Emotional Frequencies: Music and my autistic mind

A popular misconception associated with Autistic people that we are incapable of feeling emotion and that therefore you can say anything you like to us, and we wont react. The reality is that as an autistic person I’m likely to be incredibly emotionally motivated, and sensitive. I don’t struggle with having emotional reactions, but learning how to properly understand and regulate them, especially when they’re utterly drowning me.

One way in which I choose to understand how I’m feeling is by listening to music whose lyrics and sound articulate how I’m feeling. This not only helps me to make sense of my emotions but to silently express them in a way in which I might not otherwise be able to. Notice that this post is named ‘music and my autistic mind’ not ‘music and the autistic mind’ and I’m not trying to come to any broad conclusions.

Also, for the purposes of this blog I will be focusing on metal…as we all know, the greatest musical form known to man. I kid, I kid. However the genre does present a good case study

Regardless of your opinion on the bands I like (I’m not saying we can’t be friends if you don’t at least appreciate Iron Maiden, but you’re edging) I hope you find something helpful in this blog!

Emotional Understanding

A significant amount of the music I love is depressing. The favoured topics in the genres I’m using as a case study are death, war, oppression and anxiety. Its worth pointing out that rebellious genres flourish in societies that allow free expression for obvious reasons, and that music reacts to society, just as society can be shaped by culture. Not that its all politics: Japanese Kawaii metal about chocolate exists (and its awesome!), showing how metal perhaps has some link with Japanese culture. Widely speaking though, depressing music comforts me.

Prog musician Steven Wilson makes mercurial textures out of moroseness. He has a quote about sad music, which I find pertinent

“Music that is sad, melancholic, depressing, is in a kind of perverse way, more uplifting. I think if you respond strongly to that kind of art, it’s because in a way it makes you feel like you’re not alone. So when we hear a very sad song, it makes us realise that we do share this kind of common human experience, and we’re all kind of bonded in sadness and melancholia and depression.”

Steven Wilson

To give some examples which resonate with me albums like Blackbird by Alter Bridge, In Absentia by Porcupine Tree or even Heaven & Hell by Black Sabbath, strike an impression as they anchor thier messaging and playing styles in emotions and societal themes which have affected me in my own life. While theres truth in the statement ‘metal music makes you feel sad’ a more accurate analysis would be that ‘metal helps you to process sad feelings’

Music can make you reflectively contemplate your own anxieties, or see the issue of death, corruption and environmental destruction in a wider scope, past the mournfulness which envelops you in that moment. In an series of case studies of trauma survivors collated by Diana C. Herald, she makes the point:

When Kelty battled feelings of hopelessness and dissociation as a child, she recalled “music was the only thing physically happening that wasn’t abusive,” and “real in a way that nothing else was.” For these subjects, music served as an anchoring other, reminding them of the ties that ultimately bind us all—that there is more to life than the horrors they endured.

Diana C. Herald, Musical intensity In affect regulation

Its worth pointing out that we don’t see comforting effects across the spectrum. One study found that people who associate with subcultures such as goth or black metal may be at a higher risk of self harm. However, theres a crucial difference between comforted by that culture due to having depressive tendencies, and the culture itself encouraging those actions.

Another study by the University of Queensland involved metal fans being given an ‘anger induction’ where they recalled moments in thier life that inspired anger. They were asked to spend ten minutes listening to songs of thier choice and ten minutes in silence. The music helped them get into a more positive mental state and “explore the full gamut of emotion they felt, but also left them feeling more active and inspired”

This raises the incredible possibility that music in the vain of Rain In Blood by Slayer, or Psychosocial by Slipknot is actually incredibly soothing and a loud equivalent to enya. Joking aside the chief takeaway from all this might just be that listening to music reduces negative emotions (shocking, right) – even taking this at its simplest illustrates the power music might have in helping those who struggle to regulate thier feelings.

