Listening to violent music does not desensitise people to violence, study suggests

Fans of violent music are probably not being desensitised to real-world violence by their musical tastes, according to a new study.

Music about cannibalism and death was used by a team of Chinese and Australian scientists alongside the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams to investigate the impact songs have on their listeners. 

Concerns about violent films, video games and music influencing people’s behaviour have persisted for decades, with scientists frequently weighing in on both sides of the debate.

Most recently in the UK, controversy has surrounded the Metropolitan Police’s decision to target drill rappers, whose violent lyrics about gang disputes they have linked to knife crime.

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the scientists set out to understand if exposure to violent music desensitises people to violence.

Instead of aggressive rap music, they chose death metal, a genre that often addresses themes like torture and satanic rituals.

To test its effects on fans, they first recruited a fairly small sample group of university students, consisting of 32 self-professed death metal fans and 48 non-fans.

They then used an experimental set-up in which violent and non-violent images were presented to the study participants – one in each eye – who were then told to indicate which one they focused on.

In such tests, the participant’s focus is thought to determine their bias towards one theme or another.

The scientists found everyone, including those who professed a love for gory lyrics and screaming vocals, was drawn towards the violent images being presented to them.

“This finding raises doubts about arguments that long-term exposure to violent media may desensitise consumers to violence,” the scientists wrote.

However, they also wanted to explore how people’s responses changed when they were in the act of listening to different songs.

They chose two pieces of music to use in their experiments, the first being “Eaten” by the Swedish death metal group Bloodbath.

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The researchers said they chose the song “because it has explicitly violent lyrics” accompanied by music “with acoustic qualities that are characteristics of biological signals of aggression”, for example growling and screaming.

They opted for the chart-topping “Happy” due to its “prosocial and joyous lyrics accompanied by musical qualities with a positive emotional connotation”.

These experiments suggested that in the short term while listening to the music, death metal fans did not make the same link between the violence in the songs and the violent images.

The scientists attributed this effect to the fans’ enjoyment of the genre trumping any negative associations arising from its themes.

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