Theories That Death Metal Desensitizes Fans To Violence Are All Wrong, Study Suggests

Swedish death metal group Bloodbath. Marko Zamrznuti Tonovi/Shutterstock.com

 To say that death metal has a bit of a grisly reputation is an understatement. Its notoriety as a force for terror and disorder is not helped by song lyrics expounding torture, rape, murder, and necrophilia and tales of violence, human sacrifice, and ritualistic church burnings. (The latter, in fairness, being more of a Norwegian black metal kinda thing.) 

But, if science is to be believed, we have this much-maligned genre all wrong. Despite the extremely graphic lyrics, the music does not inspire or desensitize its listeners to violence. Indeed, researchers at Macquarie University's music lab involved in a decades-long investigation into the emotional effects of music have found it can provoke feelings of joy and empowerment in listeners. 

"Many people enjoy sad music, and that's a bit of a paradox – why would we want to make ourselves sad?" Bill Thompson, a professor at Macquarie University, Australia, told BBC News.

"The same can be said of music with aggressive or violent themes. For us, it's a psychological paradox – so we're curious, and at the same time we recognize that violence in the media is a socially significant issue."

For a study recently published in Royal Society journal Open Science, a team led by Thompson attempted to find out how different genres of music affects the brain. To do so, they monitored the brain activity of 80 people (32 death metal fans and 48 controls) while listening to one of two songs – Bloodbath’s cannibalism-inspired track Eaten and Pharrell William’s hit single Happy.

To compare just how different the two tunes are, consider the lyrics:

EatenCarve me up, slice me apart/Suck my guts, lick my heart

Happy: Because I'm happy/Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

While the music was being played, the study participants were shown two images (one violent and one non-violent) simultaneously. The idea here is based on something called binocular rivalry, aka the notion that when we are shown a neutral image in one eye and a violent image in the other, we focus on the violent image (ie the threat) more intensely. 

"If fans of violent music were desensitized to violence, which is what a lot of parent groups, religious groups and censorship boards are worried about, then they wouldn't show this same bias," explained Thompson. 

But they did – a fact that would suggest that they are no more desensitized to violence than non-fans. Indeed, if anything, it appears that death metal is a force for joy and empowerment, but only if you like the music to begin with. 

This supports a study Thompson and his team published last year, which found that death metal left non-fans "tense, afraid, and angry". In contrast, fans of the genre were able to tap into the music to promote psychosocial goals, and work through dark feelings – or, as one fan put it, "it has something to do with the primal scream in us, it’s a release, accepting and empowering".

So next time you're feeling down, why not check out the cathartic sounds of Cannibal Corpse? Who knows, it might just lift your spirits.

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