Music and Autism

I mentioned earlier how music has political and societal links. Musical movements dont happen on thier own, and its also the case that music deals with a lot of those emotional stimuli which effect me as an autistic person – the caustic social commentary of Rage Against the Machine or Kreator, the harsh pictures of mental health painted by Linkin Park and Deftones.

Regardless of the genre the changeable, multifarious, and harsh tones of rock are, for me personally, perfect at supplementing the autistic experience. For instance, I rely a lot on routine and don’t enjoy chaos. Metal genres are like fairground rides – the later allows you to stimulate your fear in a safe environment, the former allows me to experience chaos, and sensory overload in a way which allows me to deal with those sensations, so I’m perhaps better prepared for them when they happen in real life. The entire genre paints an immersive picture, that is useful in trying to understand myself but may also be beneficial in fostering social understanding of autism at large.

“Chaos and uncertainty are high during and immediately after disturbances, resulting in discomfort from not knowing how the disturbance will end or what the future holds. Uncertainty and chaos may be associated with the patterns of mathcore’s, grindcore’s, and progressive metal´s rhythmic complexity. These sub genres are characterized by unusual time signatures, atonality and dissonance in the manifestation of song elements that are reminiscent of chaos. The listener is constantly challenged to digest and anticipate dynamically interacting and often antithetical sound patterns and rhythm structures”

David G. Angler, Heavy Metal meets complexity and sustainability science

A lot gets propagated about the ‘metal community’ and indeed a lot of that is romantic self-aggrandizement – the idea that we are one huge supportive family is mostly true, but that sentiment is woefully lacking in places. It is the case however that feeling part of something and surrounding yourself in a community who share a similar ‘niche’ can be of a great benefit to autistic people who struggle to communicate. Indeed the themes of rebellion and being an outsider are paticulary pertinent. In fact, there’s evidence to show that the ‘metal fan’ identity, enables people to make sense of themselves during thier emotional development.

One final concept I’d like to bring up is the idea of ‘flow’. This is a process I experience when I’m writing, a musician experiences when they are performing, and a fan experiences when they’re at a show. Here’s how it works: when you’re at a concert your brain can fire off so-called ‘mirror neutrons’ that allow you to mimic the cognitive and emotional state of the performer or your fellow fans. As an autistic person, escaping from the real world and getting into the flow of an experience is something I do naturally and with ease (I even get that, when I’m listening to a song) Ultimately, the immersive experience is positive in that it fosters a sense of engagement, satisfaction and happiness.

Overall, through metal I’ve been able to better understand my often confusing emotional states, forge an identity for myself in a way which transcends my struggles with interaction ans socializing, and make sense of my personal life as well as the wider world around me. I’m not saying the scene is perfect. However, these pros and cons can be applied to just about any musical movement or section of society.

An Atypical Perspective…

Music helps in processing emotions: Especially when you are autistic, like I am, music can help to effectively process feelings which you may not fully comprehend. One phrase we like to use in the music critic community is ‘melodic weight’ – this describes how music carry’s meanings which can take someone from one emotional state to another, or remind them to see thier experiences past the narrow personal prism they may be perceiving.

Music can strengthen social skills: Both through music itself and through the communities and cultures which form through music, individuals like myself learn to interact in a social setting, adopt shared practices or ‘rituals’ and form relationships based off a shared love of an artist, or style of music. It is easy to see how this is valuable to individuals struggling to find an identity for themselves or interact with others.

Music has personal and social significance: I mentioned earlier that through the expressiveness and changeable rhythms, music has the potential to replicate the autistic experience. Well, apply that logic to social issues such as mental health struggles. Apply that even to issues such as political struggles or war, where the sound and poetry of a song may come close to representing those realities. I’ll do a blog post expanding on these theories one day, but needless to say there may come a point when studies are done to significantly chart the influencing relationship between art and society in a comprehensive and widespread way. When that work happens the voices of those who have been most affected by music will be vital.

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