Scientific American Explores the Appeal of Death Metal

  • Axl Rosenberg

Metal fans, meet William Forde Thompson. Although not a musician himself, Thompson’s work will, no doubt, be of interest to us all: he’s a music psychologist who has honed in on the topic of death metal, and the appeal it holds for us fans. And I do mean ‘honed in’: according to a new article in Scientific American, “Thompson and his colleagues have published three papers  about death metal and its fans this year, and several more are in the works.” So you can’t say the dude isn’t being thorough in his investigation.

The latest of Thompson’s paper, “Who enjoys listening to violent music and why?,” reports the results of a study involving 48 death metal fans and 97 non-fans, all of whom listened to four out of eight sixty-second excerpts from death metal songs like  Cannibal Corpse’s “Hammer Smashed Face,” Obituary’s “Slowly We Rot,”and Autopsy’s “Waiting for the Screams.” Thompson then “deployed an arsenal of established psychological tools and measures,” including “the Big Five Inventory (BFI) of personality… as well as the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a 28-item measure of empathy.”

The bad news is that, according to the study, us death metals lean towards the dickish:

“[O]n measures of conscientiousness and agreeableness, the scores of death metal fans were subtly but reliably lower than those of non-fans. One possible explanation for this finding, the authors write, ‘is that long-term, persistent exposure to violent media may lead to subtle changes in one’s personality, desensitizing fans to violence and reinforcing negative social attitudes.’ But Thompson emphasizes that we just don’t know. It is also possible that people with these personality traits are more likely to gravitate to death metal.”

The so-so news is that, according to the study, us death metal fans also have no desire to be associated with your normal average everyday folk:

“Thompson has found that the limited appeal of the form may be one its key features for fans—one at least as old as rock itself. He cites a 2006 paper by the late Karen Bettez Halnon, who found that fans of heavy metal (as has certainly been the case with many other genres and sub-genres over the decades) view the music as an alternative to the ‘impersonal, conformist, superficial and numbing realities of commercialism.’

“In that vein, one possible function of the gruesome lyrics that are the hallmark of death metal, says Thompson, may be to ‘sharpen the boundary’ between fans and everybody else.”

The good news is that the study reaffirms also what most of us already know — “that many death metal fans say they listen to the music as a catharsis, a way to release negative emotions  and focus on something that they enjoy.”

“As for the central riddle of death metal—how explicitly violent music might trigger positive emotions in some people—Thompson cites a 2017 paper on the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The paper, from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics,  suggests a mental process that combines “psychological distancing” and “psychological embracing.”  In other words, a lack of real-world consequences—it’s just a song!—may provide the distance necessary for fans to appreciate the music as an art form and embrace it.”

So, there’s some interesting stuff here, even if it may or may not be BS — for example, “The fact that the study relies on self-reporting by the subjects is a red flag” to some of Thompson’s peers, according to the article.

To read more about Thompson’s, including its possible shortcomings, go to Scientific American.

This is, of course, just the latest in an ever-growing list of scientific studies centered around metal. You can check out some of the others here.

Thanks: Archdruid Grulog

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