Picture this: A bunch of unique looking headbanging people listening to heavy music; entering a whirlpool of human collision in front of their favorite artist; raising their fists in the air; raising the devil’s horns \m/. What is that all about? Who are they? These are the metalheads. What is their psychology?
We are going to look at the social psychology of heavy metal and rock music fans. In this article, I’ll review the scientific research done on their personality, their behavior, why they do what they do, what they get out it, etc. The effects of heavy metal music can be described through a social-music psychology lens. Let’s look through it.
Heavy metal has many connotations that relate to social psychology. I’ll highlight the most prominent ones here. These come from the heavy metal audience – the musicians as well as the fans.
Brotherhood, Rebellion, Honest Expression, Repression, Outsider, Anger and Aggression, Brutality, Conformity and Non-conformity, Isolation, Depression, Oneness, Homogeneity, Dissolving in the crowd, Respect and Victory, Sincerity and Discipline, Dramatization, and Authority.
These connotations signify something. Heavy metal music caters to some very fundamental feelings and experiences humans have in society.
I’ve left out many more connotations that don’t help this post but feel free to take a moment and think. Some of them may contradict each other and that is because heavy metal has many different sub-genres (death metal, thrash metal, power metal, doom metal, etc.) which cater to certain aspects of human experiences.
Positive behavioral outcomes occur when the audience is a fan of metal music. Let’s find out what they are.
Table of Contents
Psychology Of Heavy Metal Fans
Just like most other forms of music, people synchronize with each other. Heavy metal relates people to one another and gives existential meaning to many.
Even though people have considered rock music as the devil’s music and opined that this form of music creates negative outcomes like aggression, the story is not that simple. A longitudinal study shows that people who grew up in the 80s and 90s with metal as the popular culture lead healthy and fulfilling lives today. In fact, a research report says that they are better adjusted than non-fans and their metalhead identity serves as a protective barrier against negative life experiences. They also say that participation in fringe cultures can enhance identity development in troubled youth.
While there is a known analogy between bipolar disorders (alternating depression & mania) and heavy metal, there is no known cause-effect between the two. Songs might just reflect the human condition of bipolarity without a direct cause-effect relationship.
Researchers have found that people who are angry and aggressive can experience more positive emotions because of the increased arousal from metal music which matches the person’s physiological state. This congruence between anger/aggression and arousal from metal helps with anger regulation. The popular notion that heavy music makes one angry is not substantiated. In fact, listening to heavy metal may be a healthy way of processing anger.
Go headbang to Megadeth if you want to process anger constructively.
When we look at the stress-reducing capacity of music (as a coping mechanism), for non-fans, classical music and self-chosen music works better than a prescription of heavy metal.
A thesis based on case studies shows that listening to music (heavy metal included) helps people who have been traumatized. It helps them regulate their emotions, overcome suicidal thoughts, and occupy their sensory environment.
Wait… So far, it looks like metal music is a bed of roses, but it might just be a bed of razors. Research on metal music has one deadly study to showcase.
One study found out that metal music induces serious amounts of negative emotions and predatory instincts in mice. Mice listening to hard rock music ended up killing each other. While mice who listened to Mozart did not kill each other. Read about it here: Educational CyberPlayGround.
Humans have an ethics-based guiding system in the brain which makes sure that the strong negative emotional states evoked by metal do not translate into to such aggressive behavior like that in mice; at least in normal humans. Severe personality, mood, and psychotic disorders change the picture completely, and the reactions may not be favorable. It is possible that complex metal music cannot be properly processed by mice and is interpreted as a stressor & a threat.
On similar lines, one study by a road-safety authority found that listening to Slipknot’s (sic) can be detrimental to driving. They explain this as an effect of compromised attention.
I did speak of metal music as a way to combat negative emotions and cope with them, even reduce aggressive tendencies. However, this effect appears to be more in fans than in non-fans. Those who don’t prefer high-intensity metal music have an increase in uneasiness after listening but fans appear to have an increase in positive emotions after listening.
