Does Music and Lyrical Content Influence Human Behavior?

By Kevin C. Liljequist

Music wakes us up in the morning, makes us want to dance, soothes us when we are feeling sad, and gets on some folks nerves in the elevator. From infancy to adulthood music is an important part of our lives. Mothers sing lullabies to babies, toddlers and children play "ring around the rosy," and teenagers become absorbed in songs they believe help better define them during their rocky transition into adulthood. Music can summon a wide range of emotions, most of which are wonderful. Yet there is some music that communicates harmful health messages, especially when it reaches a vulnerable audience. Music is but one part of our popular culture. Whatever impact music has on behavior is bound to be complex and variant. The best way to determine what that impact is, what influence violent lyrics exert, and how such lyrics fit into the impact of popular entertainment is to encourage research, debate, and discussion. This kind of public issue demands a public inquiry.

We know music by itself has an effect on people. From low chords to high chords, from fast beats to slow beats, music has an impact on behavior. Music in general tends to reduce or delay fatigue (Diserens 260). Music has been proven to increase muscular endurance (Diserens 274). Music has no definite effect on precision or accuracy of movement, if the rhythm is not adapted to the rhythm of the work (Diserens 261). Music has been shown to reduce accuracy in typewriting and handwriting, the results being shown in a increased number of errors (Diserens 262). Music can speed up such voluntary activities as typewriting and handwriting (Diserens 263). Music can accelerate respiration (Diserens 271). Music has also been proven to manipulate electrical conductivity in the human body (Diserens 274).

Today's music and lyrical content have undergone dramatic changes since the introduction of rock and roll more than forty years ago. These changes have become an issue of vital interest and concern for society in general. During the past four decades, music and lyrical content have become increasingly explicit with references to sex, drugs, and violence. The anti-social themes common in popular music have compelled some adults to rally against it, especially heavy metal and rap. If parents in the fifties didn't like Elvis' gyrating hips, those same people would be astounded at how rapidly we've reached the "anything goes" mentality. With the advent of MTV and VH-1, not only do we get to listen to violent lyrics, but we also get to see it acted out in full color. Historically, there has been a distrust of youth oriented music.

Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato said, "Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited" (Ballard 47). In a book I am reading on Abraham Lincoln, the author states, "who writes the nation's songs shapes the nation's souls" (qtd. in Temple 240). I think if this is not true in whole, it is certainly true in part.

Heavy metal lyrics often have themes of alienation, retribution, and angst (Ballard 476). The lyrics contain references to sex, drug use, suicide, Satanism, and other violence. From a listeners standpoint the lyrics are loud and the music is guitar driven. The lyrics are sometimes hard to understand and open to interpretation. Rap lyrics are chanted in cadence. Rap lyrics are accompanied by rhythmic music that may include scratching or spinning. Scratching is dragging a phonograph needle across a record. The lyrics of rap music contain objectionable language, often relating to the problems of urban life and include themes of sex, drug use, misogyny, or violence (Fishoff 805). My concern is not with popular music, or even with a particular genre, such as heavy metal or rap. My concern is with those songs that glorify violence, racism, murder, mayhem, and condone the abuse of women. I am not emphasizing any type of censorship, but I am emphasizing some type of responsibility or citizenship. Music is important to this culture and it's identity. Music helps define social and sub-cultural boundaries. Today's culture face far more difficulties and dangers than there counterparts did just a generation ago. Over the last thirty years, violent juvenile crime has jumped by more that five hundred percent (United States Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs 1998).

Teen suicide has tripled. Unwed teen pregnancy has skyrocketed. Casual drug use among teens has jumped nearly fifty percent over the last four years alone (United States Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs 1998). A wide majority of adults surveyed in a 1997 report from Public Agenda, "Kids these days: What Americans really think about the next generation," decried sex and violence in the media as threatenin. to the well being of young people.

Till recently no studies showed cause and effect relationship between music and lyrical content influencing behavior. Now more than one-thousand scientific studies and reviews conclude that significant exposure to violent music and lyrical content increase the risk of aggressive behavior in certain children and adolescents (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education 342). The explicit lyrics desensitize the listener to violence and give the impression that the world is a meaner place than it really is (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education 341).

Today's teenagers spend four to five hours a day listening to music or watching it on television (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications 1219). A survey of 14 to 16 year olds in ten different southeastern cities showed that the time being spent listening to music was on an average of forty hours per week (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications 1219). One Swedish study found that adolescents who developed an early interest in violent music were more likely to be influenced by their peers and less influenced by their parents (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications 1219). If teens are spending more time tuned into music, they are spending less time with their parents. A Carnegie Foundation Study found that the average teen spends only twenty minutes a day alone in conversation with his or her mom, and less than five minutes alone with dad (United States Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs 1998).

