College students are typically very identified with popular music
and spend many hours listening to their music of preference. To
investigate the effects of heavy metal music, we compared the responses
of 18 female undergraduate college students to a baseline silence
condition (A) and a heavy metal music condition (B). Dependent measures
included: heart rate, body temperature, electrodermal activity
(sweating), and facial muscle tension (frontalis and masseter muscles).
Results indicated that exposure to heavy metal music was associated with
physiological reactivity but significant differences between the silence
and music conditions were limited to the masseter muscles during initial
exposure to the music condition. There were also significant differences
between the first and second music conditions for both masseter and
frontalis muscles. Both these findings have important implications for
college students, especially the potentially unhealthy effects that
appear to be associated with heavy metal music in some listeners.
Rock music, in general, seems to be the music of preference for
contemporary college students (Stratton & Zalanowski, 2003), and
heavy metal is mostly preferred by adolescent boys (Arnett, 1996).
Concerns have been raised regarding psychological, emotional,
behavioral, and physical effects associated with this music preference.
Although some empirical studies have been conducted in controlled
conditions, research is surprisingly sparse in this domain of study.
Heavy metal music, a sub-type of rock music with a particular
emphasis on strong sound, beat, and personal style (Morss, 2000), has
been controversial since its introduction to mainstream American
culture. The first use of the term "heavy metal" is believed
to be from the lyrics of a popular rock song in the late 1960's
entitled Born to Be Wild. The words and music were written by Mars
Bonfire (1968), and the song was included on an album by the music group
Steppenwolf that same year. The phrase was quickly adopted by the rock
music community to describe this genre of music which has come to be
characterized by uncommonly strong electric guitar, bass, and percussion
amplification as well as vocals. The content of heavy metal music lyrics
evolved from a society which was very identified with drug use, changing
sexual mores, and the general social upheaval associated with the
1960's. The style and content of heavy metal music has continued to
evolve over time into several other subsets but has remained more or
less identified with these original themes. The most extreme of these
subsets has been called, among other things, "acid rock" or
"thrash metal," while other heavy metal groups and songs have
literally crossed over to what is now often considered mainstream pop /
Research on psychological effects of heavy metal music seems to
focus on displacement functions. Arnett (1996) reports that heavy metal
music preference involves mostly messages of rage, loneliness, and
cynicism. Arnett (1991b) also theorizes that heavy metal music listeners
engage in psychological alienation tendencies and possess poor social
relationships. More recent research, however, suggests that
Arnett's position is more representative of females than males
(Lacourse, Claes, & Villeneuve, 2001). The general assumption is
that heavy metal music listeners release or unload their pent-up
frustrations into the loud and intense sounds which they subconsciously
feel will help them cope with life demands and stress (Arnett, 1991a).
Research relating to emotional effects of heavy metal music seems
to involve mostly anger and depression effects. Ballard and Coates
(1995) found anger to be a frequently occurring theme in their
subjects' reported experience after listening to heavy metal music.
However, Gowensmith and Bloom (1997) report that heavy metal music
causes arousal in all subjects they tested, but listeners'
preferences may play a mitigating role. Specifically, those subjects who
reported their music preference as heavy metal did not show higher
anger-levels after listening to this music. Interestingly, these
findings suggest that the apparent arousing effects of heavy metal music
are somehow buffered when the listener prefers this genre of music.
These findings are compatible with those of Vincent and Thompson (1929)
who found that blood pressure responses to music were influenced more by
a person's interest in music than the type of music, per se.
Sad affect is another emotional effect reportedly associated with
heavy metal music. Stack, Gundlach, and Reeves (1994) indicate that the
stronger a subculture embraces heavy metal music, the higher the suicide
rate tends to be for that group. However, Wooten (1992) showed in her
sample that subjects with psychiatric disorders who preferred heavy
metal music actually improved their negative affect after listening to
the music. Rustad, Small, Jobes, Safer, and Peterson (2003) suggest that
it is primarily the music lyrics of rock music that promote suicidal
tendencies, as opposed to the actual sounds produced by the music.
