A new study has found that heavy metal music can help listeners come to terms with their own mortality, finally putting the ‘death’ back in death metal.
The study, published in ‘Psychology of Popular Media Culture’ with the amazing Metallica-referencing title ‘The Memory Remains: How heavy metal fans buffer against the fear of death’, found that listening to songs about death can actually help fight against existential angst.
As the British Psychological Society notes, researchers Julia Kneer and Diana Rieger gathered 30 heavy metal fans to take part in the study, which involved the use of the Slayer classic Angel Of Death and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid — both full of references to, well, death.
Firstly, researchers measured the prominence of the participants’ “cultural world view” (i.e. how ‘metal’ they were) by asking them to rate certain metal-related words.
Next, participants spent five minutes writing about their own death, which sounds like a whole lotta’ fun. After that, half of them were made to listen to Angel Of Death or Paranoid while the others listened to an audiobook which had absolutely nothing to do with heavy metal.
Finally, researchers once again tested how ‘metal’ the participants were feeling, and discovered that those who listened to the audiobook saw an increase in the prominence of their “cultural world view”, suggesting that they turned their thoughts to the world of metal after facing the idea of their own death.
Meanwhile, those who listened to the metal tracks didn’t see an increase in metal’s prominence in their thoughts, apparently suggesting that listening to the music protected them from existential angst because they didn’t need to raise any extra psychological defences like the other group did.
A second experiment then made people who normally don’t listen to metal get their earholes wet with Angel Of Death, Paranoid or the audiobook, and found that they subconsciously boosted their own self-esteem as a kind of defence mechanism, again suggesting that heavy metal fans are protected from existential angst because they don’t have to put up so many defence mechanisms when listening to metal.
The study also raised the possibility that the constant reminders of death seen in metal iconography and lyrics could somehow help immunise metal fans, but it also pointed to the fact that metal-heads aren’t immune to the fear of death.
Researchers Kneer and Rieger say that while heavy metal is often associated with death by non-listeners, those who listen to metal can use the music as an “escape from depression and even helpful against death-related thoughts”.
“Fans of metal music are reminded of this part of their social identity when listening to metal music, which leads to an increased identification with their salient heavy metal in-group,” they say.
Kneer and Rieger’s results are said to support what’s known as Terror Management Theory, which is the idea that we instinctively deal with existential problems by thinking about things that have meaning for us, thereby reinforcing our self-esteem.
It’s still unclear if these concepts could be applied to any person’s preferred music genre, and more research is need to figure out if that’s at all possible. What is clear, though, is that to fans, heavy metal often acts as a piece of their identity, making it much more than just a genre of music.
If you feel like protecting yourself from the fear of death, stream Angel Of Death below.
Previous studies into heavy metal have found that heavy metal listeners are happier than everyone else, but are also more prone to anxiety and depression. Extreme music such as heavy metal has also been found to reduce stress, increase positive emotions and even regulate sadness and anger.
Kneer and Rieger’s ‘The Memory Remains’ study is available at the American Psychological Association website.
Watch: Slayer – ‘Angel Of Death’ (Live, 2004)