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Research Feature: Expertise determines whether or not you can understand Death Metal lyrics

Death Metal music can be a cacophony of heavy guitar riffs, pounding bass lines, machine-gun drumming and incomprehensible growling vocals that deal with topics such as murder, rape, torture, infanticide, and necrophilia. No one can possibly understand the lyrics, surely? At least, that’s what people used to assume.

New research published in the June issue of the Journal of Music Perception by Drs Kirk Olsen, Bill Thompson and Iain Giblin shows that Death Metal lyrics are intelligible to certain groups of listeners.

The researchers extracted individual words that were sung (growled) in a song by the popular American Death Metal band, Cannibal Corpse, and asked fans and non-fans of Death Metal who were either expert musicians or non-musicians to try and identify the words. They found that fans were able to understand the words in these songs far more easily than nonfans. Musicians were similarly able to decipher the lyrics far better than non-musicians, even if they weren’t fans of Death Metal.

The researchers suggest that fans and musicians have an advantage over others because of their perceptual expertise with listening to music (Death Metal or otherwise). Fans may have developed an ‘ear’ for picking out the growling vocals, whereas musicians may have enhanced listening skills from years of formal music training.

As lead author Dr Olsen says, “Not only does this research give us insight into how fans and musicians perceive Death Metal music, it shows that specific kinds of listening expertise can enhance the ability of perceiving noisy and often unintelligible speech; something that we commonly experience in our day-to-day lives.”

Death Metal lyrics tend to be low-frequency growl-like sounds. In nature, these sounds indicate an aggressive intention (imagine the sound of a dog growling at you). The authors argue that non-fans of Death Metal may be more focussed on the negative emotional content of the vocals (the aggressive growl) and may not be able to concentrate on the lyrics.

As the authors point out, there is also the possibility that fans of Death Metal have become somewhat desensitized to the inherently aggressive nature of growling vocalizations, allowing them to pay more attention to lyrics. Death Metal fans also have a very different experience than non-fans when listening to this music, using it to discharge negative feelings, increase energy levels, and generate powerful and positive emotional states such as joy, empowerment, and peace. For more information, see the publication, “Who enjoys listening to violent music and why?

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