The average American teen spends far more time listening to music than listening to mom or dad. The average American teen is spending more time alone with music, with less parental oversight and involvement. I think it is appropriate to assume tha. prolonged exposure to explicit lyrics during the formative teen years could have an impact on ones attitude and assumptions, and thus decisions and behavior. Understanding the nature and extent of the influence of violence in music may be the first step towards better addressing the problems plaguing our youth, and our best hope for ensuring a more civil society and helping our young people.

The average young viewer is exposed to fourteen thousand sexual references each year, yet only a handful provide an accurate portrayal of responsible sexual behavior or accurate information about birth control, abstinence, or the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education 342). In a study done by Harvard University, five-hundred and eighteen videos were examined. Seventy-six video's showed acts of interpersonal violence. There were six acts of violence per two to three minute long segments. There were a total of four-hundred and sixty-two shootings, stabbings, punching, and kicking'. (Pattison 164). There were applications of hypo-dermic needles, priming, and other anti-social behaviors (Pattison 164). Other themes included Satanism, suicide, gay-bashing, substance abuse, sexual violence, etc. (Pattison 165). In the fashion side of the music industry, half-skirts and mini-skirts were prevalent. For the guys, afros and the tough-guy, slender but muscular look was portrayed (Pattison 167).

Recent best-selling albums have included graphic descriptions of murder, torture, and rape. For example, Nine Inch Nails released "Big Man with a Gun" with the following lyrics:

"I am a big man / yes I am / and I have a big gun / got me a big ole dick and I like to have fun / held against your forehead / I'll make you suck it / maybe I'll put a hole in your head / you know just for the fuck of it / I'm every inch a man / I'll show you somehow / me and my fucking gun / nothing can stop me now / shoot shoot shoot shoot" (The Downward Spiral, Reznor 1994).

Marilyn Manson released "The Reflecting God" with the following lyrics:

"Who said date rape isn't kind / the housewife I will beat / I slit my teenage wrist / each thing I show you is a piece of my death / shoot shoot shoot motherfucker / no salvation / no forgiveness / this is beyond your experience/ forgiveness" (Antichrist Superstar, Manson 1994).

Given that the average teen listens to music around four to five hours a day, it appears young fans of such music will spend a good chunk of their formative years tuning into messages of violence and hate.

If all this is not bad enough, the music recording industry has been investigated by the F.T.C. into whether it is marketing this explicit content to the most popular teen venues in all mass media. The commissions review of ad placements revealed no change in industry practices since a September 2000 report investigating their marketing practices (Federal Trade Commission, December 2001). Marketing documents for thirteen explicit content labeled recording included plans for extensive advertising in the most popular teen venues in television, radio, print, and online media (Federal Trade Commission, December 2001).

Just before the report was issued, the Recording Industry Association of America had recommended that recording companies not advertise explicit content labeled recordings in media outlets with a majority audience under the age of seventeen. Shortly after the release of that report the Recording Industry Association of America withdrew that recommendation. In the music industry's view, advertising targeted to all ages is consistent with parental advisory labeling program which, unlike the rating programs for movies and electronic games, does not specifically designate an age for which labeled music may be inappropriate (Federal Trade Commission, December 2001).

I believe music lyrics have an impact when illustrated in music videos. According to content analysis, up to seventy-five percent of concept music videos contain sexually suggested material (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications 1221). Since teenagers spend four to five hours a day listening to or watching music videos, I believe that music will in some way influence them. Many teens already copy fashion styles that they see on their favorite music artist. For some teenagers, music is just music, but for others it is a way to enhance their mood that they are already in, which can lead to negative results. Kids should be aware of the negative effects that music can bring, as well as the positive effects. Parents should have insight on what their kids are listening to and why they choose to listen to a particular type of music. The music video industry should be encouraged to produce videos and public service messages with positive themes about relationships, racial harmony, drug avoidance, nonviolence, sexual abstinence, pregnancy prevention, and avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases. Performers should be encouraged to serve as positive role models for children and teenagers. Although music usually does not directly cause violence, it encourages its audience through suggestive lyrics and images.

(Note. Kevin is a college student in Texas. He got an “A” on this paper delivered on October 15, 2002)

Close Window