The following report was written as part of my graduate studies in General Psychology. It has not been published anywhere but this site. Please contact me before reusing or reporting this paper.
Course: Human Growth and Development
Assignment: Final research paper related to course studies and the topic of my choice.
Heavy Music and Psychosocial Development of Adolescents:
Not Always a Teenage Wasteland
This paper explores the effects of heavy music, or guitar/drum-oriented rock, metal, and punk, on the psychosocial development of teenagers. It discusses research that evidences both positive and negative effects of listening to heavy music. It covers risk factors as well as the role music can play in identity formation and socialization. Keywords: adolescent, development, identity, psychosocial, music, peers, socialization, subcultures
Studies have shown that music has many biological, psychological, and social effects: biologically speaking, it stimulates pleasure neurotransmitters, controls stress hormones, and has analgesic properties; psychologically speaking, it influences emotions and behaviors; and socially speaking, it often plays a significant role in identity formation and directs interpersonal relationships (Miranda, 2012). While it has amazing powers for good, as with most things in life, it also has its balance of bad. Teenagers that listen to rock-n-roll music have had a bad reputation since the mid-1900s when Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis made it cool to defy the norm. From there rock music became progressively more rebellious in lyrical content, sound intensity, and behavior, and its reputation became progressively worse, particularly in the media. Research does show that teenagers into so-called “deviant” music, defined as any strain or combination of hard rock, metal, punk, or rap, are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems than those who listen to “mainstream” pop music (Mulder, 2008, p. 104). However, research also shows that heavy music serves adolescents in many useful and positive ways (Miranda, 2012). This paper seeks to determine both the beneficial and detrimental effects of heavy music on the psychosocial development of adolescents.
Most people are aware that an adolescent’s biological system is undergoing great physical change and turmoil. Puberty riddles teenage brains with hormones that make them seek pleasure, thrills, and the attention of their peers; at the same time their prefontal cortex, necessary for emotional control and analytical thought, is not yet fully developed (Berger, 2014). The still-maturing adolescent brain heightens the self-conscious, causing them to focus on themselves and what others think, and they tend to rely on intuition in decision making (Berger, 2014). Hormones are causing emotional swells and impulses, as well as disruption of the sleep cycle, all of which enhance the cycle of adolescent stress (Berger, 2014). Psychologically, adolescence is all about finding out who we are, inside and out; it is the rocky beginning of a long journey to seek identity that lasts well into adulthood (Berger, 2014). Everyone can agree that the teen years can be trying. Given this tormented physiological and psychological state, puberty would seem to call for ways to find pleasurable stimulation, control moods, and find clues to identity. Music can have a formidable influence in all regards (Mulder, 2008).
Negative Correlations: Problem Behavior
Various researchers have found numerous negative correlations between adolescents and heavy music, and have posited numerous theories for this phenomena. More often than not, their theories include a positive twist.
A study in the early 1990s found that students who listened to heavy music generally had worse grades, behavioral issues, drug and alcohol problems, and earlier sexual and criminal activity (Took & Weiss, 1994). However, the researchers also found that these actions had less to do with the music than with the unrest and aggression common in adolescent males that have a long history of problem issues. Took & Weiss (1994) also found that since emotional control is difficult, heavy music offers some of the things angst-ridden and self-conscious teens are looking for, particularly if they don’t fit in as a good student: emotional relief and a sense of identity. The researchers posit that music can help regulate emotions, and music subcultures can “…supply them with an identity, complete with clothes and hairstyle…” and, more importantly, the “…image of the music gives these adolescents a sense of power, something they may not have anywhere else in their lives” (Took & Weiss, 1994, p. 620). In other words, this study shows that adolescents, whether troubled or not, are attracted to the music for relief from their turmoil, and relief in finding something to identify with. As Mulder (2012) succinctly explains, identification to society is “cathartic” (p. 104).
Another study found that intense emotional responses to heavy music, whether good or bad, led to risky behavior in adolescents (Roberts, Dimsdale, East & Friedman, 1998). The authors proposed that perhaps emotional response is more of a personality trait issue than a music taste issue. They theorized that traits lead some teens to seek out certain emotional responses and resulting behavior through music. We have all known those teenagers who want to be, and try their hardest to be, invincible and bad to the bone; they almost always seem to be involved in heavy music. This study seems to infer that some teens seek intense emotions through intense music.
A recent study found that listening to aggressive music increases aggressive behavior, and that being exposed to sexual content in lyrics increases the chance of younger sexual encounters (Coyne & Padilla Walker, 2015). These researchers also proposed, however, that being exposed to and dealing with aggression and sexual impulses is an important element in the socialization process (Coyne & Padilla Walker, 2015). In other words, they’re going to be exposed to it somehow and somewhere, and it needs to be dealt with at some point. Music would seem to be one of the less painful ways to be exposed to and educated on these subjects.