Behavioral effects of heavy metal music in research studies appear
to show correlations with high delinquency. Took and Weiss (1994) found
adolescents preferring heavy metal to perform poorer in school, using
grades as the dependent criterion. The teens also had more acting-out
problems in school, sexual activity, arrests, and use of controlled
The problems, however, were predominantly for boys rather than
girls in these domains, except for school grades and school
difficulties, which were consistent across genders. On balance, however,
Walker & Kreiner (2006) found in their study of male and female
college students that participants who expressed a preference for
intense rebellious music (defined as alternative, rock, and heavy metal)
tended to have higher scores on an intelligence test, especially those
processes involving abstraction. They postulated that the metaphors and
abstract language of this genre of music may hold the listener's
attention. Nonetheless, music preference has been shown to reveal much
information about personality that would otherwise be less accessible
(Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006), and this is especially relevant for
young adults and college students (LeBlanc, Sims, Siivola, & Obert,
High risk-taking behaviors are associated with heavy metal music
listening patterns (Roberts, Dimsdale, East, & Friedman, 1998).
Similarly, Zuckerman (1994) found that hard rock music was preferred by
subjects who were high in sensation-seeking. Arnett (1991b) reports that
this behavior tends to be reckless, showing itself in driving, sexual,
and drug-related behaviors. Girls, in his sample, also were reckless but
channeled their urges in behaviors such as purloining, vandalism, sexual
promiscuity, and drug use. Overall, Singer, Levine, and Jou (1993)
indicate that delinquent behavior is worse among heavy metal listeners
in homes with low parental control. However, low parental control may be
the primary culprit, setting the stage for all sorts of delinquent
behavior. In addition, this delinquent tendency associated with heavy
metal music exposure seems to be somewhat cross-cultural, as it has been
reported among Navajo youth (Dehyle, 1998) and Korean adolescents (Kim,
Kwak, & Chang, 1998).
Physical effects of heavy metal music mostly center on hearing
loss. Kahari, Zachau, Eklof, Sandsjo, and Moller (2003) report that 74%
of rock musicians in their study experienced hearing damage. The
tinnitus and hyperacusis problems were suffered by both men and women.
Since optimal sound differentiation and pitch are essential for
musicians, these physical effects are obviously of concern for
Unfortunately, few studies were found that focused on the base
elements of heavy metal music effects. Specifically, little is known
regarding the visceral responses that exposure to heavy metal music
produces in listeners. Kruse (1997) states: "Very few studies have
addressed this topic specifically" (p. 5).
Using left and right frontal EEG activation patterns and cortisol
measures taken from subjects' saliva, Field, Martinez, Nawrocki,
Pickens, Fox, and Schanburg (1998), studied 14 chronically depressed
female adolescents. They found "[rock] music had positive effects
on the physiological and biochemical measures even though observed and
self-reported mood did not change" (p. 109). Results could be
interpreted to imply that music may have subtle, even subliminal effects
on mood and physiology, i.e., of which the listener is unaware,
especially at lower levels. In contrast, when measuring classical music
effects, Gerra, et al. (1998) found no significant changes in hormonal
concentrations, but an improvement in emotional state. However, these
same authors found that "techno-music" (fast music generated
by electronic instruments and a computer that is very popular with
college students) was associated with significant increases in heart
rate and systolic blood pressure as well as significant changes in
self-rated emotional states. Burns, Labbe, Williams, and McCall (1999)
report physiological results from undergraduates listening to classical,
hard rock, self-selected relaxing music, and no music. For participants
in each group, skin temperature decreased. However, other measures such
as muscle tension and heart rate showed no significant differences among
the subject groups.
