Music

Top image: Bloodbath / photography by Evelyn Steinweg

Turns out, it doesn’t matter whether you listen to Pharrell Williams’ upbeat bop Happy, or cannibalism-themed track Eaten by Stockholm death metal supergroup Bloodbath, you’ll have the same shock reaction to violence either way.

A decade-long study by the MacQuarie University music lab, based in Australia, has in one fell swoop debunked the fears of parent organisations, religious groups and censorship boards that aggressive music desensitises fans to violence. The conductor of the project, Prof. Bill Thompson, explained that fans are, “Nice people… They’re not going to go out and hurt someone.” Indeed, previous studies into the effects of more violent songs have found that their lyrics actually act as a positive outlet for emotional release.

Lead researcher, Yanan Sun, explained to the BBC that the study was conducted through a psychological assessment on the emotional effects of music. Using a binocular rivalry method, 32 fans and 48 non-fans were either played Eaten or Happy through headphones and shown two opposing pictures. On one side was a violent image, for instance, a person getting attacked, and on the other a neutral scene, like people casually walking down a street.

Sun said the aim was to investigate to what degree peoples’ brains observed the violent scenes – biologically we are naturally more drawn to looking at them – and whether there was a correlation between the participants’ perception and the music being played to them.

If critics of the desensitizing impact of heavy metal music were correct then, in theory, the fans of the music would not have the same bias towards the violent image as those who prefer more light-hearted songs. Yet results demonstrated that “fans showed the very same bias towards processing these violent images as those who were not fans of this music,” said Sun.

Although the researchers admitted that there is some evidence that the above effect can occur for those who play a lot of violence-orientated video games, the reality for music, regardless of genre, is that it evokes “joy and empowerment.”

Why not hit play on both tracks here and see which one makes you want to resort to violence. Caveat: if we hear Happy one more time we might just lose it.