I received an email from a sweet Year 11 student today, as academics often do, asking me to elaborate on my research to help with her question ‘How does heavy metal music influence adolescent behaviour?’ Sometimes it takes me months to get enough space to reply to these mails, but thanks to a very productive long-haul flight back from Europe, and a state of jet-lag that keeps me awake at night, I was inspired to construct her a research narrative. I enjoyed piecing it together enormously, and share it here for posterity and anyone who is interested apart from me:)
Thanks for your question. I have written a bit of an explanation based on different research I have done and have included references to the articles where I have published these ideas formally and with more detail and reference to the work of many others.
It was a small study of 113 teenagers in Melbourne that really got me interested in this topic. I have always advocated for freedom of choice in relation to adolescent's music, but parents and psychiatrists often asked me why. I argued it as a critical form of identity expression that is essentially healthy, but these adults often pointed to individual teenagers they knew who seemed to make themselves feel worse through their music listening habits. So when I did this study, I asked young people to describe how they felt before listening, what music they chose to listen to, and how they felt after. It was a survey, so it had its limitations, but the results suggested that some metal fans were more likely to make themselves feel worse through listening than fans of other music genres. Since this contradicted my own beliefs, and confirmed the opinions that others had asked me to consider, I decided to do more research.
McFerran, K., Garrido, S., O’Grady, L. Grocke, D. & Sawyer, S. (2014 – online first). Examining the relationship between self-reported mood management and music preferences of Australian teenagers, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, doi:10.1080/08098131.2014.908942 ) (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY)
The next thing I did was a systematic review of the literature to see how other researchers had investigated this phenomenon. I knew lots of people had found ‘correlations’ between listening to what North and Hargreaves call ‘problem music’ and negative outcomes, but I believed, from my experiences as a music therapist, that music didn’t cause negative outcomes. I felt that it reflected mental health, more than caused mental health problems. So I challenged some of the ways that studies had been done and attempted to show that it wasn’t the type of music that was influential, but rather the state of mental health of the person doing the listening. This might ring true for you, since you might listen to a song that makes you feel really fantastic, but another one of your friends might have a different impression of the song. In my experience, people’s personal preferences and associations with songs are far more powerful than the musical elements themselves. So it is not so much about how ‘music effects the brain’, but how ‘we use music to influence our emotions’.
McFerran, K., Garrido, S. & Sarrikallio, S. (2013). A critical interpretive synthesis of the relationship between music and adolescent mental health, Youth and Society, doi:10.1177/0044118X13501343 (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY)
When the first study above got published, I received lots of hate mail from metal fans who told me that music had saved their lives, and not made them depressed. I tried to explain that was the point I was making too, but the popular press had reported that my study showed metal music ‘caused’ depression – which it didn’t. It was a bit hurtful at the time, but I got to write a few blogs for some metal magazines, which was cool (just google 'katrina mcferran' and 'metal' – the metalsucks and metalinsider pieces were written by me, some of the others are also interesting, and often harsh), and I also got the chance to respond to lots of metal fans from around the world individually. Seven of them agreed to take part in my next study, where I asked them to describe how they had used metal music in their youth, which often revealed stories of empowerment and connectedness, as well as the occasional reference to intensifying negative feelings.
Hines, M. and McFerran, K. S. (2014), ‘Metal made me who I am: Seven adult men reflect on their engagement with metal music during adolescence’, International Journal of Community Music (Special Edition on Metal Music), 7 (2), 205–222, doi: 10.1386/ ijcm.7.2.205_1 (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY)
I then interviewed a group of 40 young Australians to ask how they were using music in their lives, and was particularly interested in whether they ever used it to make themselves feel worse. This time what I discovered was that young people did not want to talk about the times when they felt worse; they really wanted to focus on how music made them feel better. But when we really tried to think of times, they were often there, and the more we talked about it, the more I began to realise that this was a very unconscious process. The young people often didn’t think about how they were choosing music and instead, relied on the music to make them feel better. It seemed that if people were depressed, this strategy was more risky because they might be drawn to music that intensified their unhappiness and actually made them feel worse. So it seemed important to see if this was true.
McFerran, K. & Saarikallio, S. (2013). Depending on music to feel better: Being conscious of responsibility when appropriating the power of music, The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41 (1), 89-97, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2013.11.007 (FREE ACCESS ONLINE)
My colleagues and I then designed 13 questions to ask young people about how they were using music and discovered that the answers they gave could be correlated with a measure of depression called the K10. This seemed to suggest that there was a connection between the mental health of young people and the ways they were using music. Note that I continue to emphasise the ‘uses of’ music, rather than suggesting music ‘effects’ young people. I have come to believe that music has an inherent potential (some people say affordances) that is enacted when we use it (the word appropriation is even better than ‘use', but most people don’t know what it means). So it has power, but the way the power is used depends on the person listening or making music. If you have a tendency to ruminate for example, you will probably use music as a way of ruminating – by playing the same song over and over, but not reaching any different conclusions. If you tend to distract yourself from your problems, you will probably find that music is a great way to take your mind off things, which is the opposite of ruminating. It is a complex interaction between the individual (who exists in a cultural context that influences them reciprocally) and their music (which is also culturally shaped – so nothing occurs in a vacuum).
Saarikallio, S., McFerran, K. S., & Gold, C. (2015). Development and validation of the Healthy-Unhealthy Uses of Music Scale (HUMS). Child and Adolescent Mental Health, online first. doi: 10.1111/camh.12109 (FREE ACCESS ONLINE)
In one of my latest articles on this topic we ask people to think about how music is not always used for good. It seemed appropriate to write this with a German colleague, since Hitler was one of the people who knew this better than anyone. In this article we suggest that music can both prevent violence, support people who have experienced violence, and also, promote violence by encouraging people to vent and intensify in ways that are aggressive. Music therapists work with people to ensure that their experiences with music are safe, and if people explore difficult emotions, they do so in relationship with someone they can trust and who will help them to process the material. Many people use music independently, without the need for a therapist, but some people benefit from the support of a therapeutic relationship, and music is a very powerful force for change in this context.
McFerran, K.S. & Wölfl, A. (2015). Music, Violence and Music Therapy with Young People in Schools: A non-refereed Position Paper. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 15(2). doi:10.15845/voices.v15i2.831 (FREE ACCESS ONLINE)
The young people I have worked with in group music therapy have often reported on the benefits of expressing their emotions and feeling better in our sessions together. They describe how difficult it is to find safe ways and people to share emotions and use the opportunity of therapy to process complex feelings. This has been particularly true in my work with bereaved adolescents, who sometimes struggle with sadness and anger because of their grief and loss. It has been wonderful to watch and help young people to sing and play, write songs, and improvise music that allows them to achieve their goals in therapy.
McFerran, K. (2011). Music therapy with bereaved youth: Expressing grief and feeling better, The Prevention Researcher (Adolescent Grief and Bereavement Special Edition), 18 (3), 17-20. (EMAIL ME IF YOU NEED A COPY).
So thanks for asking for a summary of my work – I really enjoyed pulling all that together. In fact, I might publish it on my blog, since it is a pretty good summary of one of my streams of research to date. I hope it answers your question.