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. …