Given the sometimes equivocal findings and relatively limited
number of studies addressing the visceral effects of heavy metal music,
it is obvious that the nature of the relationship between heavy metal
music and physiological arousal is not well understood. Of particular
interest in this investigation was the effect of heavy metal music on
college-aged females. Since we were unsure whether gender difference
might potentially be a moderating variable, we chose to focus
specifically on women for the present study. Based on the plenary
literature reviewed we hypothesized that listening to heavy metal music
would have measurable effects on listeners vis-a-vis their own
self-described music preferences. Multiple physiological measures were
designed into the study in order to assess which visceral effects might
be most influenced.
Participants consisted of college students at a selective,
Midwestern, comprehensive university. Our sample included eighteen
female Caucasian students (18-20 years old) who were selected from
volunteers in a freshman level general psychology class. Students could
choose from a number of different studies being conducted and received
5% credit on their final grade for participating in one study. Since the
course was part of the university's general education curricular
component, the students represented a cross-section of majors offered at
All prospective participants completed a musical preference survey
where they rated each of the following types of music on a 1-5 (1 = low,
5 = high preference) Likert scale: Classical, Pop / Soft Rock, Heavy
Metal, Contemporary Country, and Rap. For this study we limited our
sample to those who did not rate heavy metal music as their preferred
choice of music. As noted in the literature review, music preference has
been shown to be a potential moderating variable when assessing its
effects on participants. Consequently, all our participants rated heavy
metal music as low to moderate (1-3) in their preferences. The rationale
was to help control for any potential mitigating effects of their
preferences for heavy metal music on physiological reactivity.
Materials included in the experiment consisted of a compact disc
(cd) player, headphones, and heavy metal music selections. The heavy
metal music consisted of two selections: Extol, track #4 entitled
Superior, from their "Burial" album and Mortal Treason, track
#5 entitled Feed on the Weak, from their "Call to the Martyrs"
These particular songs were selected for use in this study for the
following reasons: 1) there was a consensus among students in a randomly
selected focus group of non-subjects that these selections were indeed
representative of the genre of music, 2) the same focus group indicated
that these selections were sufficiently obscure, i.e., not mainstream or
"crossover" heavy metal groups / songs that were likely to be
familiar to the subjects, and 3) Mortal Treason's Call to the
Martyr's album was recently featured on Music Television
(MTV)'s Head Banger's Ball. Two representative songs were used
to provide an adequate sample of this genre of music. Loudness was
standardized at a moderate range for all participants as the volume dial
was kept at 5 (0=no sound and 10=extremely loud) in all music
A Procomp/Biograph Biofeedback System T7008P-2.0 connected to a
Pentium computer was used to collect the physiological data. EMG data
was obtained via pre-gelled, silver/silver chloride sensors, and
temperature was measured by a thermister attached to non-dominant / left
forefinger. Electrodermal activity (galvanic skin response) was measured
by sensors attached to the distal region of the two middle fingers on
the non-dominant hand, and heart rate was obtained via a
photoplethysmographic device attached to the non-dominant / left thumb.
Participants were exposed to an ABAB design with five minute
increments of an alternating silence and music condition, respectively,
followed by a five minute post-treatment period of silence before
debriefing. They sat in the lab in a comfortable chair with a headrest
while the experimenter explained the procedure and role of the
physiological recording apparatus. Participants were questioned about
excessive caffeine consumption (more than about two cups of coffee or
the equivalent, according to American Heart Association
recommendations), any tobacco use, alcohol consumption, recreational
drug use, unusual stressors, and any pertinent prescription medication
use in the past twenty-four hours prior to the experiment, but there
were no disqualifying circumstances encountered. Each participant was
asked if they were allergic to isopropyl alcohol in the small pre-soaked
pads used to clean surface oils from the skin where biofeedback sensors
would be attached. None of the participants reported an allergy or
sensitivity to alcohol.
