Aggressive listening: Investigating alleged links between 'violent music' and behavior

Does 'violent music' contribute to aggression? Some experts say yes
Frank Zappa, a rock musician, composer, and anti-censorship advocate.
Frank Zappa, a rock musician, composer, and anti-censorship advocate. / Michael Putland/GettyImages

When people think of "violent music" that seems provocatively aggressive, they surely often think of genres like metal, punk rock, and gangster rap. However, that has not always been the culprit. Back in 1913, composer Igor Stravinsky's ballet, "The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps)," actually is said to have caused a riot during its premiere, simply attributed by some to the dances and "strange sounds never before conjured from an orchestra." In other words, even if we look at classical music, it is undeniable that violent reactions have legitimately occurred.

At the same time, it must obviously be said that the vast majority of the time, people can listen to Stravinsky and emerge relatively unscathed. So, quite obviously, context can matter quite a lot. Rather than saying listening to this or watching that is always dangerous, it pays to consider that pesky little thing called context.

Opinions and studies on so-called "violent music"

A 2003 article from the American Psychological Association suggests (in its title no less) that "Violent song lyrics may lead to violent behavior." So, even though this is a professional study, a music fan who enjoys some "violent" content might scoff at it, or might seriously wonder: "Hmm, is there something to this?" It is indeed an interesting question, and one should attempt to shed certain biases in order to assess the accuracy of such a claim.

The relationship between violent song lyrics/styles and actual violent behavior is a complex and contentious topic. Research and opinions on this matter vary, and it's important to consider multiple perspectives (and relevant studies) to form an informed opinion. As the APA article itself suggests, this clashes with the catharsis hypothesis. What is that? The catharsis hypothesis suggests that engaging with violent or aggressive content, such as violent song lyrics, provides a cathartic release of pent-up emotions and reduces the likelihood of engaging in actual violent behavior.

The idea is that by experiencing these emotions vicariously through art, individuals may be less likely to act out in violent ways in their real lives. However, as the APA article suggests, research on the catharsis hypothesis is inconclusive and often contradicts this notion.

The APA hates Tool?

Some studies suggest that exposure to violent media, including violent song lyrics (violent music), may desensitize individuals to violence and increase aggression, especially in vulnerable populations or individuals predisposed to aggressive behavior. Another piece by the APA takes care to quote the Tool song “J*rk-Off ” (1992): "Someone told me once that there’s a right and wrong. Punishment was
cure for those who dare cross the line. But it must not be true for j*rk-offs just like you. And maybe it’s just bulls**t. I should play god and sh**t you myself."
Unfortunately, this same study goes on to immediately positively assess the history of the Parent's Music Resource Center (PMRC), which was part of the notorious music labeling/censorship movement of the 1980s and 1990s (which itself tied in substantially with the religious right and various moral panics, such as the "Satanic panic" phenomenon).

Others argue that exposure to violent content may actually increase aggression by reinforcing aggressive thoughts and “bad” (if not violent) behaviors.

Should we just pin it all on violent music, though?

It's worth it to consider various factors that influence an individual's response to violent song lyrics and styles, such as personal characteristics, upbringing, social environment, mental health, and the context in which the music is consumed. Different individuals may respond differently based on their unique circumstances and predispositions, as well as environmental factors outside of the songs, albums, movies, TV shows, books, and what have you.

In addition, it's worth acknowledging that the effects of violent song lyrics and styles are not solely negative. Speaking personally (and anecdotally), I have to say that sometimes it just seems like the "catharsis hypothesis" is true. One of my favorite songs by The Offspring (for example) is "Bad Habit," which is a masterfully written song about road rage. I don't recall ever feeling like killing anyone after listening to that song, and I doubt I am alone. In fact, I find the song funny (and dare I say cool?).

For some individuals, engaging with aggressive music might serve as a coping mechanism, providing a sense of identification, validation of their feelings, or an outlet for emotional expression.
After all, why else would some people listen to so-called "violent music" for comfort? Then, of course, there may be a deeper philosophical question: If indeed there is some demand for exposure to music that potentially makes people more aggressive, then where does that demand come from? Does the music itself create that? That appears to be putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

In other words, even if I was more deeply attuned to these concerns about violent media, I would still have to admit they are absolutely not the sole cause of societal aggression, which obviously existed well before such media existed. In effect, these artists ultimately merely represent or mirror the world's values, probably more than the other way around.

Who gets to regulate violent music (and other offensive media), and why?

So, with all I have noted here, the question ultimately becomes complicated. Who gets to draw the line in determining what is allowable and what is not? What criteria? How many exceptions to rules? When, if ever, would it be okay to bend or break such rules?

Due to groups like the PMRC being so keen to slap warning stickers on cassettes and CDs back in the day, why not slap warnings on all other materials (including holy books and all political speeches) that, in some cases, could potentially inspire violence? Now, some dismiss the "slippery slope"-style argument as nothing but a fallacious one, but there seems to be truth in the question of "Where do we draw the line?" If mere sound waves conveying earworms full of "violence" can infect us, then surely a deeply ingrained cultural value of any kind could be more questionable. Right?

Final thoughts

Ultimately, the relationship between violent song lyrics/styles and real-life violent behavior is multifaceted and influenced by so many more factors than just a song, an album, or an artist. Further research and critical analyses are necessary to better understand this relationship and its implications for society, including how we approach the question of regulating and consuming media containing violent content (either simulated or depicting real-life violence).

Meanwhile, as an observation relevant for those who use social media constantly: There really does come a time to take a break from our devices, appreciate occasional silence, and simply contemplate life and our role in the universe. If people are encouraged to do that more and gain individual perspective through some contemplative philosophy, it seems they are less likely to lash out at the world in any violent ways, while likely still being able to listen to amazingly hilarious violent songs and watch gory horror flicks.

Here's a classic song wherein Johnny Cash takes cocaine and shoots a woman:

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