‘Doesn’t it make you feel better?’ Why Angry Music Feels Good…

‘Doesn’t it make you feel better?’ Why Angry Music Feels Good…

by Hannah Cahill

Angry music is not new. People have always been angry and written music to suit their mood – music is a universal language which can often express the inexpressable.

I am a classical musician and teacher and I love angry music. My favourite musicians of all time are Beethoven and NIN’s Trent Reznor, two surprisingly similar men. Beethoven was the first angry music I connected with and the reason that I went on to study music. He was the rock star of his day – women fainted at his gigs as he played the piano wildly with his long black hair falling over his eyes. His music was shocking and new. Comparing Beethoven to most of his predecessors is like comparing Nine Inch Nails to Take That. He was also the first ‘artist’ as we think of them – he was not employed by a church or court like most composers, he did his own thing. He was an isolated, misunderstood, sometimes depressed man who, at one point, was very likely suicidal at the thought of losing his hearing forever. You can read Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament HERE if you are interested.

Young Beethoven

So many people find angry or aggressive music comforting because they connect with the lyrics, and the feeling of catharsis that screaming them out can give, but the music itself is speaking to us too. I find a lot of metal music to be rhythmically far more innovative and interesting than most other modern genres – something especially important when much of the music has a lack of distinctive melody.

Here are some thoughts on a few angry songs I love and why I think they feel good. I find it interesting that a lot of the reasons that music like Slipknot and Nine Inch Nails seem to speak to me on a deeper level are rooted much more in classical music than in pop music – frequently changing dynamics (volume) for example, is a huge part of the classical music world but really not that common in pop music.

  1. Nine Inch Nails & Changing Metre

The vast majority of pop and rock music picks a nice regular time signature like 4/4 (4 beats in every bar) and sticks to it for the duration of the song. This allows people to dance to it, and it feels comfortable. It also makes the song more easily memorable and therefore usually more sellable.

Metal and some Rock music is known for its love of 7/4 and 7/8 (which means they have 7 beats in the bar) – time signatures which we call ‘irregular’ because they don’t fall into the comfortable zone of having 2, 3 or 4 beats in the bar like most music does. This can give the music a stilted, unsettled feel. Some songs which use these time signatures (for some or all of the song) are Spiders by Slipknot, Money by Pink Floyd, Outshined by Soundgarden and 2+2=5 by Radiohead.

Irregular time signatures don’t necessarily feel good by themselves, but they can enhance the overall nervous mood in a song like Spiders, which in turn can make the song speak to us on a more visceral level. When it does feel good though, is when you have an irregularly timed song which breaks into regular time, like having a regular chorus after an irregular verse.

NIN’s Somewhat Damaged from The Fragile is a really interesting song. When it starts you think it’s in a totally different time than it is (it sounds like 6/8). Then the drums kick in and you realise it’s actually 9/4, kind of. The 9th beat is at the end of every ‘normal’ 8 beat sentence, like he just leaves each line lying there a little bit longer than its supposed to be, just hanging there. The 4 note motif from the beginning is still there underneath sort of fitting in. The whole effect is really unsettling.

Before the final section, the drums disappear for a while, leaving you feeling rhythmically lost. When they return, he finally allows you into everyone’s comfort zone of 4/4. You feel safe, everything is where it should be… but then it builds to the most amazing, angry, cathartic ending, with him screaming ‘fell apart, where the f**k were you?’ before releasing you into the floaty calm sounds of the intro to The Day The World Went Away.

For me, this song is the ultimate cathartic musical experience – it starts off so simply and you have no sense of how different the end will be. It is so unsettled all the way through until you reach 4/4 where you somehow feel more comfortable with the rising aggression than you did when the rhythm was constantly changing. It is a very clever trick. The link into the next track allows you to hold that feeling a little longer and bathe in the newly found calm after the storm.

Rhythm and metre is so important in the way music makes us feel. Take for example NIN’s March Of The Pigs. Its time signature keeps changing between 7 and 8 beats per bar, and the mood goes from wild to calm and then almost jazzy and then back to wild again within minutes. It is a song which is virtually impossible to ignore. However, play the remix All The Pigs, All Lined Up, which is altered to be totally in 4/4, and the mood completely changes; although it is still loud and angry, it is suddenly much more rhythmically comfortable and predictable, which has the effect of making it sound a little less desperate.

Trent Reznor (pic from NiN archive)

2. Slipknot & Structure

Most pop/rock music is structurally very predictable. It usually consists of alternating verses and choruses, broken up by a middle 8 before the climactic return of the chorus. It is a very old structure dating back hundreds of years.

