Violent lyrics increase aggression

A new study finds that violent lyrics in music significantly increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors, while prosocial lyrics reduce hostility.

Music is a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, often playing a significant role in shaping our emotions and behavior.

Now a new study has provided concrete evidence on how the content of music, particularly its lyrics, can influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Led by researchers from Australia and New Zealand, the study reveals that violent lyrics in music can significantly increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors, whereas prosocial lyrics tend to reduce hostility and promote more positive interactions.

The study indicates that while both violent lyrics and aggressive musical tones can influence internal states such as hostility and physiological arousal, the lyrics have a far greater impact on behavior. This challenges previous assumptions that the tone or style of music alone could drive aggressive behavior.

The study was published in the journal Aggressive Behavior on May 15, 2024.


The study recruited 138 participants, primarily undergraduate psychology students, with ages ranging from 18 to 25.

The sample was predominantly female, reflecting typical demographics in psychology programs. Participants were randomly assigned to different experimental conditions to ensure unbiased results.

The first experiment compared the effects of mildly aggressive, overtly aggressive, and violent lyrics on behavior and internal states.

Subsequent experiments investigated the comparative impacts of lyrics and musical tone on aggressive and prosocial behavior, using custom-written songs to maintain consistency.

The songs were constructed around a single musical template and a lyrical template in which key words could be changed. For example, the nonaggressive song line “Things are cool. I sway and bend” became “Things are odd. I prod and squeeze” in the subtle aggression condition, “Things are raw. I hit and punch” in the overt aggression condition, and “Things are gore. I cut and slash” in the violent condition.

The musical style was mainstream pop with a pleasant tone. Four song versions by the same male musical artist were recorded, using the same musical backing track for each to hold all musical characteristics of the songs constant.

The final experiment assessed the impact of violent lyrics on aggressive driving behavior using a driving simulator, incorporating real-world triggers for aggression, such as pedestrians suddenly jaywalking and blocking the driver’s path.


Violent lyrics led to significant increases in hostility and negative affect.

Participants exposed to violent lyrics, for example, allocated significantly more hot sauce to an unsuspecting partner in a taste test, a measure of aggression, compared to those who listened to neutral or prosocial lyrics.

And in the driving simulator experiment, participants who listened to violent lyrics exhibited higher levels of aggressive driving behaviors, such as honking, high beaming, and verbal aggression, especially when faced with frustrating driving scenarios.

Aggressive musical tones were also found to increase physiological arousal, measured through heart rate and self-reported arousal levels. But these impacts were less pronounced than the changes created by the lyrics.

Prosocial lyrics, on the other hand, consistently decreased hostility and promoted positive affect, particularly when paired with a pleasant musical tone or prosocial visual stimuli.

Interestingly, the level of aggression did not increase linearly with the intensity of the lyrics—any form of aggressive content seemed to activate similar levels of aggression.

Implications and Future Research

This study underscores the powerful influence of lyrical content on human behavior, suggesting that violent lyrics can prime individuals for aggressive behavior, especially in situations that provide clear opportunities for aggression (like driving).

“The obvious implication,” the authors write, “is that listening to violent lyrics when driving may increase the likelihood of aggressive driving when that person is triggered,” which is important given the prevalence and safety implications of road rage.

Likewise, violent music played in situations where there may be triggers and opportunities for aggression (for example in a bar) might increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior. 

As the authors conclude, “these studies provide evidence that violent and prosocial music reliably change a listener’s internal psychological state, and that in the right conditions these changes can impact behavior.”

Study Details