On Music and Well-Being – or: The Garden of our Lord is Vast and Plentiful…

MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Happy Metal

The sentence displayed in the title is a well-known proverb in Germany. I could not find a passage with that exact meaning directly in the Bible. Therefore, it seems to be more of a piece of folk wisdom. Mostly, one is inclined to use it situations where one is subjected to, by way of example, a piece (or genre) of music that one does not like – but that is highly appreciated by other people. It is a way of acknowledging that people have different tastes in just about anything – and that one “is fine” with that.*

In that sense, it has some shared meaning with the English figure of speech “different strokes for different folks”. While I am writing these sentences, there´s a portrait of Michael Wendler on TV, a leading protagonist of German “Schlagermusik”, a particularly corny, banal, uniform, and (to my ears) horrible style of pop music that sells really well and is played at most parties at some point or the other. For the most part of my life, I have enjoyed music that is often considered to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum: heavy metal. In this essay, I would like to muse about this phenomenon: Why are people drawn to different kinds of music (and art in general) – and what does this phenomenon have to say about human well-being?

The question of how to lead a good life is a very old one. Religious leaders, philosophers, authors and laymen alike have tried to find answers to this mystery. At earlier stages of this quest, it was mostly put into question that feeling happy and experiencing positive emotions is an essential part of a life well-lived. Yet, with the appearance of the Enlightenment (at the latest), the pursuit of happiness can be seen as a central element of this overall endeavor (McMahon, 2008). Nowadays, there is convincing scientific evidence for the link between positive emotions and (psychological) well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).

For at least as long as people have pondered on the meaning of human life – and the question if (and how) the pursuit of happiness can play a role in finding the right answers – they have immersed themselves in art. Primitive forms of musical instruments, paintings, and pieces of stoneware have appeared at least 30,000 years before our time. Nowadays, due to its easy and ubiquitous availability, music may be the most widespread form of art (at least it seems to be most widely used). In a study using experiencing sampling, a method where subjects are to record what they do in their lives at certain intervals, it was found that music was present in 37% percent of the samples; and that this music influenced the emotional state of the listeners in 67% of these events (Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, Barradas, & Silva, 2008).

The last-mentioned number hints to a possible explanation for the immense pervasiveness of music: it is a potent means for regulating affect. Listening to music can lift our mood, alleviate psychological stress as well as physical pain, and contribute to our overall well-being (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012). This may be a consequence of the uplifting effect of listening to music, but could also be a byproduct of its social aspect, since it is often performed and listened to in the presence of other human beings (MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell, 2012). Additionally, making and listening to music is able to induce flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). For all these reasons, it is also used in a wide array of psychotherapeutic settings (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012).

The introductory paragraph of this essay alludes to the fact that different people like to listen to different styles of music. Therefore, what brings pleasure, uplift, and well-being to one person may result in anger and unpleasantness for another. This may be a consequence of learning and a kind of “cultural conditioning”, but could also be explained by more basic psychological (even psycho-physiological) phenomena. Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012) list several aspects that could account for music´s propensity to be a medium of mood control. Among them are

  • brain stem reflexes (e.g., reactions to loudness and speed);
  • rhythmic entrainment (reactions to the recurring metrical quality);
  • and visual imagery evoked by a piece of music.

Since different people obviously have different nervous systems (e.g., in terms of responsivity and sensibility) it seems self-evident that they should react more or less favorably to varying styles of music. Maybe, it is not even a choice that we make consciously.

Can we really choose what style(s) of music we are attracted to?

One of my favorite movies of all time is Gerry Marshall´s “Pretty Woman” (1990). There is a scene where the male main protagonist, successful businessman Edward Lewis (played by Richard Gere), invites the female mail protagonist, prostitute Vivian Ward (played by Julia Roberts), to the San Francisco Opera to see a premier of “La Traviata”. When Vivian is very moved by the music, Edward says:

People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.

From my own experience, I feel that I know very well what Edward is talking about. Only, in my case, it wasn´t opera but heavy metal. I was exposed to this style of music for the first time at age 14, specifically a song by the German metal band Helloween. They are considered to have established their own sub-genre in 1985 which can be characterized by the following attributes:

  • exceptionally high tempo;
  • frequent use of double-bass drum technique;
  • frequent use of double (harmonic) lead guitars;
  • distinctly high-pitched male singers;
  • lyrics that are oftentimes based fantasy and sci-fi topoi.