A noticeable difference with more extreme music in many of its forms, is that it is often far freer with its structure. Although it does often follow the same old structure, there are so many examples of when it doesn’t. I find that there is so much more variety and unpredictability in these genres than in most.

There are countless varying structures and it would take forever to look at them all but one song that works really well is Slipknot’s XIX from The Gray Chapter. This is a different kind of anger – it is desperation, loss, grief at the death of bassist Paul Gray. Lyrically, it is not at all suited to a standard structure. It starts small and builds layer upon layer of sound, building up to a desperate sounding climax. This song has a lot in common with the first three minutes or so of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Both them are in the key of A minor and are structurally similar. Both use an ostinato (a repeated musical idea) which moves between different octaves and both have a slow build up texturally, adding new layers on to existing ones.

This kind of structure allows us to be gently drawn into the mood. By the end of the song you have built up to an emotion which you may not be able to access right away. It draws you in. XIX has the added point of ending with one last yell on the 7th (G), a dissonant (clashing) note. By finishing the song on the 7th, the song doesn’t end ‘properly’, allowing you to hold on to that feeling a little longer and embrace it. Instead of shutting those difficult emotions out, you are asked to really feel them.

3. Dissonance & ‘Hurt’

If you want to experience how a tiny harmonic change can totally affect the sound of something, try listening to both NIN and Johnny Cash’s versions of Hurt. The two versions usually divide opinion, but it really shows how harmony can make a song feel very different. Although this is not exactly an angry song, it demonstrates a specific type of dissonance in a way that is easier to hear, so I want to include it anyway.

The two versions vary a little in key, instrumentation and other things but it is the tritone in the original NIN version which gives this version its distinctive sound. A tritone, sometimes called diabolus in musica (the devil in music) is the interval (distance) of an augmented 4th or diminished 5th. It is one of the most dissonant intervals in music – some emergency vehicles have sirens tuned to this interval as it’s very hard to ignore!

In the NIN version, as the first word, ‘I’ is sung, the guitar plays a note which is a tritone above the home note. It reappears in that place in the bar throughout the song. In the Johnny Cash version, there is no tritone so that clash is missing. Personally, I think the tritone in the NIN version adds an uncomfortable feel to the music, whereas the Cash version simply sounds sad. NIN also fills the background space with something like white noise which adds to the mood.

Another great use of the tritone is the last two notes of the piano melody in the opening of NIN’s The Wretched. In both this song and NIN’s Hurt, the tritones (and white noise) are dropped in the chorus, making the choruses feel more euphoric.

Tritones are found everywhere in music, two together make up the chord of a diminished 7th which is your standard ‘scary’ chord from old horror films, but using them in a melody like this is far less common.

***

There are, of course, other more technical effects such as extreme vocal techniques, distortion, detuning guitars and other less theory based things as well as the lyrics which all contribute to the emotional impact of angry music, but I will leave those areas to the singers and guitarists.

The key point with all of this is the unpredictability. The songs that have the most dramatic effect on the listener are often the ones with the most extreme contrasts. They allow us to feel unsafe and wild and get in touch with the more hard to reach parts of ourselves.

It is said over and over that music expresses that which cannot be said – so what if you are feeling angry? Frustrated? It seems that is much more acceptable historically to connect with music that is happy, calming, sad (in a gentle kind of way) or exciting, but far less acceptable to enjoy music which emulates states of extreme anger or frustration, which most people feel just as much as they might feel happy.

It is so important to be able to connect with all sides of ourselves and music is a fantastic way of doing just that. If you need to get something out of your system, a nice poppy song won’t always help with that… I am a big believer in constructive anger, embracing those feelings and letting them out in a healthy way, channelling them into something creative.

And, as Trent says, doesn’t that make you feel better?

—————————————-

Hannah Cahill is a music theorist and teacher with an interest in the psychology of music. You can find her on Twitter at @cahill_music (twitter) or via her blog http://www.cahillmusic.co.uk
The play lists for this piece can be found here:
Track list:
Spiders Slipknot
Money Pink Floyd
Outshined Soundgarden
2+2=5 Radiohead
Somewhat Damaged NIN
March OF The Pigs NIN
All The Pigs, All Lined Up NIN
XIX Slipknot
(2nd Movement of 7th Symphony Beethoven)
Hurt NIN
Hurt Johnny Cash
The Wretched NIN

Metal Music Studies Article

We are delighted that Metal Music Studies (that’s a real academic journal, people!!!) published an article about Heavy Metal Therapy. It outlines where we have come from and the key theoretical ideas behind our project. We realise that not everyone will be able to access the full thing but here is the link:

https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/intellect/mms/2019/00000005/00000003/art00008

