Sounds Interesting

The socioeconomic zeitgeist and musical taste

US vocalist Ronnie James Dio of British heavy metal group ‘Heaven and Hell’ on stage during a concert in Oslo, Norway. EPA/ Terje Beniksby Norway Out

Last week, reported that there is a strong correlation between the number of heavy metal bands in a particular country and various measures of quality of life, such as economic output per person, the number of people with a degree, and life satisfaction.

The argument is that, “Heavy metal springs not from the poisoned slag of alienation and despair but the loamy soil of post-industrial prosperity”, so that contented people get bored and begin to rebel.

As much as I would love to subscribe to the notion that this is a true (and perhaps even causal) relationship, I’m rather more skeptical. If we can’t even get clean drinking water to large areas of the planet I don’t see how we can count the number of Black Sabbath cover bands that play there either. There is also the real possibility that the finding simply reflects the musical culture of industrialised nations: there is no indication yet of a surge in the popularity of heavy metal in China, Indonesia or India that matches their rapid rate of economic growth.

But neither is it as incredible as you might think that there could be a relationship between the broader socioeconomic zeitgeist and musical taste.

One of my all-time-favourite pieces of research studied the lyrics of the best-selling songs in the USA from the 1950s up to the later 1980s. The lyrics were analysed in terms of the extent to which they dwelled on gloomy themes.

The research then showed that changes over time in this amount of “pessimistic rumination” could predict changes in consumer confidence some months later, and that this in turn of course predicted upwards and downward changes in the American economy. And since the changes in the lyrics came before the changes in the economy it would seem that pop music was anticipating, rather than merely reflecting, the onset of boom or bust.

This sounds outlandish, but makes more sense when we remember that populations comprise individuals. It isn’t the least bit controversial to claim that happy music makes you feel happy or that sad music makes you feel sad.

So if an entire population hears happy or sad music then the entire population ought to feel happier or sadder. And since the research studied the lyrics of the best-selling songs, this represents the music that was on radio station playlists and so receiving population-wide exposure. From there, neither is it a great leap to claim that people who feel sadder feel less optimism about the future, and so rein in their spending.

Even if you don’t buy the intuitive reasoning, there is direct evidence that music is related to measures of mood at the level of entire populations. For instance, one study carried out across 49 cities found that suicide rates could be predicted by the frequency with which country and western was played on the radio; and other research shows that suicide rates can be predicted by variations in subscription rates to a leading heavy metal magazine.

So liking for heavy metal may or may not relate to quality of life, but since populations are made up of people, it is not surprising that music that can influence one person can influence everyone and lead to population-wide effects.