Effects of listening to heavy metal music on college women: a pilot study.
Article Type:
Heavy metal music (Influence)
Women college students (Social aspects)
Women college students (Physiological aspects)
Becknell, Milton E.
Firmin, Michael W.
Hwang, Chi-En
Fleetwood, David M.
Tate, Kristie L.
Schwab, Gregory D.
Pub Date:
Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: March, 2008 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 1
Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
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 / rock music.

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 substances.

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, 1996).

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 performers' careers.

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 the institution.

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" album.

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 conditions.

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 study.

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 university students.

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 clarified empirically.

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 students.

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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Cedarville University

Cedarville, OH
Table 1
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.

Table 2
Differences Between the First and Second Silence to Music
Conditions and Between the First and Second Music Conditions
for the Masseter Muscles (EMG 2)

                 Mean             SD
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.

Table 3
Differences Between the First and Second Silence to Music Conditions
and Between the First and Second Music Conditions for the Frontalis
Muscles (EMG 1)
                Mean            SD
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.
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