The second and final semester of the 2013/14 MAPP program is under way. The first onsite period is history already. While the first semester has (more or less) focused on the theoretical underpinnings of positive psychology, the second semester focuses on the practical application of that knowledge in different contexts. One of this semester´s course is reserved exclusively for the connection between positive psychology and the humanities. We will systematically explore how “the good life” can be found in art, poetry/novels, and music (among other things).
Therefore, last Friday, the whole course went to see a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an evening that focused on Russian composers, especially Tchaikovsky´s 4th Symphony. While I enjoyed this evening tremendously, it is unlikely that I will go to another classical concert in the near future – because for more than 20 years now, my heart has been captured by a different kind of music: Heavy Metal!
It started out around age 12 with “soft” stuff like German superheroes The Scorpions, moving over to (the at that time inevitable) Guns n’ Roses, than progressively getting heavier with classics such as Iron Maiden or Savatage, and German Speed Metal à la Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Blind Guardian. Later I moved on to neo-classical sounds such as Stratovarius, guitar heroes like Yngwie Malmsteen, and Symphonic Metal as played by Rhapsody (of Fire).
During my adolescent years, I´ve also had a long-term affair with some Dark/Gothic Metal bands such as Amorphis and Tiamat – but I never really embraced those growling or screaming vocals. As a consequence, I stayed clear of really heavy Thrash and Black Metal. Around 23, I got rid of most of the typical clothing – but the love for the sound of heavily distorted guitars and a solid double bass drum remained – and probably will do so until the end of this life.
Now where´s the connection to (positive) psychology here? The thing is: there´s not too much official (psychological) research on heavy metal. And the few studies that do exist typically deal with (supposed) negative consequences of listening to heavy music, such as aggression, suicidal risk, and drug abuse. At the same time, there´s no doubt about the fact that most people use music to control (dampen or amplify) and even create certain moods and emotions.
Heavy Metal concerts are distinctly peaceful and non-violent places – if you manage to avoid the mosh pit, that is…
I´m really trying not to be lopsided here – but to me there always seemed 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´ve 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 – if you manage to avoid those inevitable mosh pits, that is. 🙂
Most of us are truly amicable and fun-loving guys (and girls of course). It just so happens that some of us are also a little burly – and not to fond of shaving or going the hairdresser.
I did not choose it. It chose me. Listening to the arpeggios in the first solo of Yngwie Malmsteen´s Mad Dog elicits feelings in me that otherwise can only be aroused by sex and really really good dark chocolate.
Quite obviously, different people have different “internal energy levels” and therefore react to “different vibrations” when exposed to music (please excuse the esoteric language…). What I mean is: my favorite TV series of all times is Ally McBeal. I love shopping and romantic comedies starring Hugh Grant. And I happen to LOVE Heavy Metal. I did not choose it. It chose me. Listening to the arpeggios in the first solo of Yngwie Malmsteen´s Mad Dog (starts approx. at 1:42) elicits feelings in me that otherwise can only be aroused by having sex or eating really really good dark chocolate.
My esoteric hunch is echoed in one of those rarer studies that finds headbangers are just regular people that happen to feel good while listening to high-intensity music. It´s not a coincidence that a lot of metalheads are also very fond of Wagner. 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 pretest differences were found among subjects’ levels of state arousal, state anger, or trait anger.”
In addition, the researchers find what is called an interaction affect. To cut a long story short: there actually are people who become angry when listening to Heavy Metal. Precisely, people who do not like Heavy Metal. Surpriiiise! Happens to me when I have to listen to Miley Cyrus. I mean, I love to watch Miley Cyrus – but only when the TV is muted. Wrecking Ball is a great piece of visual art when accompanied by Manowar´s Heavy Metal Daze.
I was inspired to write this post (and stole the second part of the title…) by a piece on The Atlantic magazine. The author elaborates on the potential uplifting effect of getting in touch with our innate animal-aggressive nature when listening to Heavy Metal: “There’s something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel.”
Closing remarks: While doing some research for this article, I was quite amused to find out that the Mano Cornuta (Sign of the Horns; as displayed in both pictures) is also an ancient Buddhist mudra by the name of Karana – which is used to fight off evil spirits. There you have it! We´re the good ones, really…