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Does Music have Power to Control?

Judas Priest in Concert
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Way back when I was in undergrad learning criminal justice with forensic psychology, I made comment regarding abnormal behavior that got a whole lot of conversation. I contended that if a person had the propensity but not the inspiration, he/she may not ever turn on the “switch” that would cause the maladaptive behavior.
For example, I wrote, if a person has a genetic predisposition to be an alcoholic but grows up, say, Mormon and never drinks alcohol, then he would never become an alcoholic because he has never drank any liquor.

Judas Priest and Potential for Violent Behavior
That being said, a person with other maladaptive potential who is not exposed to specific environmental stimulation would, in my humble opinion, also not turn into that which he has the potential to become because he has never been introduced to that potential.

If we look at it that way, then the young people who shot themselves after listening to Judas Priest have no reason to blame the music group (Brennan, 1992). The potential was there, and the stimulus was not the fault of the band, after all if it were, then all people who listen to Judas Priest would be doing the same thing, no? The young men who died as either direct result of gunshot wound, or by severe depression were exposed to alcohol, drugs, and “heavy metal” music. The author, Brennan (1992) says that the two felt powerless and therefore could not take responsibility.

Flatz (2011) indicates that music has an emotional effect on individuals. Soothing music can make a person calm when they are stressed, or can “affect the emotional state of its listener” (p. 1) in other ways. In the case of the Judas Priest young men, did they have enough personal control to not perceive subliminal messages in the song lyrics as the parents suggest? They were drunk and immersed in the world of their heavy metal music. If they did not feel they had any control as Brennan (1992) suggests, then it is likely that they truly did listen to what they perceived the music was telling them to do.

Why did they have these perceptions? Is it possible that the connections between their emotion centers and their cerebral cortex were not “wired” correctly as Flatz (2011) suggests? If music can sooth the savage beasts, then can it also create it (Flatz, 2011)?

Can Genetics have Influence?
There was word during the Judas Priest trial that the father of one of the young men was also a violent alcoholic (Brennan, 1992). Does this fact bear any cause to the choices that the two men made for themselves? Is a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism and violence to blame for the behaviors of these two people? Was the catalyst of having opportunity to drink alcohol and then listening to negative lyrics just what caused their behaviors? The potential for genetic propensity, in conjunction with environmental influences is the topic of a study by Barnes and Jacobs (2012). They hypothesize that an individual is more likely to commit a violent act if they are genetically predisposed, and not just exposed to violence environmentally. Their measure of dopamine genes indicates that genetics does, indeed, seem to have influence on violence rather than just the environmental stimulus of violent acts (Barnes, & Jacobs, 2012).

Ethics of Gene Testing
I think of Minority Report when I think of ethics of gene testing (2002). Just because someone has the potential for violent, abusive, addictive behavior does not mean they will actually do what they have the potential to do. A person may have the potential to be the next Mozart, but if they never touch a piano, we would never know. The same holds true for someone with the potential to do negative things. It seems that ethically we would be terrible people if we were to just presume the worst of anyone. Legally, however, we could open up a whole new slippery slope of conjecture. At this point in time circumstantial evidence is admissible but is it truly proof of a crime? Genetic testing that indicates genes that provide potential does the same thing: provide circumstantial evidence.

If I see a child eyeing a bowl of chocolates after being told to not take one, should I just presume the child will take one because their behavior indicates they want the chocolate? Or, should I wait until the child actually puts their hand in the candy dish and pulls back their fingers with a candy held tightly? I think the latter is much more ethical than the former, because one can never predict with 100% certainty that the child who covets that piece of chocolate is likely to disobey the instructions.


Barnes, J. C. & Jacobs, B. A. (2012). Genetic risk for violent behavior and environmental exposure to disadvantage and violent crime: The case for gene-environment interaction. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(1), 92 – 120, doi:10.1177/0886260512448847

Brennan, P. (1992). The lawsuit against Judas Priest. Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from

Dick, P. K. (2002). Minority Report. IMDB. Retrieved from

Flatz, C. (2011). Notes to live by. Ridgefield School District. Retrieved from

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