Metal Music Studies is the journal for the International Society for Metal Music Studies, they have a cool webpage 🤘🏻

Play Crack The Sky

Play Crack The Sky

As a red blooded male with more issues than Marvel comics and it’s fair to say that I suck at touching emotions. Today I had a counselling appointment which went really well (and we all know really well= incredibly painful, upsetting and tiring). I hopped into my car and my head was swirling. Before I could drive I put some music on, music that fits the genre of Emo.

emo guy.jpg

Generic Emo (not Ben) ^^^^^

In the early 2000’s there was a second wave of Emotional Hardcore or, as it became known as; Emo. The features of Emo are… hazy. Songs that include big shifts, build ups an changes, personal lyrics and mainly following punk chord structure but longer in duration. I am not in any way musically talented so that my best shot at describing it. As a fan of thrash metal at the time I looked down upon a lot of the bands and the fashion that came with the second wave emo.

This would change.

I went to Download for the first time in ’05 and was blessed enough to see Funeral for a Friend at their height of fame. They were superb, vitriolic, angry and they knew how to work the crowd.

My favourite bands from the era are the very vanilla Taking Back Sunday and Funeral for a Friend. Taking back Sunday ended up very pop, which is fine. ‘Brand New’ quickly became my favourite all time band. These artists did something for me that I, like many men struggle to do; give form to our thoughts and feelings.

These days I don’t gig much but I did see Brand New live a few years ago. I can count on one hand how many times in the last fifteen years I have cried but that night I sobbed my heart out to ‘SoCo Amaretto and Lime’. I screamed my voice to a whisper to ‘You Won’t Know’ and for a fair part of “Gasoline” I was, unbeknown to me or him, holding some random guys hand instead of my wife’s (She and his girlfriend thought it was hilarious and just left us to figure it out). It was cathartic, beautiful and I have never felt such a burden lifted from me. After my session today I listened to Limousine, a harrowing tale of a 7 year old girl fighting for her life following a road traffic accident. I finally hit that ‘gear’ of feeling therapeutically upset when ‘Jesus Christ’ kicked in, a song about someone feeling utterly unworthy in the eyes of everyone, including God.

Emo to me became a tool I used when the walls came up and I found myself cut off from feelings. Like all good metal it is cathartic, uncompromising and brutally honest. For me it’s been a wonderful accompaniment to counselling which as a therapy should be cathartic, uncompromising and brutally honest.

Now I’m off to balance it all with some Deftones and Queens of the Stone Age.

HMT is 1

Turns out that 1 year ago today I created the Facebook and Instagram accounts for Heavy Metal Therapy so I guess it’s kind of our first birthday. Now, I didn’t really do anything with them for about a month, mainly as I just wanted to make sure I got the name before someone else nicked it! And partly because I was nervous about it (and there have been times when it has really challenged a few insecurities but that’s a discussion for another time). It was only really supposed to be a little Facebook group: it kinda is still a slightly bigger Facebook group, my original aim was to see if I could get 100 likes. But there have been a few milestones over this past year…..most of which were unexpected:

  • About 4000 people now follow hmt on various social media across the whole world
  • After the fb and insta pages came the website and logo and people generously gave designs I could use
  • People started sending in their recovery stories and were open and brave and generally amazing
  • Then people sent poetry and art too!
  • It expanded further to blogs, articles, book chapters, conferences, posters 🤓
  • I’ve collected some amazing roadies who advise on metal genres, help with social media, collaborate with me on stuff, contribute to the webpages and are generally giving of their time for free and for the love of metal
  • I spent probably too many hours collating the heavy metal and psychology research for the website, sent tons of emails to various scholars in heavy metal studies. Some replied and I was lucky enough to meet a few of them too
  • I had at least 3 freakouts about giving up the whole thing
  • About 1000 leaflets have been distributed across loads of metal festivals thanks to the kindness of some key organisations like Sophie Lancaster Foundation
  • People sent in nearly 200 song suggestions for playlists
  • And now I have a grand total of 2 heavy metal therapy t-shirts as well 🤣

Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who believed in the project, put up with me droning on and contributed* 🤘🏻you guys rock 🤘🏻

*The big soppy thank you list –

Angela, Stevie, Danny, Anthony – you 4 especially

Mary, Rufus, Elisabeth, Dave, Sarah, Joel, Ben x2, Charley, Nick x3, Karl, Sam, Linda, Jen, Jasmine, Rosey, Andy, Dan, Andres, Heather, Amanda, Scott, Jennifer, Rich. The guys at Sophie Lancaster and Chill Welfare

Anyone who did a story, poem, blog or design

Anyone who read a draft of owt (Jurga, Mark, Cat, Charlotte, Paul),

Anyone who didn’t laugh in my face

I’m not crying, you are….