I remember my parents saying that heavy metal would be a “phase” I was going through – but so far, time has proved them wrong. I still love it and probably will do so until the end of this life. Of course I do listen to other music. I went to an opera premier of “Don Giovanni” in March of 2013, and I also enjoyed listening to Tschaikowski and other Russian composers when we went to an evening at the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the MAPP program in January 2014 – but honestly speaking, classical music will (most likely) never captured my heart the way that heavy metal has done. I know that one can learn to appreciate classical music in the same way that one has to learn how to appreciate good wine – but to me, that´s not the same as “falling in love” with a particular style of music.

There is not much official (psychological) research on heavy metal. Yet, because of the above-mentioned attributes, it is oftentimes described as the most aggressive style of music. Following that notion, most of the few studies that do exist typically deal with supposed negative consequences (or correlates) of listening to heavy metal, such as aggressive behavior, suicidal risk, drug abuse, and low self-esteem (e.g., King, 1998; Arnett, 1992; Scheel & Westefeld, 1999). I am trying hard not to be lopsided here – but to me there seems to be something wrong about these studies. Heavy metal is – for the most part – aggressive music, agreed. But this does not automatically imply heavy metal fans are aggressive people. I have been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime. From these experiences, I can say that heavy metal concerts are distinctly peaceful and non-violent places. My observation is echoed by one of those rarer studies that finds metal fans are just regular people that happen to feel good while listening to high-intensity music (Gowensmith & Bloom, 1997). The study concludes by stating that the

[…] most widely accepted conclusion is that heavy metal fans are in general angrier, more agitated, and more aroused than fans of other musical styles. The results of this study do not support this speculation. No […] differences were found among subjects’ levels of state arousal, state anger, or trait anger. (p. 41)

Instead, the researchers were able to detect an interaction effect. In fact, there were people in their sample that got overly aroused and even aggressive when listening to heavy metal: precisely, persons that stated they do not like heavy metal (especially fans of country music). For fans of metal music, listening to their favorite music did not result in elevated levels of arousal or negative emotion – quite the contrary. This finding is mirrored in an article on the internet site of the magazine “The Atlantic” by the name of Finding Happiness in Angry Music (Sottile, 2013). The author concludes that potentially there is “something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel”. Hence, music does not necessarily have to be happy in order to make us happy – and foster our well-being. It all comes down to “different strokes for different folks” again. In their review article on the connection of music and well-being, Västfjäll, Juslin, and Hartig (2012) draw a similar conclusion when making the point that music as a stimulus cannot be the same for all listeners:

Thus, there are no “pure” effects of music that will invariably occur regardless of the specific listener or situation. The response will depend on factors such as the listener´s music preferences and previous experiences, as well as on the specific circumstances of the context. (p. 408)

As a consequence, I feel we should be careful to make (too) strong judgments about other people´s taste in music (and art in general). Ever so often, many ways lead to Rome. I oppose to the distinction that is often made between “serious music” (sometimes called “art music”) and the more “popular” styles of music that also comprise heavy metal. The aspect of seriousness is inherent in the listener, not the music itself. One can listen to Mozart carelessly – while savoring heavy metal and thereby displaying a great amount of mindfulness.

The garden of the Lord is vast and plentiful. In order to find happiness, I believe, we must find our personal parcel of land in that garden – and then start to cultivate it.


Arnett, J. (1992). The Soundtrack of Recklessness Musical Preferences and Reckless Behavior among Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7(3), 313-331.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Gowensmith, W. N., & Bloom, L. J. (1997). The effects of heavy metal music on arousal and anger. Journal of Music Therapy, 34, 33-45.

Juslin, P. N., Liljeström, S., Västfjäll, D., Barradas, G., & Silva, A. (2008). An experience sampling study of emotional reactions to music: listener, music, and situation. Emotion, 8(5), 668-683.

King, P. (1988). Heavy metal music and drug abuse in adolescents. Postgraduate Medicine, 83(5), 295-301.

MacDonald, R., Kreutz, G., Mitchell, L. (2012). What is music, health, and wellbeing and why is it important? In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 3-11). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marshall, G. (1990): Pretty Woman [Film]. Los Angeles, Touchstone Pictures.

McMahon, D. M. (2008). The pursuit of happiness in history. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds), The science of subjective well-being (pp. 80-93). New York: Guilford Press.

Scheel, K. R., & Westefeld, J. S. (1999). Heavy metal music and adolescent suicidality: An empirical investigation. Adolescence, 34, 253–273.

Sottile, Leah (2013). Finding happiness in angry music.

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N, Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 405–423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


* Mostly though, the phrase will be accompanied by an incredulous shake of the head, thereby signifying that, at the end of the day, one´s own taste is to be valued higher.

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