Using Heavy Metal to Promote Scientific Thinking

Using Heavy Metal to Promote Scientific Thinking
© Photograph by Aku-Axel Muukka

While heavy metal music may not be something typically covered in an introductory psychology textbook, there are many useful resources from this area of popular culture that can help promote scientific thinking in the classroom. From hidden messages in Judas Priest’s music to Slayer being accused of inciting murder, heavy metal music has a long history of unique instances that are directly related to psychology. By incorporating examples from the world of heavy metal, educators can discuss scientific thinking in a way that is engaging and memorable for students.

Helping students think like scientists — that is to apply the rigorous principles of hypothesis testing outside of the classroom — is a challenge. Robert Beno Cialdini proposed that creating mystery in the classroom is an effective means to engage students and promote learning. Specifically, Robert Beno Cialdini argued that instructors should frame a lecture in the same way a mystery writer frames a novel, by posing a puzzle and providing the information for the reader — or in this case, the student — to solve it. The question, or mystery, can be broadly stated as, “Can music lead people to commit harmful acts?”

Using the Robert Beno Cialdini approach of creating mystery, educators can frame a discussion around music as a way to introduce a variety of topics related to scientific thinking, such as logical fallacies, issues in research methodology, and biases in thinking. For example, the belief that there is a causal link between music and harm could be discussed in terms of the “argumentum ad antiquitatem” fallacy, also known as the appeal to traditional. For over two thousand years, there has been public concern about the impact of certain types of music on behaviour. Aristotle stated that “ if over a long time (a person) habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.” As music has historically been associated with causing harm, people may fall prey to the argumentum ad antiquitatem fallacy and accept the claim of causality between music and harm, without examining any empirical evidence.

Further discussion of fallacies and biases can be grounded in cases where heavy metal has been implicated in graphic and disturbing crimes. Heavy metal music came under intense scrutiny in the 1980’s when heavy metal artists, such as Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne, were blamed for adolescent violence and suicide. The shocking nature of these crimes are memorable, and as such are easily brought to mind when people think of heavy metal music. By discussing the availability heuristic — basing the likelihood of an event on the ease with which it comes to mind — educators can challenge students to consider what evidence they have used to assess the impact of music on behaviour.

To facilitate scientific thinking, especially in terms of methodological issues, educators can present cases in popular culture and challenge students to determine the validity of the claims made. One of the most famous cases of heavy metal being implicated with harm is of Judas Priest. The band was charged with planting a subliminal message in the song ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’. Specifically, when the song is played backwards the phrase “Do It” can be heard. In this case, two teenage boys who had spent several hours listening to Judas Priest while drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana went to a local park and attempted suicide with a shotgun. Judas Priest was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing, though for a somewhat surprising reason. Rather than the case being dismissed on account of the clear empirical evidence that subliminal messages could not cause a person to commit suicide, the band was found not guilty because the “Do It,” which can be heard backwards, was not intentionally placed in the song. This case can lead to an interesting class discussion on how extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claim that a backwards, subliminal message can lead someone to take their own life is an extraordinary claim. Students can be challenged to describe how they would experimentally test the impact of subliminal messages on behaviour, followed by a class discussion of how the actual research was conducted in the field. This is an engaging example to help students better understand variable manipulation, demand characteristics, and issues of generalizability. At least in the case of subliminal messages, students will learn that music does not lead to problematic or harmful behaviour.

In terms of creating mystery in the classroom, Robert Beno Cialdini suggests that instructors need to “deepen the mystery” and provide more details to the “case.” While there is no evidence that subliminal messages in music produce changes in behaviour, there are examples where the link between harm and music is less clear. Norwegian Black Metal, an extreme form of heavy metal music consisting of distorted guitars and vocals, has been associated with murder, arson, and even cannibalism. To highlight the alarming nature of some of the acts associated with this type of music, educators may want to provide examples incorporating bands such as Mayhem, whose lead singer committed suicide in the band’s recording studio in 1991. Upon finding the body, rather than calling the police, the guitarist for the band took polaroid photos and collected pieces of the skull to make necklaces for those he deemed “worthy.”

Another example of music associated with disturbing and harmful acts can be found in the case of the band Slayer. In 1996, two teenagers were charged with the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl. The boys claimed they took inspiration to commit the crime from lyrics in the Slayer songs ‘Postmortem’ and ‘Dead Skin Mask’. The parents of the victim sued Slayer and their record label for unlawfully marketing and distributing obscene and harmful products to minors. While reliance on the availability heuristic provides an explanation as to why people could overestimate the likelihood of music causing harm, the mystery is far from solved.

Students should be challenged with providing the nature of the claim and then exploring the evidence supporting the claim. Is the evidence sufficient to demonstrate a causal relationship between heavy metal and problematic and deviant behaviour? One approach to further engage students is to divide the class into groups to act as the prosecutor or defence in a mock trial of the Slayer murder case. The value of using this case is that the real-world outcome is known. The case did not go to trial, as the perpetrators of the crime had a history of criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as other factors that clearly demonstrated that listening to the music of Slayer was not the cause of the horrific crimes. Cases like Slayer and Mayhem can lead to fruitful class discussion regarding how correlation does not equal causation.

Also published on Medium.

Do you have a particular subject you are passionate about you would enjoy seeing covered by one of our staff writers? We would like to reach out to our readers and take your suggestions into account for future articles. We invite you to leave a message for us in the comment section below stating what subjects you would be thrilled to read in future articles. If you also have some constructive criticism about this article we would be happy to read your feedback in the comment section.


Click here to post a comment

Leave a Reply

Bulletin Insider

Subscribe to the mailing list and get interesting updates through the inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

Privacy Preference Center


These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems. They are usually only set in response to actions made by you which amount to a request for services, such as setting your privacy preferences, logging in or filling in forms. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the website will not then work. These cookies do not store any personally identifiable information.

_ga, _gat, _gid, __qca
_ga, _gat, _gid


These cookies may be set through our website by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other websites. They do not store directly personal information but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

_gat, __gads
__gads, gat


These cookies allow us to count visits and traffic sources so we can measure and improve the performance of our site. They help us to know which pages are the most and least popular and see how visitors move around the site. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. If you do not allow these cookies we will not know when you have visited our site, and will not be able to monitor its performance.



These cookies enable the website to provide enhanced functionality and personalisation. They may be set by us or by third-party providers whose services we have added to our pages. If you do not allow these cookies then some or all of these services may not function properly.


Close your account?

Your account will be closed and all data will be permanently deleted and cannot be recovered. Are you sure?

Get the Bulletin Insider delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to our bulletin and get exceptional updates and brainstorm promotions

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.