Death metal music doesn’t make fans less sensitive to violent imagery

Cannibalism, torture and child murder: Aggressive ‘death metal’ music full of disturbing lyrics inspires joy in its fans and doesn’t make them less sensitive to violent imagery, say psychologists

  • Thirty two fans of metal music and 48 non-fans were recruited  for the study 
  • Participants were given one violent song and then one happy song to listen to
  • While being shown an violent picture next to a non-violent, each to one eye
  • The metal fans showed a stronger response to the violent image like non-fans 
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Fans of death metal music may  enjoy listening to lyrics about murder, rape and infanticide, but doing so doesn’t ‘desensitise’ them to such imagery, research found. 

Whatever their musical preferences, all participants in the study showed a negative bias towards violent images compared to non-violent images.  

For non-fans of death metal music, their emotional response to aggressive pictures differed depending on what kind of music they were listening to.  

Listening to an aggressively themed song triggered a stronger response to violent imagery than while listening to a ‘happy’ song. 

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 Fans of death metal such as the band Cannibal Corpse (Guitarist Erik Rutan pictured) may enjoy listening to lyrics about murder, rape and infanticide, but it doesn’t make them less sensitive to violent images while doing so, research has found

The researchers found that even with regular exposure to aggressive lyrics, death metal fans were still more likely respond negatively to pictures around similar themes than non-aggressive themes.  

Previous studies from the same researchers shows that death metal fans are lower in conscientiousness and agreeableness, and in their motivations for listening to music.   

In the present study, 32 (24 males) self-declared fans of death metal or heavy metal music and 48 (24 males) non-fans of such music were given two contrasting songs to listen to. 

The first was on the theme of cannibalism, a called Eaten by the popular Death Metal band Bloodbath with lyrics such as: Carve me up; slice me apart, Suck my guts and lick my heart, Chop me up, I like to be hurt; Drink my marrow and blood for dessert. 

The second song was a popular pop piece called ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams. 

During each song, the participants were shown pairs of images, one to each eye, one depicting a scene of violence while the other a non-violent image.

Vocalist George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher (pictured) of death metal band Cannibal Corpse on stage. One of the death metal songs that participants listened to during the study is called Eaten, by the band Bloodbath.  Its lyrics include: Carve me up; slice me apart, Suck my guts and lick my heart, Chop me up, I like to be hurt Drink my marrow and blood for dessert

The test activated something called a ‘binocular rivalry paradigm’ where one image will be sensed more strongly by one eyes over the other, when a bias existed.

Normally this is the violent image, but for those ‘desensitised’ to such images, the bias may not exist.  


Speaking to the BBC, Prof Bill Thompson, from the Australian University who headed the study, said:’If fans of violent music were desensitised to violence, which is what a lot of parent groups, religious groups and censorship boards are worried about, then they wouldn’t show this same bias.’ 

‘But the fans showed the very same bias towards processing these violent images as those who were not fans of this music.’

In the study, both fans and non-fans of violent music exhibited ‘a general negativity bias for violent imagery over neutral imagery regardless of the music genres’, said the paper from the research team. 

However, non-fans of death metal music expressed stronger bias while listening to the Bloodbath song than ‘Happy’.  

Bloodbath responded to the study, with the band’s lead singer Nick Holmes telling BBC News: ‘The lyrics are harmless fun, as the study proved.’ He added that Bloodbath’s lyrical content was ‘basically an aural version of an 80s horror film’. 

People with a strong preference for music such as Slipknot (pictured) were more likely to have lower self-esteem, a previous study found 

Previous study have shown that specific personality traits lay in people who were fans of heavy metal. 

Metal heads also had a higher-than-average need for uniqueness, and lower-than-average levels of religiosity.

‘It is possible that this association is driven by underlying attitudes towards authority, which may include religious authorities,’ said the authors of the study.

‘The catharsis afforded by heavy metal may, in turn, help boost self-worth and promote positive self-evaluations among those with otherwise low self-esteem.

‘Rather than stereotyping fans as deviant, antisocial, or violent, it may be more fruitful to understand the psychological needs that contemporary heavy metal fill for some individuals,’ the researchers conclude.

Research has also shown that fans of heavy metal music experienced enhanced positivity after listening to such music, with levels of hostility, irritability and stress decreased. 

The full report was published in Royal Society Open Science. 


Take the test to reveal what categories of music you score highly for then read the descriptions below 

Mellow music is defined as romantic, relaxing, friendly, sad, slow, and quiet; often heard in genres of soft rock, R & B, and adult contemporary.

People who have a well-developed ability to understand thoughts and feelings in themselves and others, so-called ’empathisers’, prefer mellow music that evokes deep emotion. 

Unpretentious music is defined as uncomplicated, relaxing, unaggressive, soft, and acoustic, and primarily from the country, folk, and singer/songwriter music genres.

Fans of upbeat music like country, pop and soundtracks tend to have low scores for openness to experience and intelligence. 

They are more likely to be agreeable, extroverted and conscientious and see themselves as attractive, wealthy, athletic and politically conservative.

Sophisticated music is defined as inspiring, intelligent, complex, and dynamic, and were from the classical, operatic, avant-garde, world beat, and traditional jazz music genres.

People who prefer reflective and complex music like blues, classical and jazz score highly on openness to experience, and see themselves as politically liberal, intelligent and not very athletic. 

Intense music is defined as distorted, loud, aggressive, and not relaxing, romantic, nor inspiring, and were from the classic rock, punk, heavy metal, and power pop music genres.

People who can identify patterns and systems, known as ‘systemisers’, prefer intense music that forms complex sounds.  Systemisers are people who are logical, analytical and objective.

Contemporary music is defined a percussive, electric, and not sad, and from the rap, electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop music genres.

People who prefer energetic and rhythmic music were also extroverted, agreeable, attractive and athletic, but they did not share the political inclination, wealth or lower intelligence scores as lovers of upbeat music.

Source: Musical Universe Project and Short Test Of Musical Preferences



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