(image from greatnameplates)

Daddy

This blog has some themes in it that readers may find distressing, triggering or uncomfortable with references to child abuse.

Daddy

korn

Korn

 

Ben Ryan – Metalhead Mental Health Practitioner

I said I would write about ‘Daddy’ the final song on Korn’s self-titled first album, and quickly regretted it. Not because Heavy Metal Therapy isn’t a wonderful site to write for and not that I don’t have a lot to say. No kids, it’s because even twenty years after I first bought that album, ‘Daddy’ never fails to make me feel upset or my skin crawl. For this reason it is one of the most important songs I have ever heard.

‘Daddy’ musically is very similar to much of the album but is a slower song. Heavy for sure but with a tempo and beat like heavy footfalls and the inevitability of something bad happening. It’s a filthy guttural song with grunts, growls and sobs to compliment the brutally honest confessions of a lead singer who as a child had been sexually abused.

Jonathan Davis was raped by his neighbour and his parents never believed him. The first part of the song is from the point of view of the abuser, messed up yeah?

“Little child, looking so pretty
Come out and play, I’ll be your daddy
Innocent child, looking so sweet.”

-Daddy. Korn.

To form that kind of position must have been an incredible thing for Jonathan to do. Most reactions to abusers is that of disgust and to demonise. To put himself into the abuser’s shoes must have taken a heroic effort on Jonathan’s behalf. Performing this song was utterly draining for Davis and it took him years to be able to sing it live.

The second half of the song is Jonathan’s anger at his parents for not believing him. The anger appears to overshadow much of the actual abuse.

“I didn’t touch you there
Mama said she didn’t care
I didn’t touch you there
That’s why mama stopped and stared.”

-Daddy. Korn

As a younger man I misinterpreted this as him being sexually abused by his father, something like many naive minds I didn’t think was possible and is never talked about. I was dabbling with the idea of working in mental health and doing A-Levels in Theatre, English and Psychology. I had also read excerpts from Marilyn Manson’s biography in which Manson graphically described sexual abuse at the hands of his grandfather.

This-blew-my-mind. How could people have sex with children? How could someone have sex with a child they were related to? What the hell is wrong with people? Child abuse is taboo. It’s arguably more taboo than murder. In prison (or on the front pages of certain newspapers) it’s seen to be worse to have sex with a child than kill someone. The Office for National Statistics has only started asking the general population about the frequency of sexual abuse in the last four years.

As my career developed I worked more and more with adults whom had suffered sexual abuse and the majority was at the hands of direct or secondary members of the family. It’s horrific, but you are more likely to be raped by someone known or even in the same household as you than a stranger*.

It’s hard to hide the unease of this revelation. Social workers are taught to question children when the child cannot see them, ideally when driving a car or engaging in an activity. The reason is twofold: It encourages disclosure and the child cannot see the horror on the adult’s face, horror that cannot be hidden even by the most hardened social worker.

So I have probably hit a nerve here and likely caused discomfort, for that I apologise but that’s not the full story. See people recover from the effects of sexual abuse. People bounce back and get stronger. Inter-family abuse is more difficult because there are often conflicting feelings about the abuser. On one hand the abuser did what they did, but they might also have been a loving parent that the abused had some fond memories of. It’s also often the case that the abused remains in contact with the abuser. Early in my practice I sometimes found this client group frustrating to work with, but I was looking at things backwards. It takes time to get trust then effort to keep continuity of care. This is understandable considering the persons trust in any authority or caring individual has likely been shattered by their early experience. And here I was expecting an individual with that experience to instantly trust me. The more I understood the interaction between the abuse and the person’s presentation the easier things got. I have over recent years started to describe some of the difficulties that people who have experienced childhood trauma as like a ‘Survivor Syndrome’, I think it has a nice ring to it.

Society never really helped me get my head around child sexual abuse in my clients. The training I received, although excellent doesn’t touch on how often the abuser is known to the family or even a member. Heavy metal artists such as Korn, Marilyn Manson and a notable mention; Machinehead gave me a greater understanding of what the people I worked with had gone through. The songs I was listening to were more honest and brutally forthright than my training or society ever was.

I acknowledge the suffering the artists had been subjected to. I personally think ‘Daddy’ should be required listening to any mental health professional. It’s raw, uncomfortable and genuinely upsetting. It also points out the failings that people have in acknowledging child abuse. We are better than the past but the truth is we often don’t want it to be true. 3 in 4 victims don’t report abuse at the time because they feel embarrassed, humiliated or that they will not be believed*. As a society we still prefer bogeymen who steal innocence away. Not the truth which is that the abuser is just as likely to be a member or close friend of the family.

