JUST A LOT OF NOISE ABOUT NOTHING? DR. KATRINA MCFERRAN RESPONDS TO JUSTIN FOLEY’S RESPONSE TO HER STUDY ON TEENS, MUSIC, AND DEPRESSIONLast month, the University of Melbourne sent out a press release regarding a study recently completed by Dr. Katrina McFerran. Entitled “Heavy metal music has negative impacts on youth,” the press release claimed that Dr. McFerran’s research demonstrated that “Young people at risk of depression are more likely to listen habitually and repetitively to heavy metal music.” The Austerity Program’s Justin Foley took issue with this study and the subsequent press release in an editorial we published yesterday; however, since we like to represent as many different view points as possible here on MetalSucks, we also offer Dr. McFerran the chance to respond. Read her thoughts on the matter below.

The media needs controversy to be able to get anyone’s attention.  Although I don’t feel as maddened by this as Justin does, I do think it is a bizarre premise for what used to be called “the news” — but things change.  And one thing I have learned from my recent media experience is that I will not mistake “media” for “facts” again.  In fact, what I have learned is that modern-day media provides a space where it is possible to offer a commentary on facts, without feeling obliged to be completely accurate in that process.  I learned this after reading the first report of my research in a large local newspaper following an interview with the reporter.  I had enjoyed the interview, and thought that I had clarified my position (published at Metal Insider). Yet the headline for his story was “Metal causes depression.” And, just to be brief, I think that is a ridiculous, unfounded statement – there is a significant correlation between metal and depression, as shown in many studies, but it is not causative.  Music does not cause problems, but people with problems often turn to music for a range of reasons. But to finish responding to Justin, my understanding is that the commentary provided by any media forum is purposefully biased to convey their beliefs, and big media giants have a commitment to making money as well as providing a commentary, so they produce stuff that gets people’s attention.  That’s a bit different to sites such as this, which Justin described to me as “a somewhat satirical, somewhat serious blog about heavy metal music.” So it offers a different kind of commentary. But those big media folk certainly know how to get people’s attention.

The media release put out by my University a few weeks ago definitely got a lot of attention.  I know that because I have had lots of conversations with people, like Justin, who wanted to know more about my research.  After an initial freak out, I decided to answer every single email (that had text in it!) and to respond to the range of valid questions that my ideas had aroused for people. I kept a record of how many emails I received (147 – and still going), and I thought deeply about what people said ,and even pulled out some statistics (yes, I’m a nerd, and I’m a music therapy researcher, so this response is probably pretty predictable).  So I’d like to take the opportunity I’ve been offered here to reflect on what I consider to be the main messages being shared and what I learned from that.

Although it felt like more, only 10 of the 65 people who engaged me about the content of the research could be classified as “seriously angry.”  (I think most of those people just commented online and didn’t bother writing to me, similar to some of those who have already responded to Justin’s commentary.) The rest of the emails I received could be described as people who were interested in knowing more, or wanting to share their own experiences in relation to listening to metal music. (By the way – I won’t bang on about it, but I just want to acknowledge that my language around the sub-genres of metal was really simplistic.  I apologize, and I promise never again to refer to heavy metal as the dominant form of “metal.” I have to confess that my teenage years were spent in a small country town in Australia during the 1980s where there was LOTS of heavy metal music playing, so that was a complete, old-school bias in terms of my language).  Out of interest, only 11 of the 65 email correspondents were women, so it was very interesting to be relating to a lot of men who felt that I had no idea about issues of power and emotion in music.