This begs the question – How do other music genres fare in emotion regulation? Emotion regulation is about managing and modifying emotions fruitfully. One paper addressed this question. They found that rock music and heavy metal music is potent for managing negative moods. Jazz, Blues, Classical, Rap, Hip-Hop, Soul, Funk, and Electronic/Dance are potent in both negative and positive mood regulation. While the genre classification is crude in this study, they analyzed broad dimensions of music. They provide evidence for rhythm and energy being the two critical factors in regulating emotions.
A study on the link between mental health and metal fans from France shows that the baseline rates of mental health issues (depression, anxiety, suicide) are similar to those of the general population; sometimes, even lower. One explanation for this is the power of emotional regulation via metal and the sense of community that comes with the fandom. This is in direct contradiction with the general perception that metalheads are more mentally unstable.
Metal and rock music is diverse with many sub-cultures which have certain characteristics, these characteristics may play a role in explaining some observations of deteriorating mental health. For example, a study found evidence that teens who heavily associated with a goth sub-culture are at a higher risk of suicide and self-harm. Although the link was present, the study doesn’t dish out whether at-risk teens prefer a goth sub-culture or the goth-culture normalizes this behavior.
Fun fact: An interesting physics-chemistry-music cross-over study showed that people in a mosh-pit behave like molecules of a gas. Where the act of bumping into one other in a pseudo-random way resembles the mathematical structure of the molecules in a gas. You can read about its implications here: Mosh pit physics could aid disaster planning.
Because the audience is small and the person who likes metal does so at a very personal level, you’ll see that a huge number of metal fans are musicians themselves. Apart from the sound of ‘metal’ being an acquired taste for many, being a musician further bolsters the connotations I mentioned at the start of this post.
What about the personality of metal music fans?
A survey-based research study on 414 British undergraduates showed that those you liked metal music tended to be more open to experiences, wanted to be unique, and were not in favor of authority. While this isn’t groundbreaking research, it corroborates people’s narratives about why they like metal.
You might be surprised with how metal music relates to romantic relationships. If your significant other sports a Judas Priest teeshirt, chances are he/she is not going to cheat on you as much as someone sporting jazz music teeshirts. A survey study showed that metalheads were least likely to cheat on their partner and jazz fans were most likely to cheat. Turns out, metalheads are loyal and faithful people. As per musical preferences and lifestyle preferences analyzed in this paper, rock music (not metal, data lacking) fans tend to have fewer sexual partners than fans of dance, house, hip-hop, rap, jazz, and indie music. A whopping 93.5% of metalheads had lesser than 5 sexual partners over a 5-year span.
But doesn’t this romantic faithfulness contradict the very essence of a lot of metal music? After all, metal music has the connotations of defiance, rebellion, and a dislike toward law and authority. Cheating is defined as breaking mutually-agreed-upon rules. So it looks like metalheads don’t see romance in a social context which has a governing system that dictates rules. One could speculate that romance/love, for metalheads, is deeply personal and asocial. The mutual rules in romance depend only on the partner(s).
There is this lingering question that many have in mind- Do violent & angry themes in music make a person violent? A study explored this question by testing the emotional valence and awareness of violent themes on their mental processing of music. They found that violent music does partially desensitize a person depending on how much they like the music. Non-fans showed an increased negativity bias – selective processing of negative information. This shows that non-fans did amplify the processing of violent themes. Fans did not have this bias in spite of being aware of the violent themes. This is probably due to a)liking the music, b)Long-term exposure, and c) evaluating the musical experience as positive.
Psychology Of A Metal Musician
Heavy metal music is intricate. It is based on the acquisition of skills which take a long time to get refined. It’s a genre which clearly evolved from simple to complex musical structures; mostly bound by guitars, vocals, drums, keyboards, and bass. That is just the nature of natural selection applied to music. When a metal musician makes music, it is the result of years of practice. That entails the discipline of studying, focusing on complicated sounds, sweating and creating something new. Simply because the musician is involved in such mental and physical activity which costs a lot and often does not yield much monetarily, the musician attaches feelings of ‘sacrifice’ to it. This increases the sense of accomplishment felt by the musician.
