Listening to the music of a band called Bloodbath – described as “a Swedish death metal supergroup” – is not, it must be said, an exercise recommended for people of delicate disposition who rather like the songs of Celine Dion.
However, 48 men and women with no particular love of razoring guitars, thundering drums and screamed lyrics from albums with titles such as Resurrection Through Carnage and The Arrow of Satan is Drawn did just that recently, in the name of scientific endeavour.
Researchers led by Yanan Sun from Australia’s Macquarie University set out to test the hypothesis that exposure to music full of violent themes decreases sensitivity to other types of violent imagery.
To do this, the researchers first recruited a cohort of 32 self-declared fans of death metal, having first ascertained that the volunteers were particularly fond of lyrics about murder and mayhem and massacre. A second, slightly larger, cohort of non-metal-heads was then also gathered.
Individuals in both groups were asked to listen to two songs – a Bloodbath number called ‘Eaten’ and the relentlessly jolly ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams.
While they were doing so, Sun and colleagues presented them with pairs of images – one in front of each eye – comprising something truly nasty and another, neutral image.
“Consistent with past research, violent imagery should generally dominate consciousness over neutral imagery,” the researchers hypothesised.
“Moreover, for most people, this tendency to perceive violent images should occur earlier and for longer durations while listening to violent music than while listening to non-violent music, reflecting a ‘congruence effect’ in which emotions experienced while listening to music reinforce the emotions expressed in images.”
In addition, the researchers expected, not unreasonably, that metal-heads would experience more positive emotions while listening to Bloodbath because, well, they liked that sort of thing.
The results, when the experiments were done and the lab fell, at last, blessedly quiet, were quite a surprise.
Both cohorts exhibited general negativity towards the violent imagery. For the Pharrell fans, the bias was stronger when they were listening to Bloodbath, and the metal-heads showed an equal bias through both songs.
“The results of this investigation confirm that both fans and non-fans of violent music exhibit a reliable bias for processing violent imagery over neutral imagery regardless of what genres of music they were listening to,” the researchers state.
“Thus, we observed no evidence that fans of violent music are generally desensitised to violence.”
The results may disturb some critics who view heavy metal music as a kind of sonic gateway drug to antisocial behaviour, but probably won’t come as a shock to metal fans themselves.
“For listeners who extract a positive experience from violent or aggressively themed music — even when they recognize that the music expresses violence — music will not reinforce a processing bias for violent imagery any more than a positively themed song such as ‘Happy’,” concludes Sun’s team.
The research is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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