A 2012 study found that music subcultures share not only values, behaviors and overall lifestyle, but a higher incident of substance abuse (Bobakova, Geckova, Klein, Reijneveld, & van Dijk, 2012). The study also found that substance abuse in music subcultures is rampant whether or not members had strong family upbringings or other protective factors that are normally successful in prevention. This study shows that identity with the group’s lifestyle can be a strong influence on behavior.
Mulder (2008) did a comprehensive thesis study of heavy music, emotions, coping, and behavioral issues in adolescents. He found two types of problem behavior: one in which emotions are internalized, which manifests as depression or anxiety, and one in which emotions are externalized, which manifests with aggression, crime, drugs, and other risky behavior (Mulder, 2008). He proposed three theories in explanation of this trend of problem behavior among heavy music listeners: (1) teenagers with preexisting issues connect to that type of music; (2) the music activates those emotions and behaviors; or (3) they identify with the group or lifestyle so strongly that the group and members influence their behavior (Mulder, 2008). Given the vast differences in personalities, it would seem all of these could apply in different scenarios. We all have our own way of coming to the music. Mulder (2008) also found, like the studies above, that although heavy music may be a risk factor for behavioral problems, it has also shown to be a significant coping device and may actually reduce risky behavior in some adolescents.
Collectively, the above studies evidencing the negative effects of listening to heavy music also seem to suggest that music can be used effectively for emotional regulation in the trying times of adolescence. It allows teens to escape, vent, find validation, sympathy, or fit in. Miranda (2012) eloquently states that music provides a “soundtrack” for adolescence (p. 10). We can all agree that some soundtracks are more intense than others.
One study found that young adults who listen to heavy music have the same anxiety and depression levels as the rest of the world, and furthermore had less pathological problems than other groups (Recours, Aussaguel, & Trujillo, 2009). The researchers explained that heavy metal lyrics and imagery were really no worse than slasher films, crime shows, or the evening news program. The authors reasoned that dealing with certain dark issues like death through music makes them mentally prepared for when it is confronted in reality.
Positive Correlations: Identity and Socialization
Other studies focus not on negative risk factors but on how music serves an important role in identity and socialization. Mulder (2008) found that musical inclinations are a tool to help form identity, an integral part of adolescence, and are used as a way of determining friends and the social circle of peers (Mulder, 2008).
Peer pressure has always been a concern to parents. The urging of one’s friends and the need for acceptance has lured many teens into trouble. However, teenagers choose their friends based on shared likes, traits, and ideals (Berger, 2014). In actuality, peers are important in adolescence as they provide invaluable help in navigating their world, developing socialization skills, and finding tastes and values (Berger, 2014).
Music choices serve identity as they are a way to separate from parents, a normal part of development (Miranda, 2013). One of the big bonuses of music for adolescents is that they have actual, personal control over the music, media, and culture they choose. Whether by copying, emphasizing, and/or interacting with specific groups with similar music tastes, adolescents gain confidence and socialization skills (Mulder, 2008). Music, music peers, and musicians provide models for exploring roles, rehearsing in groups, finding control, and developing self-esteem (Miranda, 2012). Mulder (2008) quotes music as “equipment for living” (p. 14).
Schwartz & Fouts (2001) found that people are attracted to different music based on personality traits that are reflected in it. The study found that music lyrics are relatable, emotion-changing, and/or can instill new perspectives on the topics teens struggle with: relationships, sex, identity, and this crazy world we live in. The authors found that listening and relating to certain music allows teens to cope with developmental issues in three ways: it provides distraction and escapism, validation that they are not alone, and an outright “…calming effect…that relieves unhappiness, anger or anxiety” (Schwartz & Fouts, 2001, p. 206). Relating to and taking solace in the written, spoken, and sung word dates back to ancient times.
Another study showed that people are socially attracted to others with similar music tastes because of similar values rather than similar personality traits (Boer, Fischer, Strack, Bond, Lo, & Lam, 2011). The authors of this study propose that this is because shared priorities and goals make for both social harmony and strong interpersonal bonds. They theorize that a person’s music preferences says something about them, and that this provides important information to others regarding similarities and attractions. For instance, listeners of heavy music are generally known to reject conventional norms and be more open to experience (Boer, Fischer, Strack, Bond, Lo, & Lam, 2011). “They use music as a ‘badge’ that shapes their peer groups and peer crowds…musical subcultures develop a youth culture identity and provide informational and normative social influences” (Miranda, 2008, p. 11).
Along with personality traits, choice of music involves age, gender, ethnicity, and cultural elements (Roberts, Dimsdale, East, & Friedman, 1998). Music can have many different representations that adolescents can connect to for a sense of cultural identity (Mulder, 2008). Mulder (2008) proposed that “…music is part of our cultural symbolic environment and communicates, as well as propagates, attitudes and norms (Mulder, 2008, p. 12). In summary, music choice reflects an individual’s personality traits and values.
Tanner, Ashbridge, & Wortley, (2008) found that teens who identify closely with music subcultures tend to prolong that lifestyle into young adulthood. The researchers posited that this group participated in “…peer driven cultural pursuits” and dubbed them “the party subculture [group]” and the “high school rock band [group]” (Tanner, Ashbridge, & Wortley, 2008, p. 123). The researchers further found that these particular groups maintained beneficial long-term friendships and associates.
