increased anger.

In a more naturalistic study, Labbé et al. (2007) found that after experiencing a state of induced stress or anger, participants listening to classical music chosen by the experimenter or their own self-selected “calming” music (of any genre) showed significant reductions in anger and anxiety.

These reductions were evident in both self-reported ratings and in reduced physiological arousal (heart rate, respiration, and skin conductance) during music listening. In contrast, participants who listened to heavy metal after the stress induction did not reduce self-reported negative emotional states or physiological arousal. However, it is important to note that heavy metal was not a preferred music genre for these participants. This finding highlights the importance of personally selected music in determining the emotional response. Although this research suggests that a song considered relaxing by the listener should reduce anger and stress in the presence of a stressor, it remains to be seen whether this effect generalises to extreme music genres.

Related research on another negatively valenced emotion, sadness, might help to shed some light on music and anger processing. Some studies show that people listen to sad music when they are sad in order to improve their mood (Saarikallio and Erkkila, 2007). For instance, Papinczak et al. (2015) showed in both qualitative and quantitative studies with participants aged 15–25 years that they used music to immerse in negative moods such as sadness – a strategy that helped to process their sadness and to feel better.

Similarly, a study of 65 adults from five countries found that when they were feeling sad, sad music helped these individuals to connect with their emotions through the music to fully experience sadness and consequently improve their affect (Van den Tol and Edwards, 2013). Despite evoking sadness, Finnish university students reported that they enjoy listening to sad music, and this effect was partly explained by personality traits such as openness to experience and empathy (Vuoskoski et al., 2012). On the other hand, some studies have reported that listening to sad music results in a more depressed mood among participants (Chen et al., 2007; Dillman Carpentier et al., 2008; Garrido and Schubert, 2015) – an effect that may be related to participants’ use of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies such as rumination. So, the influence of negatively valenced music on listeners appears to depend on the listening context, their current mood, and moderation by other personality traits.

To summarise the literature reviewed here, research on music and emotion supports the function of music to convey and elicit strong emotion. However, to date, there has been a limited amount of research on extreme music genres and anger, with the exception of correlational studies showing an association, and one series of experiments claiming that listening to extreme music increases state hostility (Anderson et al., 2003). Thus, the current study sought to explore this question by recruiting extreme music listeners for an experimental study on the effects of extreme music listening (compared to a no-music control condition) on anger processing. Given that personally selected music is capable of determining emotional responses (Labbé et al., 2007), participants were asked to bring along their personal music players to the experiment.

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