Dissertation Index

Author: Lilja, Esa

Title: Theory and Analysis of Classic Heavy Metal Harmony

Institution: University of Helsinki

Begun: January 2005

Completed: October 2009


This thesis explores melodic and harmonic features of heavy metal, and while doing so, explores various methods of music analysis; their applicability and limitations regarding the study of heavy metal music. The study is built on three general hypotheses according to which 1) acoustic characteristics play a significant role for chord constructing in heavy metal, 2) heavy metal has strong ties and similarities with other Western musical styles, and 3) theories and analytical methods of Western art music may be applied to heavy metal.

It seems evident that in heavy metal some chord structures appear far more frequently than others. It is suggested here that the fundamental reason for this is the use of guitar distortion effect. Subsequently, theories as to how and under what principles heavy metal is constructed need to be put under discussion; analytical models regarding the classification of consonance and dissonance and chord categorization are here revised to meet the common practices of this music.

It is evident that heavy metal is not an isolated style of music; it is seen here as a cultural fusion of various musical styles. Moreover, it is suggested that the theoretical background to the construction of Western music and its analysis can offer invaluable insights to heavy metal. However, the analytical methods need to be reformed to some extent to meet the characteristics of the music. This reformation includes an accommodation of linear and functional theories that has been found rather rarely in music theory and musicology.

Keywords: Heavy metal music, Harmony, Distorted chords, Electric guitar, Analytical methods


Acknowledgments 5
1 Introduction 9
  1.1. General Introduction 9
  1.2. Why Music Analysis? 15
  1.3. On Transcription and Reductive Notation 18
2 Genre and History 21
  2.1. On the Genre 21
  2.2. Cultural Background: The 1960s 25
  2.3. Heavy Metal Eras 29
   2.3.1. Pre-Heavy Metal — Musical Roots 31
   2.3.2. Traditional Heavy Metal: Classic Era 35
   2.3.3. Fragmentation and Reflections 42
3 Concepts and Theories of Harmony 48
  3.1. Chord, Interval, and Vertical Harmony 49
  3.2. Scale Degree Systems 56
  3.3. Consonance and Dissonance 61
  3.4. Harmonic Function 72
  3.5. Counterpoint and Voice Leading 92
4 Characteristics of Distorted Chords and Their Effects on Harmonic Construction 101
  4.1. Power Chord 102
  4.2. Harmonic Overtones and Combination Tones 104
   4.2.1. Harmonic Overtones 104
   4.2.2. Combination tones 108
  4.3. Major and Minor Triads 114
  4.4. Chord Root and Inversion 122
   4.4.1. Chord Inversion versus Intervallic Construction 123
   4.4.2. Intervallic Construction and Inversions in Heavy Metal 125
  4.5. Consonance and Dissonance of Distorted Chords 134
  4.6. Chords in Modal and Tonal Context 137
   4.6.1. Chord Categories in Traditional Music Theory 137
   4.6.2. Revised Chord Categorization Model 143
5 Melodic and Harmonic Schemes and their Relation to Other Musical Styles 152
  5.1. Influence of the Blues 154
   5.1.1. Riffs 154
   5.1.2. Scales and Modes 157
   5.1.3. Mixtures of Major and Minor 162
  5.2. Modal Influences 167
   5.2.1. Church Modes 167
   5.2.2. Pseudo-Oriental Modality 172
  5.3. Major/Minor Tonal Influences 175
  5.4. Some Distinct Chord Patterns: The “Grounds” of Heavy Metal 183
   5.4.1. “Rising Sun” Pattern 187
   5.4.2. “Romantic Cliché” and “The Saints” Pattern 188
   5.4.3. Twelve-Bar Blues Formulas 190
6 Linear and Structural Harmony 195
  6.1. Linear Analysis 195
  6.2. Structural Harmony 198
  6.3. “Heaven and Hell” 204
7 Conclusions 210
References 214


Esa Lilja
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