Angry Music

by Davida Price, MS, IMF, MT-BC

When we hear angry music we know it. Even if the lyrical intent of the music is not anger, some music, called heavy metal, deathcore, punk, screamo, progressive rock, and rap include ticked off lyrics, angry girls, and dissed boys. In this post, I plan to explore music with the louder, faster, rhythms and electric instruments, found in bands such as Slipknot, System of a Down, Korn, La Quiete, and Suicide Silence. When I ask people (usually teens and young adults) why they like this music, they often reply, “it calms me down.”  Or as one of my clients mentioned as he wrapped his earphones around his ipod, “I can put on my earphones and it shuts everything else out.” I’ve had soldiers tell me that this high intensity music prepared them for combat in Iraq.

Angry music usually includes:

  • loud, sometimes frantic, rhythmic drumming
  • electric instruments
  • scary, angry, defiant and rebellious images

How can a form of music that makes one person want to jump out of their skin make another person feel relief? I offer three reasons why angry music helps some people concentrate better, release stress and feel better.

Reason number one: When we listen to loud, pounding rhythms, we are not instantly relaxed. However, this music “trips the switches in the oldest part of the brain, the part that quickly reacts with a fight-or-flight program, stimulating the release of adrenaline. . .what the reptile brain processed as a series of potentially dangerous noises, the mid-brain perceives as rhythm” (Hart & Lieberman, 1991, p. 48).  At first, we’re terrified, the brain releases adrenaline, we feel alive and alert, ready to run. But then our modern brain cuts in and says, “no, no, this is cool, you’re okay, it’s just your favorite band, don’t run, dance!”

Reason number two: According to Levitin, in A World in Six Songs, when we are stressed, the hormone cortisol builds up in our bodies.  This assists us in the fight or flight response to danger. The chronic buildup of cortisol in our bodies results in gastrointestinal problems and a plummet in our immune system functioning. However, “this may well be one of the reasons why we move our feet or snap our fingers when we hear music. . . Through these movements we burn off excess energy that could otherwise be toxic.  .  . Some of the energy we feel during music playing and listening is then expended in the increase mental activity. Finger snapping, hand clapping, and foot tapping help us burn off the rest, unless of course we actually get up and dance” (Levitin, 2008, p. 101).

Reason number three: Okay, so a lot of adults love angry music. But let’s face it, teens and 20-somethings seem to like it the most. Moody teens begin to assert their independence, prefer friends to their parents, test limits, and experiment. Teen-agers strive to differentiate themselves from their parents. What’s the easiest way to express your uniqueness and independence? Just listen to music that mom and dad hate. Often musicians push the limits and boundaries of convention.  This boundary-pushing appeals to adolescents who feel driven to assert their independence.

Additionally, teens begin to see that life is not always fair. Sometimes they feel like screaming.  Many kids report that the music itself seems to absorb their anger, resentment, or sadness so they no longer feel like they have to scream.

The Big Caution

Everything in Moderation. If your teen listens to some angry music on occasion mixed in with some oldies, R&B, and indie rock, this would be considered somewhat typical. However, according to Roberts, D., Christenson, P., & Gentile, D. (2003) “there is substantial evidence that adolescents who are depressed, angry, alienated, experiencing suicidal thoughts, having family problems, abusing drugs or alcohol, or having difficulty at school constitute a group that is particularly drawn to the sort of angry, nihilistic music that celebrates these “troubled” states and traits.” If this is the only type of music your teen seeks, you may wish to consult a mental health professional for an evaluation.

Violent Music Videos May Stimulate Aggression

In another study, two groups of college students were asked to watch a music video and then answer a questionnaire. Researchers found that those who watched a more violent music video responded with more aggressive answers in their questionnaire. In contrast, those who were asked to watch a more lighthearted music video expressed significantly less aggression (if any) in their questionnaire responses. The study concluded that violent rap and rock music videos contribute to aggressive attitudes and behaviors in society (Tropeano, 2006).

In the Rock Therapy group for teens suffering from anxiety or depression, we use researched based techniques to help teens effectively cope with intense emotions.  I use the music young people love to help them find healthy ways to identify, contain and appropriately communicate strong emotions like anger and grief.

Music Therapy Interventions using angry music


1) Slipknot’s, “Wait and Bleed”: I use this song in exercises that explore how various stimuli affect moods and thoughts. Generally, you would play this song in a series of three to five songs. Other songs might include the Beatles, “Let it Be,” and a more soothing instrumental (I often just improvise on the piano, but you might try a Liszt piece or Yann Tiersen’s Valse D’Amelie, from the movie, Amelie).  I give participants a sentence completion exercise while listening to the various types of music, making sure to distinguish which sentence connects to each song. Another variation includes drawing with the music. In this intervention, participants first draw a direct response to the music, then while listening a second time, draw an opposite response. Students learn to stop angry thoughts and think more flexibly.   In the end, students discuss what emotions the music stimulated and they learn methods to cope with those feelings.

2. Using Hawthorne Heights, “Ohio is for Lovers”: I have used this song in lyric analysis because it beautifully demonstrates how a teen feels when dumped. Students learn to talk about positive versus negative coping skills, poor boundaries, magnification, and negative labeling. Again, I use this song as one of two to four examples. The other examples may include songs that demonstrate positive coping, or positive boundaries, such as “Strength, Courage, and Wisdom,” by India Arie, or “Knock you Down,” by Keri Hilson.

Davida Price is a board certified music therapist.  She leads the Manage Anger Daily class for Teens and Rock Therapy, a program for teens suffering from anxiety and depression.  A version of this post appears on her website at


Hart, M. & Lieberman, F. (1991). Planet drum. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers.

Levitin, D. (2008). The world in six songs. New York, NY: Dutton.

Roberts, D., Christenson, P., & Gentile, D. (2003). The effects of violent music on children and adolescents. In D.A. Gentile (Ed), in Media violence and children: A complete guide for parents and professionals. (pp. 153-170). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Tropeano, E. (2006). Does rap or rock music provoke violent behavior? Journal of Undergraduate Psychological Research, 1, 31-34.