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A mosh pit in New York City.

A mosh pit like this one may be more scientific than it looks.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic

Nicholas Mott

National Geographic News

Published February 19, 2013

Parents may never understand their rock 'n' roll loving children, but scientists might. A study published online in arXiv this week seeks to explain the "mosh pit"—using physics.

To most scientists, heavy metal refers to elements on the lower end of the periodic table. But to Jesse Silverberg and Matt Bierbaum, doctoral students at Cornell University's department of Condensed Matter Physics, the aggressive music—and the violent dancing that accompanies it—could be a key to understanding extreme situations such as riots and panicked responses to disasters.

For the past two years, Silverberg and Bierbaum have studied "moshing," at heavy metal concerts, using theories of collective motion and the physical properties of gasses to better understand the chaos of metal fans' dancing.

Moshing, for those who have never attended a heavy metal show, is a form of dancing in which participants bump, jostle, and slam into one another. It's a form of social ritual that anthropologists have likened to spirit possession in its uncontrolled, dynamic, and often violent nature.

Silverberg and Bierbaum say it can also be understood by applying models of gaseous particles. As these particles float in groups, they too run, bash, and slam into each other, sending the elements flying in chaotic patterns.

"We are interested in how humans behave in similar excited states," said Silverberg, "but it's not exactly ethical to start a riot for research."

Extreme Physics

Mosh pits provided the scientists with a way to observe excited collective movement without causing undue injury or death. Analyzing hours of recorded footage from concerts and making multiple field trips to music clubs, Silverberg and Bierbaum recognized the particulate physical patterns in the mosh pit.

Further, they differentiated two distinct forms of heavy metal dancing: the "mosh pit" itself, which follows the gaseous pattern, and the "circle pit" (where dancers run, smash, and dance in a circular rotation) within it, which adheres to a vortex pattern of particulate behavior.

Based on these observations, they created an interactive computer model depicting the behavior.

Animal Instincts

"Herd animals behave in very similar spirit—what physicists call 'flocking' behavior," said Bierbaum. (See "The Genius of Swarms," from the July 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

As with groups of flying birds or schooling fish, simple rules can be applied to individuals in large groups—like moshers—to understand what seems to be very complex behavior. This makes modeling possible, allowing computers to re-create immense numbers of actions in a matter of seconds. These models can then be used to design spaces that would minimize trampling or injury, or to tailor responses to disasters like fires.

"The lessons we've learned in mosh pits [could be used] to build better stadiums, or movie theaters," Silverberg said.

James Sethna, one of the researchers' advising professors, hastened to add that his students' forays into heavy metal science "didn't start out for reasons of creating safer stadiums. We did it because it was cool and we wanted to know if we could explain human behavior—albeit slightly intoxicated behavior—without having to use complex [models]."

A longtime heavy metal fan himself, Silverberg shared which band produced the best results: "Killswitch Engage ... always gets the crowd nuts. Although of course everyone has their own favorites."

9 comments
Hippy Oppenheim
Hippy Oppenheim

if you like metal check out insanerealmradio.com Great station for bands that should be heard

Scott Myers
Scott Myers

The article seems to miss some important points, which I hope the researches don't overlook:  In a mosh pit, most everyone chooses to be there in that environment.  Many people choose to leave when it gets messy..

And, most participants are, despite the chaos, very polite to each other, with a specific moral code.  It may be a violent moral code, but there are plenty of specific things that are not cool to do in a mosh pit.


In other words, the gaseous model, or the enraged angry mob, or even the sports stadium, will lack some of these variables.  Gas particles don't care who they run into.  People in a stadium are less inclined to observe a social code of Being Cool.

Charise Edwards
Charise Edwards

This was an awesome article! KsE is my favorite band!

Kevin Toth
Kevin Toth

As an Electrical Engineer (I love physics), and a huge heavy metal fan.. THIS ARTICLE IS AWESOME! 

justin pierce
justin pierce

Great article. MTV did a documentary on moshing, if you enjoyed this look it up on youtube its pretty cool

Jessica Giambra
Jessica Giambra

a flock's rubber-banding flight morph; human, psyche, and style... yay

Alf M.
Alf M.

Great article! I always observe people and analyze their herd-behavior in groups as well... and as I've been to gigs It's something that I've thought about a lot. And It's not just heavy metal concerts, but also electronic music, trance for example, brings together people in a very tribal sense. You feel a sense of "oneness" and I believe It's something central to us as human beings. Amazing what power music has.

Nathan Z.
Nathan Z.

I'm a big fan of metal music myself (my favorite bands being Five Finger Death Punch, Falconer, Insomnium, etc.), and I think this article, and the study it talks about, are good signs that science hasn't lost its grassroots origins yet, that it's still about what regular, practical people and events do & want, rather than being all about rocks in space, evolution or other obscure historical & astronomical fluff. No offense to the NASA scientists whom study that 'fluff', because they're going to nuke the next asteroid coming our way, something that will be long sung about by the metal crowd for years to come after the fact! Rock on, National Geographic!

Nicholas Mott
Nicholas Mott

@Nathan Z. Hi Nathan, thanks for you interest - in both metal and science! I think there will always be a big place for more pie-in-the-sky science, but I do get excited every time physics can explain things that have puzzled me personally. Maybe next they can look into the superhuman vocal abilities of Rob Halford or the unearthly howl of Fenriz.

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