Finding Happiness in Angry Music

Shiny happy heavy metal people: There’s something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel.
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(LiaKoltyrina/Shutterstock)

When I was 13, I dreamed of kissing boys in the backseat of a car while Scorpions, a German hard rock outfit, crooned “Winds of Change” from the car stereo. It’s still kind of a bummer that never happened: Boys at my high school were much more infatuated with the idea of making out to Dave Matthews Band, and I had to work with what I could get.

I’d known for a long time that my love for heavy music wasn't shared by many of my peers. I’m sure there were other girls like me out there—ones who’d owned a tape of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction since they were six, other kids who thought Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood” was a song about a nice guy who just wanted to share his “sugar” and “candy cane” with his friends. I just never met many kids, especially girls, who liked music on the louder end of the spectrum—I chalked that up to being quirky.

Though loud music always had some place in my heart, it wasn't until my early 20s when I truly fell in love with the power of the riff. And it wasn't because I wanted to feel angry. Loud music had the opposite effect on me: It calmed me down.

I started to do this thing where at the end of a long work week, stuck in the corner cubicle of a windowless room, I’d go to this crappy club in my town that booked a lot of loud bands and stand right up next to the speakers, close enough that I could actually feel the music passing through me. It was like meditation. Something about the way the bass would actually shake my bones and internal organs was cleansing. It was in those moments, my senses overloaded, that I felt like I could take a full breath again.

I've found that I’m constantly explaining this fascination of mine, except to the bearded dudes standing next to me at those shows. My combination of being a weekend hesher and weekday career woman draws more than a few cocked heads and second looks, like I’m a ticking time bomb that could go off anywhere between the water cooler and the break room.

But that’s the funny thing: In my experience, metal isn't for angry people. It’s bigger than anger. Better, even. I've found most metal musicians and heavy music aficionados aren't nearly as pissed off and angry as people assume.

And that got me thinking: Is it possible that listening to angry music could make people happier? Do hours and years of loud riffs and screeching vocals pummeling your ear drums actually mellow you out? 

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It’s a theory backed up in a recent study conducted by Maya Tamir and Brett Ford, researchers from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In one study, 175 people were asked to participate in role-playing exercises where they had to either confront a person—like a cop interrogating a suspect—or collaborate with someone. But before the role-playing began, the subjects were allowed to choose from a selection of music to aid in evoking the emotions they would need: Anger, happiness, or neutrality. It was up to them to choose what they wanted to hear. “Music is often used as a way to manipulate emotions, I just had people decide how to manipulate their own emotions,” Tamir says.

The subjects were also asked questions about their emotional health, happiness, and feelings of social support.

It’s no novel idea that someone might choose to rev themselves up with aggressive music before a engaging in a tough task: A fourth quarter tie-breaker, a tense salary negotiation. And no surprise, the folks who chose angry music had no problem completing their tasks.

But Tamir also found that the people who chose to be pissed off actually showed a greater sense of well-being overall than the people who avoided feelings of unpleasantness.

“Rather than seeking happiness at all times, it may be important to seek happiness at the right time,” Tamir concluded. “Encouraging people to seek happiness and shun unhappiness irrespective of context may not necessarily be adaptive in the long run.”

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Leah Sottile is a writer based in Spokane, Washington.

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