Written by Pete Armitage
It’s been a stalwart feature of many a disgruntled teenager’s playlist; angry thrash metal for the bus ride to school. Hood up, volume maxed. Although perpetually associated with adolescent disaffection, angry music finds appreciation in a diverse range of circles much to Grandma’s dismay. It’s been around arguably since the punk days of the late 70s. It’s dad music as well as son music. And mum and daughter music for that matter. Fuck, it’s ubiquitious.
What is deeply interesting is the divisiveness of angry music. It offends people. ‘How can you listen to that shit?’ Some people just don’t get it. It doesn’t do anything for them. In fact it actually really worries your mum when you’re 15 and banging out Slayer in your room on full blast; ‘is he gonna grow up to be violent?’ ‘Does he need counselling?’ The answers may be yes, but it’s not Slayer’s fault ‘ma.
What she doesn’t realise is that angry music has in fact been proven to have therapeutic value for its listeners. Rather than contributing to an already indignant listener’s displeasure it seems that hot-tempered tunes can actually improve one’s wellbeing. Indeed, they may actually reduce the likelihood of little Tommy stabbing up the postman.
These days punk, metal and their derivatives have become more mainstream; and with that they’ve become less offensive. In fact, it’s not long ago that Black Metal in particular was intrinsically associated with Satanism. In 1994, Count Grishnackh of Norway’s Burzum infamously murdered Mayhem’s guitarist Euronymous, stabbing him in his own apartment after a dispute. Grishnackh ended up going down for 21 years (he was also found guilty of church arson and possession of explosives), putting a sour flavour in the mouths of worried mothers worldwide.
However with a few exceptions (including the formerly mentioned Grischnackh), Satanism and other controversial ideologies seemed to be utilised by artists only to garner press attention; their music rarely explicitly recommends antisocial behaviour nor does it encourage its listeners to commit murder or church arson.
The public’s distaste with angry music is evident in it being banned in several countries. Sales of Cannibal Corpse releases were banned in Australia for a decade starting in 1996, and Germany until 2006 due to its ‘graphic content’. Needless to say they have sold over two million records - their appeal is indisputable.
Just because their music is saturated with anger and morbid imagery doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad news. Take for example PETA’s 2006 nomination of Cannibal Corpse drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz for their ‘World's Sexiest Vegetarian’ competition. Vegetarianism? Intrinsically evil? Doesn’t add up.
Perhaps that’s a bad argument though... Hitler was vegetarian too.
Anyway, here are five reasons why angry music might actually good for you:
Leah Sharman and Genevieve Dingle studied 39 self-professed fans of ‘extreme’ music, aged 18-341. Their study found that 74% of the test group agreed with the statement that ‘...listening to extreme music improve[s] negative moods such as sadness.’ Indeed, after being subjected to an ‘anger induction’ event followed by listening to ‘extreme’ music of their own choice for 10 minutes (e.g. heavy metal, emotional (emo), hardcore, punk, screamo), participants also reported that their music allowed them to, ‘...immerse themselves in feelings of love’. Pretty cool right? Not what mum expected.
Winfried Menninghaus et al published a study which promotes a ‘distancing-embracing’ model2 to explain the appreciation of negative emotions in music (or any other art form). Their paper suggests that its appreciation embodies two components. Firstly, ‘psychological distancing’; whereby antisocial emotions can be interpreted without real-world consequences thus aiding in their processing. Menninghaus et al’s second posited component is ‘psychological embracing’ whereby one’s axioms of aesthetic integrity transfigure negative emotional expression into pleasure, thus reducing one’s momentary emotional dissonance after exposure.
By means of angry music directly invoking a pleasurable state in the listener, we can infer that it actively averts their propensity for expression of anger, i.e. violence!
Membership within cultural groups such as punk or metal scenes offers participants a sense of belonging3. There are strong stylistic identities accompanying the many different subgenres of angry music, and adherents have the opportunity to gain valuable interpersonal experiences by means of collective engagement in angry music.
On a deeper level, individuals who, for whatever reason may feel marginalised and alienated from the dominant socio-cultural order can connect and gain self-acceptance within subversive ‘angry’ music communities. For the most part subcultural movements such as those associated with angry music offer appeal to ‘outsider’ stereotypes and enrich people’s sense of self.
We’ve all experienced it. A long, stressful day at work only to get home and crank up the volume to your favourite metal tunes. It seems that somehow the intensity of the music is soothing. Indeed, in 2001, Karen Allen and several other researchers investigated the perceived effect of music on patients after eye surgery4. Their findings suggested that patients’ hypertensive response (a well-regarded physiological marker of stress) induced by surgery was lessened when the patients could listen to music of their own choice. Indeed, they self-reported a reduction in stress, and a promotion of wellbeing as a result of listening!
Back in 1998, Carl Charnetski, Francis Brennan and James Harrison performed a landmark study on the effects of music on the immune system5. They astonishingly found that concentrations of immune marker ‘salivary immunoglobulin A’ increased more in the mouths of study participants after listening to music played from a tape than in the control group who didn’t listen to music at all. Who would have thought it!
- Sharman L and Dingle GA (2015) Extreme metal music and anger processing. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 9:272. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00272
- Menninghaus, W., Wagner, V., Hanich, J., Wassiliwizky, E., Jacobsen, T., & Koelsch, S. (2017). ‘The distancing-embracing model of the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception.’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences
- Emre Ulusoy (2018) ‘Toward a theory of subcultural mosaic: Fragmentation into and within subcultures’ Journal of Consumer Culture 2018, Vol. 18(1) 21–42
- Allen, Karen; Golden, Lawrence H.; Izzo, Joseph L. Jr.; Ching, Marilou I. ; Forrest, Alan Pharm; Niles, Charles R.; Niswander, Philip R., and; Barlow, Jared C. (2001) ‘Normalization of Hypertensive Responses During Ambulatory Surgical Stress by Perioperative Music, Psychosomatic Medicine’ Volume 63 - Issue 3 - p 487-492
- Charnetski, C. J., Brennan, F. X. and Harrison, J. F. (1998) ‘Effect of Music and Auditory Stimuli on Secretory Immunoglobulin a (IGA)’, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 87(3_suppl), pp. 1163–1170. doi: 10.2466/pms.1998.87.3f.1163.
- Yanan Sun, Xuejing Lu, Mark Williams, William Forde & Thompson (2019) ‘Implicit violent imagery processing among fans and non-fans of music with violent themes’ R. Soc. open sci.6181580 http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.181580
- Dawn Kuhn (2002) ‘The Effects of Active and Passive Participation in Musical Activity on the Immune System as Measured by Salivary Immunoglobulin A (SIgA)’ Journal of Music Theory 39(1):30-9. doi: 10.1093/jmt/39.1.30
- Swami, V., Malpass, F., Havard, D., Benford, K., Costescu, A., Sofitiki, A., & Taylor, D.A. (2013). ‘Metalheads: the influence of personality and individual differences on preference for heavy metal.’
- William Ford Thomson et al. (2019) ‘Who enjoys listening to violent music and why?’ DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000184 quoting (7)
- Papinczak, Zoe & Dingle, Genevieve & Stoyanov, Stoyan & Hides, Leanne & Zelenko, Oksana. (2015). ‘Young people's uses of music for wellbeing. Journal of Youth Studies.’ 18. 10.1080/13676261.2015.1020935.