The bright side of choosing dark music

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Metal’s misunderstood haven: the mosh pit. Photo by Flickr user Metal Chris.

Heavy metal isn’t blamed for so many things anymore — not like violent video games. But even 30 years after the PMRC attempted to paint loud, aggressive music as a one-way ticket to juvenile delinquency, metal still has reputation issues. People who listen to metal regularly (or dare go to shows) are seen, as Atlantic writer Leah Sottile puts it, “like I’m a ticking time bomb that could go off anywhere between the water cooler and the break room.”

But the paradox, as she points out, is that many people who listen to metal say the music calms them down. This is something Jeffrey Jensen Arnett confirmed at length in his book Metalheads, and that many other fans have said over the years. Sottile has her own theories for why this is, which she feels are backed by a recent small study out of the The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The study found that people who chose music that suited their mood, whether they were happy or angry, experienced better well-being overall.

Sottile says:

It’s no novel idea that someone might choose to rev themselves up with aggressive music before a engaging in a tough task: A fourth quarter tie-breaker, a tense salary negotiation. And no surprise, the folks who chose angry music had no problem completing their tasks.

But [the study] also found that the people who chose to be pissed off actually showed a greater sense of well-being overall than the people who avoided feelings of unpleasantness.

She also talks about the concept of constructive anger: “if you listen to Judas Priest’s ‘Hell Patrol’ in your cubicle and then finally ask your boss for a raise, that’s a form of constructive anger. You’re getting mad, and it gives you the courage to solve an issue.” No wonder such people feel better about themselves.

What do you think? Do you listen to metal? How has it helped you deal with your emotions in a constructive way? Do you feel like you’re more content than the average person?

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8 responses to “The bright side of choosing dark music

  1. I remember when I was hunting for my first real job after graduate school, and I developed a little ritual of blasting Judas Priest as I was driving to interviews. I think that might be when I started consciously using music (and heavy metal) to manage my emotions, although I don’t doubt that I’d been doing it unconsciously for years.

    I thought that was a great article, although I think the emotional palette of metal goes beyond anger. While it’s hard to beat a good metal song when you need to rage at something, the Judas Priest songs that I used to play on my way to job interviews were “Living After Midnight” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”, which are more about aggressive confidence than anger per se. And I often listen to depressive/doomy stuff when I want to knock myself out of a down mood, because the gloominess of it gives me a kind of catharsis or perspective on what I’m feeling.

    I suppose I’d say that on the whole I’m a pretty content person, although I don’t know how much my listening habits contribute to that.

  2. I mostly just listen to metal when I’m doing something physically difficult. I love it if I’m running or giving birth to a baby. Most of the time, I’m a mellow folk music person, but I find metal to be invigorating. I also used to jump into mosh pits occassionally. It was fun to actually touch people you didn’t know at all. It felt like being a part of this wicked deep positive energy. Like I was an electron, going round and round.

  3. Interesting. I don’t often listen to metal but did once use Nick Cave’s “O’Malley’s Bar” to rev myself up for a confrontational business meeting. I’m not sure what it says about my state of mind at the time that I psyched myself up with a song about a serial killer casually slaughtering a bar full of innocent people. It worked for me at the time, though. These days I prefer the upbeat EBM of VNV Nation’s “Resolution” which works just as well but without the lingering images of murder victims..

  4. Personally, I listen to a lot of metal because I find the sound soothing. Not even the lyrics, but just the general texture of it is something a lot of other music doesn’t hold up to. There’s a lot of overall strength in metal – not necessarily anger, I think that’s a popular misconception – and it’s still fun despite that.
    If nothing else, nothing beats having something which sounds so good played LOUD!

  5. I have noticed that many of my fellow metal fans tend to be mild-mannered by day. There is an escapist quality to metal music. When I was growing up, the metal persona I imagined for myself was the polar opposite of my day-to-day self in almost every way. There was an aura of strength and power and not-give-a-damness to metal and that was something I used to wrap myself in like a cloak to get through the day-to-day battle of surviving high school. What finally drove me from metal (or what passed as metal in the late 80s, early 90s) was the sexism. There’s something jarring about realizing that the power you were claiming for yourself is really just reflecting the same ideas that oppress you in day-to-day life.

  6. This completely vindicates me for what I’ve been doing for years. I always had (still have) friends that would look at me like I was from Mars when I’d tell them that I listen to music to match my mood (usually only when I’m in a particular mood though, otherwise I just put my player on random). Early Cure albums are often a favorite go-to when I’m depressed and of course, metal is the favorite for when I’m pissed off. Metal was particularly useful when I was dealing with my divorce – I was able to deal with my feelings, get my frustrations out so that I didn’t say things I’d regret to my ex or make the situation worse. It also helps when I’m getting frustrated with my daughter – I just listen to something loud and angry and then I’m able to deal with her instead of taking my anger out on her.
    I have also found metal to be a great motivator for certain tasks – house cleaning, preparing for a difficult conversation, exercising. For physical tasks, I find the music gets me going and helps me complete the tasks faster. For difficult interactions with people, it helps with any anger or anxiety I may be feeling so I’m better able to handle the situation in a calmer and more productive manner.

  7. Metal is so varied that I can always find something to fit my mood. If I need to calm down, doom/stoner usually does the trick. I’ll listen to grind to get pumped before baseball. And after a hard day at work I’ll blast anything I can scream my bloody guts out to. Metal gives me that release I need whether it’s physical (screaming) or just that calming influence when I need to step away. It helps keep me grounded all day. I don’t feel myself if I don’t have metal around. Silence is deadly. Other genres of music just don’t have the same effect on me. So I’d say yes, I’m more content than I would be without metal but I still don’t know if I’m more content than the average person.

  8. Fried Chicken And Metal

    It’s a very basic fact that by consuming something so energetic, it becomes a great outlet for all of your negative energy. I bet the angriest people in the world listen to softer, more tranquil music. Someone like me who is naturally mellow probably stays that way in most scenarios by all of the death metal and grindcore my brain consumes… 8 – 10 hours a day, every work day.

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