Long Live Heavy Metal

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March 23, 2017 by Utku Baserdem

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” (Nietzsche, 1888)

Music is the inseparable part of human life, like a friend who accompanies him or her by living within them. However, there are still some types of music that not only accompany your life but also help you to build your life on itself. In particular, the environment in which rock or heavy metal music created is quite a different world with its own fan base.

Most of the people who do not like heavy metal music define it as a “meaningless and unbearable” noise. If you ever listened to metal in your teenage years, you are very well aware that this music genre had become one of the most important parts of your life. Metal music had become your closest friend, especially when you felt lonely and your friends, your parents, and your teachers did not understand you. In fact, most of them, which I was among them as well, have dreamed of playing this music, and they had started to learn guitar or drums to express himself or herself musically. Who did not want to play one of those beautiful guitar solos on stage, in front of thousands of people, live?

Consider album covers of bands like Iron Maiden and Megadeth. Imagine how terrible you may feel if you are not an admirer of this music, and if you have no idea about it. Think of Metallica – Master of Puppets’ album cover, it is a cemetery… Of course, if you go deeper in metal music, if you look at the subgenre, you can see how wild it gets. Album covers of groups like Cannibal Corpse can be really disgusting. Everything appears dark and dreadfully dead.


Canibal Corpse – The Bleeding (1994)

Despite the natural, aggressive, fast, and hard nature of this musical genre that makes it seem as if it is the devil’s music, listeners still know that there is no such thing (with very few exceptions, of course). So why do we listen to this scary, death-related music so much?

Mortality knowledge accompanies life, and one day, everyone will die. This situation is known by everyone, but it is still a truth that hits home. According to the Terror Management Theory, exposure to the idea of death creates anxiety in humans, even if this idea is given unconsciously.  As a result, it is necessary to cope with it in some way (Greenberg, Pyszczynski & Solomon, 1986). There are two ways to do this: The first is to try increasing self-esteem and the second is becoming closer to the cultural worldview. While people try these options, they exclude those who are not from their own cultural worldview and they become more extreme in their beliefs. But if they can provide for their self-esteem or cultural worldview needs, then they will be more resistant to the effect of mortality salience.

From this point of view, researchers have assumed that people who listen to and follow metal music would be more resistant to the effect of mortality salience (Kneer & Rieger, 2016), because the cultural worldview they have; the group they feel they belong to and the groups they are in provide them with this need, thus they are able to cope with mortality salience. For example, plaque shops where individuals can meet people like them and discuss the albums together, finding someone to go to the concert together, wearing metal shirts, accessories will be extremely effective. Also, apart from concepts like religion, language, race, what could be better than music, which is a common language?

In order to make this measurement, researchers first searched for the 100 heavy metal songs they identified with metal music listeners, and then they chose the most known songs of all. In the experiment, songs such as Angel of Death from Slayer and Paranoid from Black Sabbath were used. Two separate experiments were conducted to demonstrate that metal music audiences can be protected from mortality salience effect through cultural worldview and self-esteem. The experiment was conducted on those who define themselves as heavy metal fans and they were separated into experimental and control groups. Metal music was played for participants in the experimental condition, and those who are in the control group listened to an audiobook, considering the possibility of dislike towards different kinds of music (such as pop). In the first experiment, the participants in the experimental and control groups were first presented items in random order that were either associated, or not associated with metal, such as famous musicians (e.g. Lemmy, Rihanna), bands (e.g. Iron Maiden, Coldplay), behaviors (e.g. headbanging, breakdancing), objects (e.g. drums, triangle). They asked whether these items were relevant to them, and participants’ reaction times are measured. Then, they were asked to write essays about their mortality in five minutes for mortality salience manipulation. After that, one of the chosen songs was played for the experiment group and the audio book was played for the control group. Then, relevance was assessed for different items, and the reaction time was measured again. Researchers assessed the difference between the first and the second set of reaction times to see how the cultural worldview was affected. Finally, they were asked how much they perceived themselves as music-related and how much they liked heavy metal music. In the second experiment, almost the same set of operations were performed. However, unlike the first experiment, questions about metal and nonmetal items were removed and instead, computer-based self-assessment questions were asked to measure self-esteem.

In the first experiment, people were asked to evaluate the items, so that the changes in the cultural worldview could be assessed and in the second study, the changes in self-esteem were measured and thus, the two dimensions of the terror management theory were measured.  According to the results, those who listened to the metal music in the experimental group became more resistant to the mortality salience effect, which was due to the essay they wrote in both studies. In the studies, after listening to the music in the experimental group, people did not need cultural worldview and self-esteem because heavy metal filled this gap. However, those who listened to the audio book showed that cultural worldview and self-esteem needs were not provided.

As a result, being heavy metal fan protects us from mortality salience effects, unlike those who do not listen to metal. After all, are not we going to die one day? It does not make much sense to run away from death…

 “I believe them bones are me
Some say we’re born into the grave
I feel so alone, going to end up
A big old pile of them bones”

Long live heavy metal!


Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189.

Kneer, J., & Rieger, D. (2016). The memory remains: How heavy metal fans buffer against the fear of death. Psychology of Popular Media Culture5, 258–272.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1888). Twilight of the idols. Maxims and Arrows, 33.

Author Info: Utku Baserdem, MA Cand., Experimental Social Psychology Program (Baskent Un., Ankara) | email: utku_baserdem94 [AT] hotmail[.]com

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