On The Health Benefits of Head Banging

popA study on the life arcs of 1980’s-era heavy metal fans has been making the news this week, and its main conclusion is no surprise to me:

In fact, researchers find that former metal fans “were significantly happier in their youth, and better adjusted currently” compared to their peers who preferred other musical genres, and to a parallel group of current college students.”

More self-described metal-heads* went on to become “ “middle-class, gainfully employed, relatively well-educated”  adults than their peers who listened to or identified with other music at the time. Metal fans come across in the study as happier in their teen years than their contemporaries and happier and more well adjusted than today’s young people:

“Despite the challenges of adverse childhood events, and other stressful and risky events in their youth,” the researchers write, former metal aficionados “reported higher levels of youthful happiness” than peers with other musical tastes as well as today’s college students. “They were also less likely to have any regrets about things they had done in their youth.”

So far, so good, but I can’t help but feel that the study largely draws the wrong conclusions from this data- at the very least, I suspect they’re missing the majority of the point:

“Social support is a crucial protective factor for troubled youth,” they point out. “Fans and musicians alike felt a kinship in the metal community, and a way to experience heightened emotions with like-minded people.” This sense of belonging ultimately helped propel their positive transition to maturity.

Social support? Really?

Almost all young people seek a place in a group of friends and supporters they can strongly identify with. For some, it’s the cheerleading squad or the football team. For others, it might be youth orchestra, the debating society or a church group. Finding kinship in community is certainly not unique to metal fans.

My strong instinct is that the researchers should be looking at the importance of the music itself. The articles I came across here and here mention only two groups- Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe. I think they’ve chosen poorly- those groups, whatever their merits and popularity, are basically loud pop bands anyway. Real 1980’s metalheads would have had much more sophisticated tastes: Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, early Metalica and so on.


(Iron Maiden. In the words of Bruce Dickinson: “A very long song. This ain’t the usual 3 minute shit. This is about 13 minutes long”)

The heavy metal of the 80’s was different from the mainstream pop of that era and our current time in profound ways. Where pop relies on simple formulas and electronica and a very simplistic lyrical content, metal is often musically ambitious and dramatic, it is played by musicians (many of them real virtulosos), not sequencers, and the music is put across with relatively little technical trickery and lighter post-production. Also, the lyrics can express complex emotions or tell more involved stories. The lyrics of top-40 radio are designed to do two things- indoctrinate and sell. Listening to top 40 songs will tell you what is “normal” and will help you know what to buy to feel more normal when you realise you are not. The lyrics of metal are often about alienation, about isolation, and the anger of metal is there to criticise the shallowness and hypocrisy of popular culture.


But I really think there is fantastic research to be done on how real music (metal, jazz, classical, acoustic folk and bluegrass) affects brain development when compared with junk music (most commercial genres, especially those which rely primarily on electronica). Set aside the lyrics completely and I think challenging music played by humans does a lot more good for the brain than something that’s sequence, sampled, compressed and auto-tuned to death. Just as children of the 80’s who lived on a diet of junk food have grown up to suffer diabetes, heart disease and a whole raft of auto-immune disorders, those who were raise on junk music are now suffering with anxiety, depression, paranoia, anti-intellectualism and neurosis far more than those who got a good, balanced diet of guitar, bass and drums.

(KW’s Open Your Eyes- not exactly orthodox metal, but musically ambitious with a socially critical lyric)

On the other hand, it could all just be that those metal fans were smarter, nicer more well-adjusted people to begin with. Looking back at my memories of high school in the 1980’s such a hypothesis seems anything but far fetched…..

pop sucks




* I would not have identified myself in the 1980’s as a metalhead, although I liked a lot of the music (and still do). My tastes were always too broad to ally myself to a single genre.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on “On The Health Benefits of Head Banging”

  1. Jeff Blanks

    Culturally, why can’t Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe be included? I’m not a fan of those bands, but there plainly is something of metal about them, and lots of listeners happily listened to a wider range than post-thrash metal purists would’ve prescribed for us. And at least pop fans had some “gateway music”, something the “purists” (ironically enough, given metal’s debt to punk and hardcore from thrash onward) don’t seem to appreciate, even as metal seems to become less and less relevant as the years go by. I guess the Metal Civil War is still going on, after all.

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