I have been listening to Metal music since I was 10. Coincidentally, I started my classical training as a pianist at around the same age, but for a long time I stood by Metal music and rejected Classical music, the very music I was spending hours playing. Let’s face it, the general consensus is that Classical music is tedious and boring. I mean for a pre-teen, music without lyrics would take 3 seconds of most kids’ attention. Metal music provided me with a medium in which all my energy and early teen angst can travel through and out of my system, while the boring music I was undoubtedly playing as a beginner pianist and which was crucial to my musical education, did not provide an outlet for those pent up feelings. Basically Metal music calmed me down, it was therapeutic for me, while Classical music is that thing I had to do to get a passing grade in the National Conservatory.
Growing up with seemingly extremely opposing musical styles, I can’t say I haven’t been influenced greatly by each one of these two, but I also had the privilege to acknowledge the similarities between them. The similarities may not seem very apparent on the surface, considering how the approach towards each one of them seems extremely different, but practically, it is not. The most hardcore listeners of Classical music know that it is neither calm nor tedious but it takes tons of experience to go beyond the surface and delve into its rich world.
For years, I heard the similarities between the two and was unable to translate it into real words. How can you really explain the resemblance when all music is composed from the same basic 7 notes? I mean Master of Puppets by Metallica and the Prelude in C# minor by Rachmaninoff have a common 3-notes progression in the intro, and Opeth’s Master’s Apprentice and the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata have almost the same rhythmic division in the first measure, the same approach and the same chord structure except the first is in minor and the second is in major.
However, It would be absolutely ridiculous to make a comparison and argue in favour of that, since anyone can grab any two pieces and find some sort of common notes and slap the “similar” stamp on them. Besides that, all western music has its roots in medieval choral church music, so you can definitely trace any modern song to that root and find an origin. In addition, rhythmic variations and irregular rhythmic patterns cannot be taken as reference, since with the rise of Jazz music in the first half of the 20th century, there was little left to the imagination in terms of rhythmic creativity and time signature complexity.
Overview of Metal and its roots
The founding fathers of Metal were in the most part classically trained. Ritchie Blackmore, the founder of Deep Purple, Marty Friedman, lead guitarist of Megadeth, Uli John Roth, guitarist of Scorpions (not explicitly Metal but key in the transition from Hard Rock to Heavy Metal), Eddie Van Halen, founder of Van Halen, and many others, were all classically trained. Jason Becker was also classically trained. He was even compared to Bach. Jason tends to work on small themes that he develops in a way that seems to spring directly from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mathematical Music. However, this knowledge alone is inconsequential. Tons of artists like Bjork, Zedd and even Ziad El Rahbani were classically trained, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will all find themselves in metal. But the mere fact that so many of them are classically trained is interesting.
Although none of the founders of Black Sabbath are classically trained, there is something peculiar that a music nerd like me would notice when hearing their works, particularly their earlier works.
Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath pioneered the transition from Rock to Metal, but Black Sabbath is the only band that, in its early works, spoke with raw music, not with music that was a slightly heavier edition of Psychedelic Rock, which was very apparent in the former two’s earliest works. In addition, the main thing that distinguished Black Sabbath from others is their simple riffs and their lyrical themes, but more on that later. Not only were their riffs very simple, but the most attractive thing about them was the way they were played, and by that I mean character, nuance and expression. The riffs were played the same way a Classical musician would play them, the same approach towards meter and expression. Take for example the riff in Black Sabbath’s Paranoid (from the 1970 album of the same name). It starts with a crescendo on the repeated note, slightly loses force as they play a low note and then puts more weight on a high note. In Iron Man, a song from the same album, they take the same approach when it comes to the riff as well. Not only that, they also put more weight on the longer notes even if these notes don’t happen to fall on the strong beats, an approach we see a lot in Classical music, like in the middle part of Chopin’s Nocturne no. 1 Op. 9 for example.
But nuances are not something limited to a genre, right? There are many songs out there in more than one genre that do not follow this approach, especially when the musicians are not classically trained. The best example I can give now to clarify my point is the intro to Fade to Black by Metallica. As a classically trained musician, this is not how I would play it especially with the repeated notes, but that difference could be a stylistic choice, not necessarily a result of their lack of Classical education (James’s mom was an opera singer). However, with Black Sabbath, it is crucial to take note of this approach, as they were the pioneers of this genre.
Romanticism was an artistic movement that originated in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century but it did not manifest in music until the second decade, mainly with Ludwig Van Beethoven who led the transition between the Classical Music Era and The Romantic Era. After Beethoven started losing his hearing, he started creating darker and louder pieces, undoubtedly as a result of his disease. A lot of people refer to him as the original Metal Head. After Fur Elise in 1808, his works became darker and more solemn. Symphony no.5 (1809) is a prime example, as well as his symphony no 7, and Funeral March (1822). Even earlier works like the Sonata Pathétique (1778), Tempest (1802), Moonlight (1801), were heavier and more raw in emotions.
Romanticism’s main focus was emotion, individualism, anti-conformity and a glorification of the past and nature as a way to rebel against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and classical notions of art. Romanticism later on developed a subgenre called Dark Romanticism that is also known as Gothicism, celebrating melancholia, death and insanity. Franz Liszt’s fascination with death was greatly expressed in his Totentanz (dance of death), Funérailles, La lugubre gondola and Pensée des morts, and a lot of his other works were dark, such as his Transcendental Etudes and Scherzo und Marsch. Richard Wagner coined the term music drama to his operatic work. His music was loud, raw, and emotional. An example would be Tristan Und Isolde. Other works like Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, Brahms’ Requiem, Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Seasons are a great display of the essence of the romantic era, and its subgenre. Niccolo Paganini was dubbed a “satanist” in his own lifetime, mostly because of the music he created.