A 2015 study confirms that, in the long run, it’s actually okay to be into heavy music in your youth (Howe, et al., 2015). This study of heavy metal musicians, fans, and groupies from the 1980s, thirty years later, found that although these individuals engaged in risky and sensation-seeking sex, drugs and rock-n-roll behaviors, they had significantly happier childhoods and are better adjusted in mid-life than comparison groups. The majority of the subjects were “…middle class, gainfully employed, relatively well educated and look back fondly on the wild times they lived in the 1980s” (Howe, et al., 2015, p. 623). The researchers propose that while subcultures with non-mainstream lifestyles may engage in risky behaviors, the solidifying of identity development and connection within the culture serves as a protective element (Howe, et al., 2015). This study posits of its subjects that as teenagers they “…were well aware of the larger culture’s stereotypes…yet they reflected on their group membership with pride and developed skills to cope with their angst about the world at large…” (Howe, et al., 2015, p. 621). The study appears to show the benefits of the special camaraderie of like-minded people with emotional bonds and shared values reflected in music.
Issues for Further Research
One issue not discussed as it applies to the above studies is gender. While the Howe et al. (2015) study did identify “female metalheads” and “groupies” and develop findings, the researchers admit that gender issues and female fans of heavy music have largely been left out of most heavy music academics (p. 606). Similar to other music subculture research, Howe et al. (2015) noted that female fans found escapism, intimacy, kinship, and “…a way to experience heightened emotions and intense connections with like-minded people, which seemed to contribute to their eventual positive identity development” within their community (p. 623). One of the above studies did find that parental monitoring of females was the only protective factor against substance abuse in music subcultures (Bobakova, Geckova, Klein, Reijneveld, & van Dijk, 2012). Another study also mentions the surprising lack of gender studies in female heavy music listeners, despite females being just as big of music fans as males (Tanner, Ashbridge, & Wortley, 2008). Tanner, Ashbridge, & Wortley (2008) propose that this is because, traditionally and generally, females tend to like softer music and boys tend to like heavier music, but that this research is dated and needs further study. Took & Weiss (1994) proposed that boys are more attracted to heavy music because of the aggressive behaviors that adolescent males have a tendency toward. Mulder (2012) states that while studies found no gender differences in emotional responses to music, others found that gender affects the motives for listening to music: girls find it more useful for emotional coping, while boys find it more useful for identity purposes. Mulder (2012) also notes that gender role development and stereotypes are ripe for study in the context of musical inclinations.
It also appears that heavy music lyrics and their effect on behavior and development have not been fully researched (Miranda, 2012).
Also not discussed herein are preventative factors against risky behavior among heavy music listeners. Miranda (2012) points out that despite the tremendous effect music has on every aspect of emotion, identity, and social interaction, its critical significance has been underestimated in adolescent developmental psychology in that there is a lack of the application of music psychology studies in the prevention and treatment of developmental issues. He posits that a stronger link should be formed between developmental and music psychology research in order to identify risk factors and develop effective tools for positive development. Schwartz & Fouts (2001) found that music preferences are a way of understanding adolescent realities, attitudes, and feelings, and that this wealth of evidence can be used to determine healthy ways for parents, teachers, and counselors to assist teens in adjusting and successfully navigating adolescence.
In conclusion, research shows that heavy music has both positive and negative effects on the biological, psychological and social elements of adolescent growth and behavior. While many would concede that heavy music listeners are more likely to engage in risky behavior, it appears that the pursuit of pleasure in youth is simply a stage of human growth and development. The biology backs it up (Berger, 2014). It brings to mind the old phrase “sowing your wild oats.” From the satyrs and maenads cavorting with Dionysus on Mount Olympus, to the rumspringa of the ultra-conservative Amish, this pursuit of sensation-seeking and role-playing seems to be a consistent ritual of youth. Perhaps human beings are meant to engage in thrill pursuit, albeit each to his or her own level, while their bodies are at their biological peak of health before aging sets in. It is another subject for future research.
All of the pros and cons of listening to heavy music should not be surprising as there is always a balance to be found in everything in life; a yin and yang if you will. Learning to find balance is also a crucial lesson for teens – it must be learned in order to function as a human being in society. As such, the overall experience of music on adolescents seems to serve as an important aspect of human growth and development in itself.
According to songfacts.com, Pete Townsend of the rock band The Who explained that the phrase “teenage wasteland” in the classic rock hit Baba O’Riley refers to wasted opportunity, something we all fear (Songfacts, 2015). In the sense of those who did not make it through the hazards of youthful risky behavior, then yes, plenty of talented and brilliant prospects have been wasted. However, for many adolescents, heavy music brings the opportunity to relate, to belong, and to survive. It can provide some of the tools needed to successfully navigate adolescence. In fact, Miranda (2012) posits that under evolutionary theory, music appears to be an “evolved psychological mechanism” needed for social order, harmony, and existence (p. 6).
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