Violent Music and Its Effects on Audiences

I believe it’s safe to claim that music is a mood-changer. Energy, romance, relaxation: sites such as Spotify, Soundcloud, 8Tracks, and Pandora have entire playlists and stations defined by specific moods. So what about aggressive music, with violent lyrics? What if that music is accompanied by an equally violent music video? How does that influence the attitude of a listener?

photo credit: Billy Kangas
Could violent music be altering your attitude?   (photo credit: Billy Kangas)

In 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), and the Parents Music Research Center (PMRC) created the Parental Advisory Label to identify and label recordings with strong language and graphic descriptions of violence, sex, or substance abuse. This also applies to the video that accompanies the song; videos that contain a non-PAL song can still receive an Advisory label. Parents can then decide whether their child may consume media that may be explicit. This certainly implies that music can have a negative effect, that children need protection from it.

Kanye West, Drake, My Chemical Romance, and The Weeknd are just a few artists with explicit albums, songs from which are played on the radio.
Kanye West, Drake, My Chemical Romance, and The Weeknd are just a few artists with explicit, Parental Advisory labeled albums, songs from which were played on the radio and TV.

A number of studies have found correlations between violent music and music videos and the violent actions of youths. A 2010 study conducted in Jamaica and published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found correlation between hardcore dance hall music and the responding sexual and violent behavior of 100 Jamaican adolescents. Interestingly, it also found that “females (74%) were also more likely to act upon lyrical contents than males (46%).”

Another study by Harvard Medical School, in 1998, analyzed popular music video TV stations, with teenaged audiences, and found that “of 518 videos examined, 76 (15 percent) showed acts of interpersonal violence.” This doesn’t seem like much, but the “violent videos showed a mean of six acts of violence per 2-3-minute-long segment — a total of 462 shootings, stabbings, punchings, and kickings in the 76 videos.” The presence of violence isn’t necessarily the issue-but the intensity and nature of it is.

But it’s not only impressionable youths that are susceptible to violent song content. Adults consume violent music too. The PAL labels don’t apply to them, so they may consider themselves safe from detrimental effects children may experience (a belief referred to as the Third-Person Effect). But it is definitely more than children who are affected, proof of which can be found in university studies. A large Midwestern university was the site of a 2003 study, published by the American Psychology Association, measuring the immediate effects of listening to violent songs, in comparison with non-violent or humorous songs. The majority of over 500 subjects were prone to angry thoughts and hostile reactions to ambiguous cues after listening to music with violent lyrics. These results align with the idea that violent music is not purely cathartic, but influences the state-of-mind of a listener.

Unlike TV and movies, music is more likely to consumed repeatedly by a listener, especially if its a favorite song. It’s also easily played in the background of everyday life. While long-term effects haven’t been extensively studied, the immediate effects of violent lyrics and imagery are enough to stimulate aggression and anger for whatever a person handles after or while listening. A modern day music listener best be aware that their mood may be what it is because of their most recent song choice.


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