TL;DR – University of Melbourne announces a recent study saying it proves heavy metal is a negative influence.  Justin reads the study and says the University announcement is basically one big lie.  He covers some of the detail in longer sentences than usual (yikes), then says the University should get it shit together on this.  Also, it turns out Van Canto have a new record out, and they are still terrible.

Popular media was busy last week trumpeting the announced results of a recent University of Melbourne study.  A lot of the hype was around the claim made in the headline in the University’s press announcement that “Heavy metal music has negative impacts on youth.”  It states that Dr. Katrina McFerran, a senior lecturer in Music Therapy, has found that young people at risk of depression are more likely to listen to heavy metal in a negative way.

A quick Google news search for “heavy metal” “study” this morning yields twenty-two separate stories (about three weeks later), and all of them are about this.  Surveying of these stories shows some range of content, from the study’s correlation between liking metal and high risk for psychological distress all the way to linking metal with potential suicide.  In any case, they all draw from the language in the press release about the new study McFerran has done.

I asked Dr. McFerran for a copy of the study, and she was kind enough to provide one.  I have spent some time reading through the study and can tell you this:

The press release is complete bullshit.

First off, it’s either deliberately lying, or playing extremely fast and loose with the facts on the methodology of the study.  The press release says that McFerran is “conducting in-depth interviews with 50 young people aged between 13 and 18, along with a national survey of 1000 young people…”.  Maybe she is doing that somewhere, but this study was based on information gathered from a much smaller sample and more restricted methodology: a single survey done with a self-selected group 111 teens (aged 15-18) out of a universe of 342, all from a single school in Melbourne that had distinct demographics that were somewhat atypical of the average Australian.  I don’t have issue with the fact that this smaller, more selected population with a 2/3 non-response rate may yield valuable research information.  I do have an issue with the implication that the announcement makes: the headline’s conclusion comes from a study which was done with a different population and method than the announcement implies.

Second, McFerran’s quotes in the release are only somewhat related to the content of the study, diverging from what was actually covered at the most inflammatory points.  She refers to suicide risk and repetitive listening, strongly implying that these are more associated with heavy metal than other types of music.  If she has evidence for these claims it isn’t in the study.  It only mentions suicide in the context of the literature review (i.e., the part at the beginning when the researchers talk about other research done on the subject of study.)  And although it notes that the “high risk” group – those scoring as the highest risk for psychological distress — spends more time listening to music, there’s no discussion about repetitive listening.

Third, and most importantly, the press announcement actually contradicts what the text of the study – and, by the way, Justin Foley – identifies as the “most important finding …”: “that the majority of highly distressed adolescents used heavy metal music to successfully manage their moods.”  In all cases, no matter what kind of mood, more teens at high risk for psychological distress (which, the study notes, correlates highly with preference for heavy metal) report feeling better after listening to music than feeling worse.

Here is the key point.  The central question of the study asked how teens in general use music to manage their moods.  For the nineteen teens at the highest risk in their worst mood (angry), something like seven report feeling better, four report feeling worse, and I assume that the remaining eight feel about the same.  Even if we are to fully grant that the study is methodologically sound (not quibbling about sample size or non-response or survey design or any of the number of things that one might be interested in quibbling over), the answer to the modified question of “how do [high risk] teens use music to manage their [worst] mood?” is, based on this study, “The strong majority of them report feeling better or the same.”  In no way does it support the statement that “Heavy metal music has negative impacts on youth.” – it disputes it.

As for the question of the minority subset who reported feeling worse after listening to music, the text of the study notes that this group is not “…non-significant, but notable…”.  (I read “significant” in the statistical sense.)  Four high-risk (and about three of the medium-risk and even one of the low-risk) teens say that, especially when they’re feeling angry, listening to music makes them feel worse – the closest thing in the report as support for the press release’s claims.  Dr. McFerran, in a response posted last week on Metal Insider, asks the question: “What about that group of young people who describe feeling worse?”  Absolutely valid concern.  The answer is: this report does not give us any actionable information.  The most that it can say is: “A minority of teens report feeling worse after listening to music when they are either stressed, bored, angry or sad.  This is more frequently reported with teens who score as ‘high risk’ on the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale.”  And… that’s it.

How to help these teens?  The first question that I’d ask of them is if music is more likely to make them feel bad than other stuff.  Think of all the things that people 15 to 18 years old may like to do on their own (rather than the stuff they have to do, like go to school).  Sleeping, eating, hanging out with friends, playing sports, reading, having sex, doing drugs, trolling the MetalSucks comment section… does this same not-significant-but-notable-minority report feeling better after doing any of those things?  Because until we know that, we have no way of understanding how important listening to music is to their psychological distress.

I will ignore my impulse to share my suspicions as to why the University of Melbourne put out a press release which is dishonest.  But a bunch of news sources picked up on what they wrote and carried the totally inaccurate message that “heavy metal has negative impacts.”  And that’s because that is the story we’re presented with, despite the fact that the study does not support it.  I guess you could chastise these many media outlets for not reading the full study [Including the one you’re currently reading. -Ed.], but they aren’t really to be blamed when the University lies about their own study.

MetalSucks has agreed to provide a forum for Dr. McFerran to provide an answer to this article.  Whether or not she does, Dr. McFerran and the University of Mebourne should:

  • Release the raw data of the survey responses (with no identifying information, obviously).  The study does not distinguish clearly enough between the high-risk group and the group expressing a preference for heavy metal.  Given the analysis that has taken place so far, I’d prefer to review the data and draw my own conclusions.
  • Put out a corrected press statement that accurately reports the methodology and findings of the study.  And please make sure to note that this is a correction.
  • Put out an apology to the students who participated in this study.  It is not fair to the students in Melbourne who opened up and provided (presumably) honest answers to these researchers about their personal preferences.  The fact that their answers were twisted into a contradictory press announcement that was carried to a much larger audience is nuts and I would be pissed off if I were one of them.

Last thing: There is a persistent and wrongheaded trend in popular media to condemn people who prefer non-mainstream art.  For people who draw a sense community and meaning from what this study calls “heavy metal,” this means putting up with being called “weird,” “abnormal,” “psychologically defective,” or even “immoral.”  While the work done in this study could help dispel those unfair accusations, the University has done the exact opposite.  I’m one metalhead who doesn’t appreciate the University’s naked dishonesty, and I call bullshit on them.  It’s on them to begin to make things right.


Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for the Austerity Program.  Their record Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is out now.  Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com.  All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ, and monetary policy will be answered first. You can also get a list of their upcoming tour dates here.

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