Metal Evolution. “Pre Metal”. Dunn, S. and McFadyen, S. (Directors). (2011). [Video/DVD] Banger Films, Inc.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xXtVX56rz0 (brain scan at 5:20)
In this episode of Metal Evolution, anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn visits the McMaster University Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour in Hamilton, Canada. This series is about the evolution of heavy metal music throughout its 40-year history, and Dunn is trying to figure out metal listeners’ attraction to this music. It is already known that heavy metal music greatly affects listeners on a social level; community and feelings of togetherness are salient in metal scenes across the world. This is partly due to learned cognitive responses, but another part of it is the emotions of aggression and feelings of power that arise from listening. Dunn is interested in “what actually happens to our brains” when we listen to heavy metal.
To a neuroscientist, this seemingly broad question can have a variety of answers. Dunn meets with Laurel Trainor, the director of the Music and Mind Lab at McMaster, and poses these questions. Trainor is interested in the auditory system and how it develops, how music affects the brain, and how people hear, interpret, and react to music. She proceeds to perform an EEG scan (Electroencephalography) on Dunn by putting the sensor net on his head, and as he listens to different pieces of music, his brain responses are measured. Dunn is shown—with his long hair and Enslaved t-shirt—first listening to a piece of classical music (Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C major), then to a piece of heavy metal (Slayer’s “Raining Blood”). As cliché as this musical comparison is, the difference in brain activity between classical and metal music is not actually explained. Perhaps, because there is none that can be identified on an EEG scan?
Trainor goes on to point out that heavy metal is often (hastily and perhaps wrongfully) associated with violence. But in truth, metal’s sonic qualities—loudness, speed, distortions—tends to “turn off conscious thought”, consequently turning off inhibition. Finally, an insightful point is made that the potential for violence and aggression is in all of us, and that it feels good to sometimes let go of control, but only can it be a positive and therapeutic practice if it is done in a safe environment where one feels comfortable. For me, this brings up ideas of vicarious emotions and a sense of catharsis. Music’s encoded meanings (learned through listening and forming cognitive associations throughout the span of one’s life) can act as a sort of emotional prophylactic. Prominent metal musicians tend to agree:
“There’s something in metal music that speaks to the reptilian brain*; it doesn’t speak to the intellect, it doesn’t speak to a thought process that’s on the surface. There’s something that connects very viscerally with heavy metal music, that it just feels awesome.”
Tom Morello, Guitarist of alternative metal band Rage Against the Machine
*Yes, the term “reptilian brain” is outdated, and his comment regarding music “speaking” to it is uninformed…but he’s a musician and not a neuroscientist, so we’ll forgive him.
“[Heavy metal] is certainly an outlet that you couldn’t get anywhere else. You come to the show and lose your f*cking mind, and get in the pit and go crazy and stage dive and have fun. It’s not about violence, it’s about fun. You might be bruised and really tired the next day, but you know what, it’s like a great massage, you’re gonna feel really good afterwards.”
Scott Ian, Guitarist of thrash metal band Anthrax
The segment concludes by Trainor explaining that listening to metal merely exercises the part of you that is aggressive or combative, but without any external physical stimuli or danger. Dunn finishes by suggesting that this craving for affect is a possible reason why people are so drawn to heavy metal music.
On a cognitive level, listening to “angry”- or “violent”-sounding heavy metal music is akin to something ethnomusicologist call sonic tourism. But instead of listening to music that reminds us of romanticized exotic places, we are attracted to the possible affect (as in the affect, cognition, conation model) that music might bring us. We can experience music we understand to be sorrowful, distressing, forceful, or aggressive, all in the comfort of our own home without feeling a shred of any real threat or danger. As if looking at paintings at a museum, we can perceive music and its encoded emotions without really feeling them ourselves. Alternatively, music perceived as cheerful or joyful can elicit similar effects.
One fear, of course, is that in the same way that listening to “happy” music can lift one’s spirits, listening to “angry” music can in turn make the listener angry. Paradoxically, people often tailor music to their current mood, rather than use music to try and change their mood (DeNora 2011). But the reverse is also true. North and Hargreaves (2012) go as far as to say that listening to music expressing negative emotion (like certain rock and rap) promotes violent behaviour, suicidal tendencies, depression, and sexual promiscuity. However, while there is an undoubted correlation between self-identified “angry” people and the “angry” music they listen to, the causality of this relationship is not so simple; those who already have violent or aggressive tendencies will be more likely to listen to music that promotes those tendencies (Shafron & Karno 2013).
Unfortunately, Dunn’s question of “what actually happens to our brains” when listening to heavy metal music is never answered in the segment. The opposing sounds of Mozart and Slayer are presented but their difference not explained. One possibility is that at the sensory-cellular level there is no difference. And it is at higher cognitive levels of processing that music encoded with various emotions elicits corresponding responses. The feelings and emotions perceived in music are made audible to us due to our own enculturation, not because there is a notable difference in how the inner ear and auditory cortex experience and process it. And due to individual tastes and preferences, certain people would already be drawn to heavy metal music for its perceived sonic qualities—meaning this music isn’t making anyone more violent or aggressive than they already are (Istók et al. 2013).
DeNora, T. (2011). Health and music in everyday life – a theory of practice. Music-in-action: Selected essays in sonic ecology (pp. 271-285). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Istók, E., Brattico, E., Jacobsen, T., Ritter, A., & Tervaniemi, M. (2013). ‘I love rock ‘n’ Roll’—Music genre preference modulates brain responses to music. Biological Psychology, 92(2), 142-151.
North, A. C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2012). Pop music subcultures and wellbeing. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 1-19). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shafron, G., & Karno, M. (2013). Heavy metal music and emotional dysphoria among listeners. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2(2), 74-85.