Heavy Metal is built on the concepts of individualism and anti-conformity, with focus on emotion, angst, insanity, rebellion and disenchantment. These concepts are highlighted through the focus on the color black that is a symbol of individualism. We can clearly see how Heavy Metal mirrors and mimics the romantic era in its fundamental ideas.
Romantic Music And Heavy Metal
Romantic music, unlike its predecessors, embraced the different voices (Bass, Tenor, Alto and Soprano) that music can offer. That was mostly present through the complex and rich chords that the composers were exploring. Previously, the melody or the theme always had to be the most audible in a piece. For example, in Bach’s inventions, his themes had to be heard at all times throughout the piece while the other notes acted as background. In Romantic Music, the melody was still important but instead of just sitting on top of the other voices, it was made to blend and complement these voices. Earlier Classical and Baroque music sounded layered, whereas romantic music was exploring the different directions music could go to, without any fear of putting weight and expression into complex chord formations. This was highlighted very clearly in Chopin’s Polonaises and Etudes, Franz Liszt’s Totentanz and Etudes, Beethoven’s Pathetique and Moonlight Sonatas and Rachmaninoff’s etudes and preludes.
Also unlike its predecessors, Metal music very strongly endorsed the blending of different voices. The vocalist is no longer the leadman, but the guitarist and vocalist and sometimes even the bassist and drummer fight for dominance. The vocals were no longer sitting on top, being the loudest. The music no longer felt layered. It was blending, and the voices were complementing each other. At some points, you can’t even tell the different voices apart, mimicking directly Romantic music. For example, in Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin’s earlier works, you couldn’t tell the different words apart because the vocals blended so well with the guitar and other instruments. In other words, you can say that “Heavy Metal demands the subordination of the voice to the overall sound of the band.”
The bass guitar also gained an important role in Metal music that it did not acquire in earlier music. The bass plays a more significant role than it does in other genres of Rock. Even some bands went as far as featuring bass as a lead instrument. You can also see how that mirrors Romantic music since Romantic music puts heavier weight on bass than earlier Classical and Baroque music. It embraced the bass sound instead of only using as background or “filler music”.
On a similar note, drums in Metal music are meant to exude power, speed and precision, something that I find very familiar in military marches written in the Romantic era. Chopin’s Polonaises are military marches and many other etudes by composers of his time highlighted a drum-like effect using bass notes without actually utilizing a drum in their music. Moreover, loudness is considered one of the main criterias of Metal music, something again we find highlighted in the aforementioned Romantic music.
Rhythmic patterns in Metal music are also very similar to the ones found in Classical music. Metal music in its earlier days tended to have simple time signatures, while exploring rhythmic complexity and division inside each measure itself, even if Metal music evolved to form subgenres that rely on and explore complex timings. Classical music also follows similar patterns. You will of course find complex timings but generally the time signatures are very simple with complex rhythmic divisions inside the piece itself. That allows every classically trained musician to later on explore complex timings with ease, like say John Myung and Jordan Rudess, respectively the bassist and keyboardist of Dream Theater, a Progressive Metal band that explores complex timings and time signature changes in ways unprecedented to the entire genre. All of the founding members of Dream Theater attended Berklee college and majored in musicology. Dance of Eternity, a 7 minutes song by Dream Theater, contains 108 time signature change, which they play with absolute ease. The use of expressions and nuances in the piece, especially by the keyboardist, mirror Classical music styles almost in its entirety.
Lyrical themes are also one of the most defining criteria of Metal music. The music is made on purpose to reflect in its loudness and power the meaning of the lyrics, which explains Metal music’s focus on uncommon, sometimes seen as taboos, subjects. Emotional vocals are also required to achieve this lyrical atmosphere, which emphasizes the point that vocals blend with the rest of the music. The vocalist’s tone of voice is sometimes seen as more important than the lyrics themselves.
Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath from their first album “Black Sabbath” is an example of lyrical music. Paranoid and Fairies Wear Boots from their second album “Paranoid” is also an example of lyrical music. Suicide Solution by Ozzy osbourne, Panic Attack by Dream Theater (You can almost hear the panic in the music) and 6 degrees of inner turbulence by them are lyrical as well. Maybe Psycho by System of a Down can be seen as lyrical too.
As mentioned previously, Romantic music tends to be descriptive of emotions and nature, which makes a lot of Romantic music lyrical as well. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “The bells”, Paganini’s “La campanella”, transcribed to piano by Franz Liszt, Totentanz (dance of death) by Franz Liszt, Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, Chopin’s 21 nocturnes, Debussy’s Clair de Lune are all examples of lyrical music. They also utilized word-painting, which is describing words using music. The Impressionist art movement of the 19th century aimed to recreate scenes or emotions through music. Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were impressionists. Debussy’s La Mer and “Images” are extremely impressionistic pieces that paint sceneries or movement through music.
In conclusion, the world of music is fascinating and full of beautiful surprises. There is always more than meets the eye, or in this case: ear. Classical music, and most particularly, Romantic music deserves to be explored and if you listen to Metal you will find Romantic music highly enjoyable.