Imaginaries of spirituality, violence and health impacts in metal music: A critical history and case study — Owen Coggins

Special Issue 11 (1) 2019 “Exploring the spiritual in music: Interdisciplinary dialogues in music, wellbeing and education” – Article (first published on 24 November 2019)

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Imaginaries of spirituality, violence and health impacts in metal music: A critical history and case study

Owen Coggins

Nordoff Robbins, UK


In popular discourse, and in some research on music and health, a vague but universal healing potential is sometimes attributed to music in general. An important counterpoint appears in heavy metal music, which is often assumed to have deleterious effects on listeners and on society. This article reviews debates in politics, news media and research on health and metal music from the 1970s to the present, with particular focus on the UK and US contexts. Showing that research has been influenced by moral panics and legal controversies, the article demonstrates how ideas about transgressive religiosity have often influenced debates about health and harm surrounding metal music. A disciplinary and methodological polarisation is noted between, on one hand, psychological and behavioural lab experiments, and on the other, social sciences and humanities research with more ethnographic or contextual approaches. Noting that some lab-based methods seem highly contrived and even unethical, this article argues for an approach to research in this field which studies real listening practices. A case study of violence, religion and health is then outlined concerning the extreme subgenre of drone metal. In this music culture, listener discourses touch on mysticism, ritual and the sacred; on health, healing and catharsis; and on different modes of abstract and physical violence, in highly interrelated and sometimes surprising ways. The article concludes that noise and extreme music may offer particularly powerful —yet under-appreciated, at least to critics outside metal cultures— resources for positively influencing listeners’ health.


metal, drone metal, noise, violence, transgression, religion, music and health, moral panic, controversy, methodology


Owen Coggins is a researcher at Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy, where he is involved in research projects on music therapy in schools, on service evaluation, on how music is valued in different contexts, and on metal music and health. He has published peer-reviewed articles on metal and other (often noisy) popular musics, and a book, Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal (2018, Bloomsbury Academic), an extension of his ethnographic doctoral research in Music and Religious Studies. Owen is particularly interested in researching intersections of violence, noise, ambiguity, mysticism and religiosity in popular music cultures. He is Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department at the Open University. []