EMG 1 included three sensors placed on the forehead to monitor
muscle tension in the frontalis muscle. One active sensor was centered
on and placed one-half-inch above each eye, and a negative, or ground
sensor, was placed above the bridge of the nose and parallel to the
other two frontalis sensors. EMG 2 included three EMG sensors placed on
the jaw to record muscle tension in the masseter muscle (bilaterally).
One sensor was placed on the belly of each masseter and the negative or
ground sensor was placed directly on the mandible. A thermister
(thermometer) was attached to the left index finger. The electrodermal
activity (sweating) measure was attached to the left two middle fingers,
and a photoplethysmograph was attached to the left thumb to measure
heart-rate. Participants were asked to resist the urge to speak or move
during physiological recording (unless there was a pressing concern) so
that artifacts in the recorded data could be avoided.
After the participants were oriented to the process and connected
to the physiological recording equipment, the experimenter calibrated
the signals and verified the accuracy of the signals through behavioral
checks (about one minute). The experiment followed an ABAB schedule
beginning with the first phase A, or the first silence condition (S1),
for five (5) minutes. The first phase B, or the first music condition
(M1), involved the participant listening to the heavy metal selection,
Superior by Extol, for five (5) minutes. The second phase A, or the
second silence condition (S2), was then repeated for five (5) minutes.
Then, the second phase B, or the second music condition (M2), was
repeated, with five (5) minutes of the heavy metal selection, Feed on
the Weak by Mortal Treason. Previous research by Iwanaga, Ikeda, and
Iwaki (1996) showed the five-minute interval to be significant for
adequately detecting differences as we were assessing in the present
The entire biofeedback session was recorded by the ProComp/Biograph
Biofeedback System T7008P--2.0 on the computer and printed. Each session
lasted approximately 30-45 minutes, and participants were debriefed
immediately following the session. Any questions they had concerning the
experiment were answered at that time.
The differences between the Minimum and Maximum values for EMG 1
(frontalis) and EMG 2 (masseters) for the first silence and music
conditions (S1 & M1) as well as the second silence and music
conditions (S2 & M2) are presented in Table 1. The Minimum / Maximum
approach was used in an effort to capture any subtle differences between
groups that may have been missed by simply comparing group means.
A comparison was done of the mean difference between S1 (first
silence condition) and M1 (first music condition) as well as between M1
(first music condition) and M2 (second music condition) for the masseter
muscles. Paired-samples t-tests were performed on the data and the
results are presented in Table 2. The most dramatic increases in
physiological response were seen in the comparison of S1 and M1, t (17)
= -2.41, p < .05, indicating that subjects were inclined to react
physiologically at the masseter muscles when moving from silence to the
heavy metal music.
A comparison of the mean difference between the same conditions
with paired-samples t-tests for the frontalis muscle is presented in
Table 3. The mean difference between the silence and music conditions
was not significant in the frontalis response (EMG 1) for the first or
second exposure. Interestingly, when the first and second music
conditions were compared for EMG 1 & EMG 2, there were significant
differences. Specifically, Tables 2 and 3 demonstrate how subjects
showed much less masseter and frontalis reactivity to the music during
the second exposure than the first; t (17) = 2.62, p < .05 for the
masseter muscles (EMG2) and t (17) = 3.19, p < .01 for the frontalis
muscle (EMG 1).
Other physiological measures such as heart rate, skin temperature,
and electrodermal activity were highly variable and no major trends were
noted, here were, however, isolated surges in these measures with some
subjects but the context clearly showed them to be artifacts due to
extraneous movement or speech.
Consistent with our hypothesis, physiological differences were
found between the students listening to the heavy metal music and those
in the control group. Specifically, our findings suggest that heavy
metal music elicits a physiological response in females, with
significant differences between the silence and music conditions being
focused at the masseter muscles during initial exposure. It is not clear
why the significant differences in reactivity were focused on the
masseter muscles, but it may have implications for female's
relatively greater susceptibility to bruxism and temporomandibular
dysfunction (Rieder, Martinoff, & Wilcox, 1983).
