The Zen Potential in Heavy Metal

Research shows that headbanging can, in fact, equal mind-clearing.
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Research shows that headbanging can, in fact, equal mind-clearing.
(Photo: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

Need to relax? Try bypassing the Miles Davis album and go instead for some Metallica.

According to a study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, heavy metal music can provide solace to listeners seeking to blow off steam. Combining physiological and subjective measurements of participants' emotional states before, during, and after a 10-minute listening period, a research team from Australia's University of Queensland found that "extreme music" can regulate feelings of anger in its fans, and even make them feel more active and inspired after an upsetting incident.

Headbanging music is often associated with listeners who suffer from anxiety and depression, but before this study little research had been done to link anger with genres like hardcore punk, metal, and screamo. One study suggested these genres can cause increased feelings of hostility, but a growing body of music studies indicates the opposite: that listeners selectively choose songs to control their emotional state, not to amplify negative emotions.

The researchers wanted to find out whether these regulatory effects applied to "extreme music," which is characterized by lyrics that evoke loneliness or violence, and sounds that are harsh and high-tempo. Members of the 39-person study—all heavy-metal fans—were subjected to a 16-minute "anger interview," and were then left to choose a song. After that, researchers observed the song's effects on participants' heart rates and self-reported emotional states.

The researchers found that, in most cases, levels of hostility and irritability decreased just as much when listeners were jamming to Kreator as when they were twiddling their thumbs in a silent room. Though the participants generally chose songs that matched their levels of rage, they also reported greater feelings of relaxation afterwards. Increased heart rates combined with calmness might seem counterintuitive, but it speaks to the level of positive catharsis that heavy metal provided to participants—an indicator that "music can evoke the experience of power—an effect that appears to be independent of musical genre and whether or not the music contains lyrics," the authors wrote.