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How heavy metal music can lighten an emotional load

Music from bands like Metallica and others can assuage – not heighten – anger in fans.

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    James Hetfield (l.) and Kirk Hammett of Metallica perform at the Glastonbury music festival, England, June 28, 2014.
    Jonathan Short/Invision/AP/File
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A study intended to find out if listening to heavy metal music compounds hostility in listeners found instead that the catharsis created appears to do just the opposite – soothing the savage beast within.

The study on “Extreme metal music and anger processing,” by the School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Australia shows that heavy metal can actually have a counter-intuitive, calming influence on those experiencing anxiety.

Researchers selected a small sampling of 39 "extreme music listeners" between the ages of 18 and 34 who were "subjected to an anger induction, followed by random assignment" to hear either 10 minutes of heavy metal from their own playlist or 10 minutes of silence.

Essentially, the researchers made the test subjects angry and then added extreme music to the emotional mix. Measures of emotion included heart rate and subjective ratings on the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS).

Their findings may surprise those who associate "extreme music" with anger and violence: "Extreme music did not make angry participants angrier; rather, it appeared to match their physiological arousal and result in an increase in positive emotions,” according to the study. “Listening to extreme music may represent a healthy way of processing anger for these listeners."

Ultimately, it's all a matter of taste, say experts.

As Barbara Else of the American Music Therapy Association told the Monitor, “The evidence from research in music therapy – and the base of evidence is pretty solid on this point – is personal preference is important in the therapeutic relationship.”

“So if heavy metal is a personal preference, we would pay attention to that,” says Dr. Else, who was not involved with the study. “If it were classical music, we would pay attention to that.”

Simply put, we love what we love. Death metal music could have the same cathartic effect as tenor Luciano Pavarotti singing "Nessun dorma" from Pucchini's "Turandot," depending on the listener’s emotional connection.

Else also points out that the study was of young adults, and the same result may be possible with a population who prefers and listens to classical music or modern music, etc.

A 2014 study found that “when listening to preferred music – regardless of the type – people report they often experience personal thoughts and memories.”

It is the personal connection between a particular piece of music and an experience which may in fact trigger the catharsis needed to reduce anxiety, according to Else.

“The authors [of the study] posit that perhaps the listening experience among the subjects who recalled traumatic memories that aggravated or angered them results in the music matching their frame of mind," Else explains. "This implies a cathartic effect that may, in fact, be very helpful for the subjects.”

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