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«Does death and suicide sound like the music you hear? Oliveira, A. & Rodrigues, R. Abstract We have addressed some aspects related to music, its ...»

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Does death and suicide sound like the music you hear?

Oliveira, A. & Rodrigues, R.


We have addressed some aspects related to music, its meanings, roles and

effects, as well as its closeness with emotions, during adolescence. Mood

swings are typical at this stage of life. In which music is essential; just as

much as the questioning of life and death, in a creative process involving

parents, colleagues, friends, idols and all of those that help in gaining

autonomy, values and identity.1 The conspiracy of silence surrounding death may be corrupted by the loss of a celebrity, such as Kurt Cobain who could represent any desperate adolescent, facing unbearable pain and pressure, who finds in music a reason for living and for trying to be accepted.

Our empirical research, developed in two phases (an extensive exploratory research and a set of three experiments), was framed on the theory of social representations (SR).2 SR facilitates the analysis of the complex subjectivities that involve the imaginary relation with death, suicide and some practices (where music occupies a central place).

We verified, on a (total) population of 1226 adolescents (comprehending both phases) that musical preferences articulate with the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and symbolic imaginary associated with life, death and suicide, with suicide ideation, the will to die or to live, suicidal and parasuicidal behaviour. Girls tend to prefer soft sounds and music to dance, and boys rather prefer 'harder' music, such as grunge, rock or metal. The younger (15-16 years old) listen to harder music that the older (17-18 years old). Musical preferences can also be associated to risk-taking and self-harm behaviours.

Key Words: Adolescence, Death, Life, Music, Social Representations.

***** 1. Introduction Everything is energy. Everything vibrates. Life itself is motion that generates sound, thus life is sound. So, in a certain sense, everything is music and it is natural to communicate through sound.

In a simple definition, music organizes the relations between sonorities through the course of time. Sounds (and silences) are combined and threaded forming rhythms, melodies and harmonies.3 Music acts by the intimate content present in the expression of sound.4 It is everything that remits us to the sumptuous manifest order of our cosmos.5 As a universal phenomenon that all humanity can understand, it is, at the same time, an art 2 Does death and suicide sound like the music you hear?


and a science.6 That’s why we should appreciate the music through the emotions and understand it through the intelligence.7 Can we move towards life without referring to music?

Usually we prefer to listen to what is in affinity with ourselves at a moment. Music is strongly related toour SR8, namely about life, death and suicide.9 Music can help us live moments of great satisfaction or to relief tensions.10 It can also influence behaviour, emotional and psychological state, given its closeness to emotions or feelings like euphoria, melancholy, joy or sadness.11 Music always relates to feelings, thoughts and even proceedings.

The lyrics of the songs and its latent contents, as rhythm, melody or musical style, also have a large importance in what is experienced.

Adolescence is, in a large way, a typical age of emotions, where advances, retreats and periods of balance and instability, occur progressively.

Music, as a primordial ally, follows intensely the everyday life of teenagers.12 Thus, who better than adolescents will emphasize the feelings that arise with music? How can we understand them if we don’t know the music they listen to?

In adolescence we try to answer to the greatest psychosocial questions, in a process of construction that involves parents, peers, friends, idols (namely musicians) and all those that, in some way, help in the conquest of autonomy, in the definition of values and of an identity.13 Teenagers think a lot about death and suicide.14 Searching for references and values, in a society hidden under the shadow of death, a teenager can take risks beyond the social norms, breaking its own security to see how far can he go or what can he achieve.15 The risk is glorified by adolescents and, also, by a society obsessed by youth and the (illusory) domain of life and death. Certain risks are symbolic of certain kinds of social identity.16 To grow implies taking risks, test ourselves, to find new limits, overtake them and amplify consciences, (...) the search for these emotions, where the young can quickly debate, simultaneously, between living or dying, reveals a predominantly symbolic character of closeness to death and rises a sense of renewed identity. 17 Defying death can provide a strong reason to live.18 Here lies one of the reasons for parasuicide behaviour, especially risk-taking behaviour, in which one can risk life without intending to die. This differs from the suicide behaviour, which clearly indicates a will to die. But both can be faced as survival strategies.19 Risk-taking behaviour is considered a form of assertion, valorisation and social recognition, particularly with the group of peers, improving selfOliveira, A. & Rodrigues, R. 3 ______________________________________________________________

esteem and providing some meaning to life.20 Therefore, parasuicide - namely risk-taking and self-mutilation or self-harm behaviours - is increasingly frequent in our societies.21 Music is essential in the development of adolescents’ identity, socialization and sociability.22 Adolescents search for authenticity, integration and to be socially distinguished.