Of the 65 people I had conversations with, 17 declared themselves as having experience with depression, either in the past or currently.  When I look closely at the information shared by those 17, it is fascinating to see that 11 of them are active musicians, playing or writing (mostly) metal music.  I want to use that statistic to make a declaration about my personal beliefs that has been somewhat buried in all the controversy.  I am a music therapist, and my work is grounded in the understanding that engaging in music together with other people is good for you.  It provides powerful opportunities to feel connected.  It makes it possible to transcend differences in opinions, culture and gender in order to be in agreement in the experience of shared musicking – seen by being in bands and / or attending concerts.  And it is an important (and acceptable) way of expressing ourselves and our emotions in context with others.  My belief that making music with others is good for you is supported by some very interesting findings from neuroscience (I highly recommend an ex-record producer turned neuroscientist on this topic by the way – Daniel Levitin) that describe what chemicals are released in our brains when we make music with others.  The big one for me is Oxytocin.  This is a trust-building chemical that is also released during the intimate and bonding experience of breast-feeding and has been shown to be elevated after singing together.  And there are other natural chemicals like endorphins (which are natural pain relievers) and dopamines (an upper, creating feelings of buoyant optimism, energy and power) that are pretty relevant to this discussion.

Many of the descriptions offered by the people that wrote to me could be understood in this light.  They talked about how music had helped them during difficult times in their lives and how it was sometimes the one thing that made them feel better (can’t you just feel those neurochemicals firing??). Once I explained that I was not suggesting music caused problems, most of these people wanted to understand why music that had been so positive for them could be a negative experience for anybody else.  And that’s what I’m interested in too.  I’m very comfortable with the fact that it seems to be a small number of people who might feel worse after listening.  But as far as I’m concerned, any number is enough people for me to be interested.  As a therapist, I’m conscious of the fact that bad news is often swept under the carpet.  Nobody wants to talk about abuse for example, but we know it happens.  And people prefer to think about how fantastic music is, but perhaps it isn’t always good, in every way, for all people.  Surely that’s a possibility?

One of the 65 people who responded to me shared about their negative experiences of listening to music repeatedly (and, yes, it happened to be metal, ’cause that’s what I’ve been talking to people about — but there is no reason that it has to be metal).  They reflected on how it was soothing, but that the down-side was getting caught up in another reality that could sometimes spiral out of control, even resulting in self-harm on occasion.  Personally, I don’t need big numbers to find this important.

So I’ve been obsessing on this a little and I have a theory about what combination of conditions are most likely to have negative consequences. It’s just a theory at this stage, which means it’s an opinion I have that is based in existing knowledge but it hasn’t been proven.  Here it is:

Repetitive listening by yourself to songs that represent the worst aspects of a situation over a long time is not always good for you.

“Repetitive” because it reinforces current thoughts rather than promoting new ideas and ways of thinking about things.

“Listening” because it is passive rather than active.

“By yourself” because replacing people with music can lead to further isolation. And “representing the worst aspects” because the associations we attach to certain pieces of music are powerful – for example they can lead to re-traumatisation if they are associated with a traumatic situation.

“Over a long time” because this behavior can be helpful when used for a certain amount of time (and no, I wouldn’t like to put a number on it).

I don’t think that any of these strategies is risky in itself, and even the combination may not be detrimental unless you are already struggling with mental health problems like depression or psychosis. But since doing the survey that Justin has put a link to in his contribution, I have been doing more research that involves asking young people about their uses of music in interviews. This theory is based on their experiences; my reading of many studies about young people, music and health; my experience of working with young people who are struggling; and frankly, nothing in the emails I received contradicts it.

So, in some ways I think my theory is mind blowingly obvious, and possibly no-one would disagree with such a careful statement. Maybe that’s why no-one has bothered to comment on this part of my ideas in the media — not exciting enough? But I think it’s important enough to investigate, because I work with young people struggling with depression, and I work with each of them to see if there is a way music can be helpful for them in their unique situation. I want to know if there is anything I should be careful about and conscious of, and if there are any simple suggestions I can make that might turn unhealthy experiences into healthy ones.  I’m not suggesting that music can save anyone anymore than I am suggesting it can cause people’s problems.  But I do think music is powerful and I know that many of us find that it makes a difference.  And if you’re still reading, I guess you think tha,t too.  Feel free to let me know if your experience contradicts or supports the theory.

And thanks for the chance to Justin and the editors of MetalSucks for the chance to reply – appreciated.

-Dr. Katrina McFerran

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