To summarise I would like to state that ‘Daddy’ had a huge impact on me. It challenged many of the beliefs I had around child sexual abuse. I also think it points out some of the barriers to reporting sexual abuse. Furthermore I think it is an excellent education in the thoughts and emotions that an abused child may be experiencing. It is a musical expert by experience, a brutally uncompromising guide to how to manage child sexual abuse.

Metal is full of songs about taboo subjects. Rarely has it reached into me and changed the very way I saw the suffering of others in such a profound way. I have heard criticisms that the mentioned artists are being self-indulgent and looking for to shock their audience… well, yeah. That’s what metal is about, getting in your face with issues both gripping and profound. Korn put a cathartic song about child sexual abuse on their very first album and it went platinum. Can you imagine Beyoncé or Ed Sheeran doing the same through the medium of pop**? Only a metal artist could pull it off. From an artistic point of view the song is sublime. It’s a beautifully hideous and will provoke emotion.

Have a listen and change a life.

This article was hard to write. I’m off to do something nice. If you are working with individuals who have suffered like Jonathan; be brave and ask the hard questions you amazing human being. If you have suffered; stay strong you bad ass survivor and remember; they can’t hurt you now.

*https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/abuseduringchildhood/findingsfromtheyearendingmarch2016crimesurveyforenglandandwales

** According to NME magazine Ed Sheeran is a big fan of both Korn and Marilyn Manson!

Book Review – David Gunn, Summertime in Murdertown

I am probably obsessed with King 810, I’ve been to see them 4 times and have a fair range of merch. I can recite their spoken word piece ‘a conversation with God’ off by heart (because you never know when you might be called upon to deliver an emergency bit of performance poetry).  There is something about their music for me that feels quite raw and real, I can connect with it despite the experiences they describe being vastly different from my own. King seem to be like the marmite of metal, and receive plenty of flak from the media and critics, needless to say I’m absolutely in the ‘love’ camp, they are one of my favourite bands.  So when David Gunn brought out his memoir ‘Summertime in Murdertown’ I was obviously going to have to get a copy – it took ages to arrive here in the UK but once I’d got it I read it in a day, and here are my thoughts on it.

Basically Summertime is David Gunn’s story of growing up in Flint in Michigan, facing deprivation and violence from the earliest of ages. What’s striking about his description is how disrupted and chaotic it feels, not to over psychologise it but there is no sense of ‘safe base’ when he describes his early life.  The poverty is relentless; the violence starts to feel ‘normal’.  He describes it in a matter of fact way, which made me think about people who have experienced ‘complex trauma’ (when bad things repeatedly happen) and how they may sometimes talk about the events in their lives.  However, the thing that’s most interesting to me is how he describes the role of his music, at the start of the book he denies that there is any therapeutic effect, no ‘purge’ or catharsis, indeed it seems to be quite painful for him.  But he is driven to write and share what it is like in Flint, and I wonder if through his music he connects to emotions that are otherwise pushed away (with good reason, detaching from feelings could be a survival strategy in situations such as those Gunn describes, despite this having potentially unintended consequences in other ways).  He gives a nod to having faced some mental health struggles – self harm and suicidal feelings, though the emphasis on day to day survival takes understandable priority (Maslow’s hierarchy and all that).  There are some things that are surprising and kind of amazing about Gunn, mainly emphasised in the contradictions in his account.  For example, he talks about fierce loyalty, yet he doesn’t describe strong attachments, people seem to come and go; He says that writing and performing is painful, yet he pursues it with an almost relentless focus, indeed his ability to focus on his goals despite the chaos around him is remarkable;  He was a straight edge drug dealer; He dropped out of school early but became an avid reader where the library was a sanctuary.  Pretty much everything he does is self- taught and all of it is hard won.  He talks about some of the reading he has done, particularly psychology and sociology, through which he gives some very astute (if partly detached) insights about his circumstances growing up.  There are also some interesting cultural reflections about the band’s background being markedly different from most others in the metal genre.  I’m struck by a conflict of pride about where he has come from but with none of the ‘I’m better off for my experiences’ stuff that so often comes with these accounts (indeed I have found that Gunn offers a refreshing alternative to the ‘positive re-frame’ of trauma into ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, I have read accounts of his where he describes the effect of his experiences and how it would be better if they hadn’t happened – which I imagine may resonate for lots of people who have experienced trauma).  It’s also written in a way that I think will probably make sense to most people, which I’m all for, definitely worth a read.

king picture.jpg