An unexpected finding was the significant difference between the
first and second exposure to the music condition of the ABAB design. One
explanation is that the participants may have habituated to the heavy
metal music sufficiently to buffer some of the physiological arousal.
Gerra, et al. (1998) alluded to the arousing effects of techno-music
that is common in dance parties, rave parties, and after-hour dancing
parties frequented by many college students and young adults. These
activities often go on for hours at a time and may be punctuated by
amphetamine-type stimulants that would predictably synergize the
arousing effects of the music. While some habituation is not unlikely,
it remains unclear when adaptive habituation crosses the threshold and
becomes maladaptive, culminating in stress-related symptoms or disorders
in susceptible individuals.
We believe a relative strength of this study was pre-screening
participants with a music preference survey. Particularly, we deem that
limiting our participants to those who did not rate heavy metal music as
being preferred helped to control for attenuated physiological responses
identified by Gowensmith and Bloom (1997). As previously noted, this
domain of research is relatively sparse. As the constructs are more
fully studied, we believe it is important to identify aptly how various
potential variables may influence overall outcomes. Consequently, we
focused specifically on those participants who described themselves as
not preferring heavy metal music.
Additionally, we also consider the ABAB design used in the current
study to be a strength. Alternating the conditions back to back can
serve to improve external validity by corroborating effects of the
independent variable over time. As previously mentioned, the five-minute
intervals were chosen because they were considered sufficient to detect
sympathetic nervous system arousal, especially the short-term effects of
the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine. However, five minutes may
not be adequate to activate the HPA axis, since epinephrine seemingly
has activating effects that begin in seconds while the glucocorticoids
serve to back up this activity and extend for minutes or hours. Some
researchers used 30 minutes of exposure in their investigations of
music's physiological effects (Burns, Labbe, Arke, Capeless,
Cooksey, Steadman, et al. 2002; Gerra, et al. 1998), but others such as
Iwanaga, Ikeda, and Iwaki (1996) used four, repetitive, five-minute
intervals of music exposure similar to the one we used in our
investigation. In short, further research should follow our present
study, using a 30-minute exposure as an intervening variable, noting any
differences in the present pilot study findings.
Further research also should focus on potential effects found in
men who are exposed to heavy metal music. As previously mentioned,
little research has yet been conducted in this domain, and gender
differences may exist and be of interest vis-a-vis both basic and
applied research venues. Specifically, researchers should target
potential differences among men who do and do not prefer heavy metal
music and women who do and do not prefer heavy metal music.
Students are exposed to a relatively wide variety of music
throughout their college years. Venues may include dormitories,
fraternity / sorority houses, student lounge areas, jobs, sports
competitions, restaurants, parties, riding in cars with friends, and
general social functions. As such, students are not able to choose the
type of music to which they will listen at times. Obviously, students
are opinionated about how music affects them, but relatively little
empirical evidence exists to ground sentiments reasonably. We believe
that the present pilot study is heuristic in cutting a channel to a
potentially fruitful field of future research among college and
The present findings suggest that physiological reactivity to heavy
metal music may have implications for the etiology and/or management of
some sympathetically mediated conditions such as headache or pain
syndromes like temporomandibular disorder in susceptible individuals.
This warrants further investigation to better understand the
relationship between music and susceptibility to stress-related illness.
Of particular concern is perhaps the current trend of male and female
college students to spend many hours exposed to physiologically arousing
music in clubs and parties. Research targeting a club / party atmosphere
may help further clarify the relationship.
Limitations and Future Research
Limitations in the current study include the relatively small
sample size and the lack of a control group. Utilizing "white
sound" or soothing music may have been as helpful for a control
condition as was silence for determining the absolute effects of the
heavy metal music. Moreover, there may be physiological arousal with the
transition from silence to any sound for some individuals. In contrast,
some studies of music effects, such as Burns, et al (2002), found that
the clinical magnitude of changes in relaxation and anxiety was
increased more in those participants exposed to a silent condition.
