Why do we make THAT face when we hear a gnarly metal riff? Science has the answer

Metallica, Gojira, Skindred and Meshuggha performing live and making stank face
(Image credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images | Medios y Media/Getty Images | Katja Ogrin/Getty Images | Aldara Zarraoa/WireImage)

A music academic has explained why metalheads scrunch their faces up in response to a particularly brutal-sounding riff.

The expression, commonly referred to as ‘riff face’ or ‘stank face’, has frequently been observed among fans and metal artists alike.

Talking to Guitar World, UK scientist Milton Mermikides has explained the reaction, saying it comes in response to both the dopamine rush of a good, heavy riff and the dissonant sound of a distorted guitar.

“Stank face is perhaps just a modern term for a long-documented musical experience which falls somewhere between deep visceral pleasure and a sort of physical engagement, irritation or even repulsion – an ecstatic ‘pleasurable pain,’” he says.

“It relies on music’s unique ability to trigger a host of physical and emotional responses in the listener.

“These include our response to dissonance, such as the roughness of a sound – a scrunchy chord, an angular melody or a syncopated rhythm.”

Mermikides continues: “When coupled with the dopamine release from satisfying predictions and bodily engagement, these can produce ‘cross-modal’ responses.

“It’s as if the music is so rich, flavoursome and satisfying it bleeds into our other senses.

“Not only do we hear it, we can almost taste and smell it – hence the characteristic facial and bodily responses.” 

In addition, Guitar World interviewed several musicians about the phenomenon, including Mark Holcomb of progressive metal favourites Periphery.

“Sometime it just takes a few seconds of hearing a riff and the face appears; no words need to be said,” says the guitarist.

“In the writing room, stank faces are the nexus of our language because they’re non-verbal.”

He adds: “It’s like a reflex.

“It’s one of those things that you react to and then you think about.

“Stank face riffs can’t be too notey. It needs to have a Neanderthal element to work.”

The Guitar World feature, which also has contributions from Spiritbox’s Mike Stringer and Leprous’ Tor Oddmund Suhrke, is available to read in full now.

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.