I can only imagine that such a routine makes hard-working, sincere, and creative people who are proud of their struggle to make something interesting with music.
One important factor is the feedback loop between music and the self. Making structured music will start making the musician structure other things in life. A showy guitarist will most likely be flashy in other parts of his or her life. A person who generally listens to a variety of things would be open-minded in other factors. Whereas an extremely fussy musician will also tend to be fussy about the food he/she eats. These are some likely examples, they are not generalizations.
Psychology Of Metal Musicians & Metal Fans Interacting
Metal musicians often make music with other musicians. This is a form of ‘coupling’ or synchronized behavior. Songs sound like songs because of this inherent quality of coupling. Random sounds do not sound like music because they lack coupling. In fact, this coupling is popularly understood as the chemistry between musicians. A study showed how the brains of guitarists who are playing together synchronize their brain waves before the music begins, thereby supporting the idea of this intuitive coupling. Read about it here.
When coupled, fans and musicians experience similar emotional states which foster bonding through dedicated systems. These dedicated systems are interesting meta-networks of neurons that fire in a way that mirrors (for lack of a better word) someone else’s behavioral, cognitive, and emotional state. They are associated with observation, mimicking, synchronizing, and understanding different perspectives. They also foster nurturing and companionship which is required for pair-bonding. This musical coupling is likely to make a person more sensitive and empathetic. I’m not talking about mirror neurons, I’m talking about a dozen other networks which explain similar functions in humans.
One research study suggests that the metal ‘gig’ ritual (headbanging included) allows musicians to go in a state of flow. The very act of playing along with a band on stage made a musician more likely to experience flow. Taking a step backward, flow is the mental state where one is completely absorbed in a task and feels one with it. Flow is a positive desirable state because it is connoted by task engagement, a deep connection with the task, intrinsic satisfaction, challenge, and joy.
The curiously interesting bit is that the musicians experience flow in spite of the deeply embedded negative emotional states like anger, frustration, and rebellion in metal music. You can read more about the flow state and how to achieve it here.
There certainly are pros and cons observed in heavy metal music-making and listening. And that’s hardly a problem – career difficulties, community building, in-group & out-group aggression, etc. are a part of many sects. You look at any sub-section of society – there will be extreme outliers, quirks, pros, and cons. That’s a discussion more suited to the human condition on the whole than on any form of music.
General life stories of heavy metal fans show:
1. Significant emotional depth is added to like-mindedness in music
2. There is a phase in their lives where metal music added meaning to their ‘not so pleasant lives.’
3. Metal becomes an integral part of their lives and the related attitudes and behavior are seen across many facets of their lives including relationships, school, parenthood, etc.
These are the reasons metalheads get obsessive about their music as well. Which, sometimes, is unhealthy as they could become dogmatic and disrespectful of that music which isn’t their own.
Although this isn’t a tested hypothesis, I would say that metal music makes people behave in a collective way largely because it is a minority. This is similar to a phenomenon in evolutionary biology called negative frequency-dependent selection. In simple terms, the value of
People may slightly overestimate its effects and be biased due to the music being relatively rare. It’s like seeing a person you know in a foreign country, you end up evaluating that person in a more favorable way. Metal music itself is democratic within this minority, fans become musicians and vice-versa. They maintain the genre & subculture by assuming at least one of the two roles. That is why you can say that heavy metal is of the people, by the same people, and for the same people.
There is one last thing I’d like to introduce. When you look at a lot of sub-genres of music, the various emotions associated with each sub-genre, the musical complexity, there is an overarching theme that emerges. This theme is about how metal music evolves alongside people, culture, science, art, technology, and the environment.
The theme has multiple feedback loops & transfer effects – thinking about science could be informed by musical complexity, socio-cultural nuances of metal could inform technological advancement, metal could foster newer public sentiments such as concern for climate change, etc. You can read this paper to know more about the holistic bird’s eye view of how metal music interacts with the human condition.