As previously noted, our sample did not include minority students.
The rural university from which the sample was taken included only a 6%
minority population in the student body. Consequently, there were (by
chance) no minorities in the particular general psychology class used in
the present study. Future studies should compare our present findings
with those of minority women. Assessing potential differences between
minority groups and also possible differences between genders among
minority groups also may provide interesting future studies. In short,
gender specific patterns of resilience and susceptibility are yet to be
Part of the controversy surrounding heavy metal music is the often
violent, bleak lyrics, but in our selections and many other samples of
this genre of music, the actual content of the lyrics is often
indecipherable to the average listener. However, future studies might
compare the response to heavy metal music with and without lyrics.
Lyrical content notwithstanding, further research into the effects of
music genres on physiological reactivity is warranted.
It is possible that by using students who ranked heavy metal as low
in preference, the reactivity we found may be linked disproportionately
to some participant's particular dislike or aversion for this genre
of music. Future research, therefore, may wish to utilize a
counter-balanced sample of participants who include an equal number of
participants that rank heavy metal as more and less preferred,
respectively. Another option also could be to include only those
participants who do not rank heavy metal as low or high--but rather more
in the mid-range.
Music is an inextricable part of college life for most students,
and the current findings support the notion that heavy metal music has a
stimulating effect on the sympathetic nervous system of female college
While there are a myriad of factors that may synergize or buffer
these effects, more research with larger samples of male and female
students of various races is needed to further clarify the
characteristics of the music and the listener that contribute to the
physiological changes in the listener.
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MILTON E. BECKNELL, PH.D.
MICHAEL W. FIRMIN, PH.D.
CHI-EN HWANG, PH.D.
DAVID M. FLEETWOOD
KRISTIE L. TATE
GREGORY D. SCHWAB
Group Differences Between Silence and Music Conditions for
the Frontalis (EMG 1) and Masseter Muscles (EMG 2)
Condition n Minimum Maximum Mean SD
S1 (EMG 1) 18 10.56 77.74 29.56 22.10
M1 (EMG 1) 18 12.00 97.72 37.20 24.91
S2 (EMG 1) 18 5.95 48.50 18.82 10.37
M2 (EMG 1) 18 7.60 44.36 20.99 11.35
S1 (EMG 2) 18 15.79 161.65 59.53 32.88
M1 (EMG 2) 18 27.59 242.02 86.65 55.57
S2 (EMG 2) 18 10.10 117.76 52.50 28.60
M2 (EMG 2) 18 9.37 157.09 57.91 37.87
Note. EMG1 = surface electromyography at frontalis muscle; EMG2 =
surface electromyography at masseter muscles; S1 = first silence
condition; S2 = second silence condition; M1 = first music
condition; M2 = second music condition.
Differences Between the First and Second Silence to Music
Conditions and Between the First and Second Music Conditions
for the Masseter Muscles (EMG 2)
Condition Difference of Difference df t
Pair 1 -27.12 47.83 17 -2.41 *
Pair 2 -5.41 43.01 17 -0.53
Pair 3 28.74 46.62 17 2.62 *
Note. EMG2 = surface electromyography at masseter muscles;
S1 = first silence condition, S2 = second silence condition;
M1=first music condition; M2 = second music condition.
* p < .05, two-tailed.
Differences Between the First and Second Silence to Music Conditions
and Between the First and Second Music Conditions for the Frontalis
Muscles (EMG 1)
Condition Difference of Difference df t
Pair 1 -7.64 22.74 17 -1.43
Pair 2 -2.18 12.10 17 -.76
Pair 3 16.20 21.56 17 3.19 **
Note. EMG1 = surface electromyography at frontalis muscle; S1 = first
silence condition; S2 = second silence condition; M1 = first music
condition; M2 = second music condition. ** p <.01, two-tailed.