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Anxiety, Depression High Among Young Heavy Metal Fans

New research suggests fans of Rage Against the Machine aren’t so much full of rage as full of anxiety.
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Rage Against the Machine at the L.A. Rising Music Festival in 2011. (PHOTO: PENNER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Rage Against the Machine at the L.A. Rising Music Festival in 2011. (PHOTO: PENNER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

How would you characterize adolescents who listen to heavy metal music? Angry? Perhaps prone to violence?

Newly published research suggests “anxious” and “depressed” are more accurate adjectives.

An analysis of 551 college students found “significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression among listeners of heavy metal/hard rock music, as compared with non-listeners.” Furthermore, their underlying level of anger was not significantly different from their peers who prefer other musical genres.

The study, conducted by psychologists Gavin Ryan Shafron of Columbia University and Mitchell Karno of the University of California-Los Angeles, is described in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. The researchers chose to survey students at Los Angeles-area community colleges, figuring that population would be more representative than a sample of university students.

A majority of the participants—57 percent—described themselves as heavy-metal listeners. They were asked their preference for various sub-genres, including Emo, Hardcore Punk, Death Metal, and Thrash Metal. These more recent offshoots to classic heavy metal “have dark overtones and often use graphic lyrics that express angry, depressed, or painted emotions, in combination with screams, groans, and particularly dense and/or particularly syncopated rhythms,” the researchers write.

Participants listed the number of hours per day they listened to each sub-genre, and took surveys designed to measure their levels of anger, anxiety, and depression.

After controlling for age and gender, “heavy metal listeners had significantly higher anxiety compared with the non-heavy metal listeners,” the researchers write. “The heavy metal group also was significantly higher on depression. The two groups did not reliably differ on trait anger.”

Among those who listen to heavy metal, there were no significant differences in anger, anxiety, or depression among frequent as opposed to occasional listeners. The key factor seems to be the inclination to be drawn to this music, rather than the amount of time spent listening to it.

They noted that, while “heavy metal music has changed toward darker forms in the past 15 to 20 years,” at least among their sample, “the subgenre of classic heavy metal was by far the most popular among heavy metal listeners.”

Looking at the newer subgenres, fans of Hardcore were the only ones to score significantly higher than the others on anger, anxiety, and depression. Depression was also high among Emo fans; anxiety was elevated among listeners of Emo, Screamo, and classic heavy metal.

The researchers caution that they cannot say whether listening to this music leads to anxiety and depression, or whether anxious, depressed adolescents turn to this music for solace and emotional release.

“It may be that the high-pitched and shrill screams paired with subject matter predominantly focused on the emotional pain and loss, which often characterize the Hardcore and Screamo subgenres, speak to the cathartic effects of heavy metal,” they write.

Emerging into adulthood tends to be an intense, abrasive experience. For some, managing the transition is helped by intense, abrasive music.