Their musical tastes, as their feelings, can vary significantly. More than a preference for a musical style, it is important the way preferences are mixed and the contexts in which they are most evident. Even when an adolescent doesn’t identify himself with singers or doesn’t know all the lyrics, music can influence his cognitive, psychosocial and emotional development, and his personal history.23 In Portugal, for more than 90% of youngsters, music is important or very important in their lives.24 It has been observed a relation between vulnerability to suicide and the preference for certain styles, especially heavy metal, also associated with risk-taking behaviours.25 Musical preferences are important as an indicator for health professionals, helping them in primary care.26 Music evidences many of the typical adolescents’ representations of feelings, death, suicide, and life.27 In the history of music, we can find various themes associated to death or suicide, including lyrics used in suicide notes; however, there's no evidence of a suicide due to the negative content of a theme.28 Can a musical style influence the ideas, feelings and behaviour of a youngster? Does the youngster choose to listen to something related to what he is experiencing?29 Music may be associated to personal, familiar or social factors. In any situation, thinking of suicide, imagining death, is naturally linked to an inner strong will to reach to something different, and to find a way to survive.30 Most of the studies on this area, assume that listening to a predefined style (as heavy metal) can induce suicide. Others have focused their attention in the feelings of adolescents when facing certain types of music, arguing that the way they feel determines their tastes. In our research, we consider pertinent to study significant associations, rather than causalities, between musical preferences31 and other aspects like suicide ideation and parasuicide.

2. Some notes about the empirical research The theory of social representations (SR), as proposed by Moscovici, focuses on the way that human beings think and create their shared realities, as well as their content.32 SR are structures that combine, in an integrated and organized form, cognitions, affections and actions, generated in a given social context, connecting individuals with their environment, status, positions, groups and social belongings, by correlated processes of objectification and anchoring.33 4 Does death and suicide sound like the music you hear?


Here we present some of the most relevant results of an extensive empirical research focused on the SR of death, music and suicide in adolescence.34 This research enclosed two parts, the first one, exploratory and the second, experimental.

From the results obtained in the exploratory part, we extracted, in great extent, the indicators used to construct the questionnaires for the subsequent experiments.35 In the second part we have conducted three experiments that had some independent variables in common, namely gender, age, and experimental context.36 In the first two experiments we have focused, particularly, in the representations of death and suicide. And, in the third, in the representations of suicide and music, relating them to feelings, musical preferences and other indicators, such as the death ideation, suicidal ideation, suicide attempt and parasuicide behaviours.

Among the main goals, this research aimed to: apprehend and analyse the SR of death, suicide and music amongst an adolescent population; explore the associations between the experimental contexts and these representations; understand how SR vary according to gender and age;

articulate the musical preferences with the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and the symbolic imaginary associated to death and suicide.

In this paper we will centre our attention on the third experiment.

3. Method and Materials Participants A population of 26837 Portuguese adolescents, 51% girls, 49% boys;

50% in each age group (15-16 years old and 17-18 years old).

Variables We considered experimental context38, sex and age as the main independent variables, and the SR of death, suicide and music, as well as the musical preferences, as dependent variables.

Instruments and procedure We developed a questionnaire with seven groups of items on closed questions, followed of ordinal scales (1 to 5) based on the results obtained on previous studies.39 The data was collected in a class context, having each student answered it anonymously and individually.

Different techniques were applied for the data analysis, such as, principal component analysis, invariable and multivariable variance analysis and correlation analysis.

Oliveira, A. & Rodrigues, R. 5 ______________________________________________________________

4. Results Among the most significant representations of suicide, we point out the discomfort, sadness, unhappiness and fear, the compassion with the suicidal person and the fragility that is associated, the external causes of suicide, and the perception of suicide as a resolution or violent death. The suicidal gesture reveals a cry for help, a solution or escape from difficulties or problems, a given up or denial of life. It is, simultaneously, an act of despair and a (final) wish to survive.

In what respects to music, we point out dimensions which are especially related to well-being, pleasure, affections, relaxation, fun and life, but also, in a less extent, to discomfort, sadness and depression. Music is important for the good and the bad moments. In fact, it is related to thoughts, feelings and pictures that are both positive and negative.40 We have found many representations according to the social belongings of adolescents.

For example, girls, more than boys, point out feelings or thoughts of compassion, fear, loss and discomfort, and a ritualistic meaning in death;

experience greater sadness, fear and compassion towards suicide; and highlight music as fun and pleasure, but also as apprehension, a source of affective relationships and sociability. Boys, in the majority of situations, reveal higher motivation for life than girls.

Adolescents of 17-18 years old express more proximity, compassion, fear and discomfort, towards death (and particularly suicide), than the 15-16 years old.

Among the musical choices of adolescents, we observed variations according to the moment in which data were gathered.41 But the essential is to understand what music transmits, in terms of sound, lyrics or poems.

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