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Ever since it was first introduced to audiences in the 1970s, heavy metal music has been associated with immoral activity. These controversies are centered around people’s ethics, religion, political stance, and other social factors. Notoriously, in the winter of 1985 after consuming copious amounts of cannabis and alcohol, two clinically depressed teenagers attempted suicide while listening to the Judas Priest album Stained Class. One died instantly, the other, James Vance, spent two years in the hospital before dying of complications from his suicide attempt. Shortly before his death, Vance wrote to his friend’s parents, claiming that the music, “mesmerized them into believing that the answer to life was death. (VH1 2001)” Despite toxicology reports showing that the teenagers were heavily inebriated at the time of the suicide attempts, the band was still sued by Vance’s family for 6.2 million dollars over the death of the two boys, in 1989. However, since the families and lawyers were aware that free speech is protected under the first amendment, they dissected the music in search of subliminal messages, i.e. commands hidden in the music that would induce immoral behavior. The charges were eventually dropped, but one thing remains unsettled: are incidents like these heavy metal’s fault? The short answer is no. Despite its outward appearance as counterculture, people who perceive metal as negative (other musicians, politicians) should stop associating the music with puerility, ignorance, and violent behavior through editorials and public criticism of metal musicians. Heavy metal music should be appreciated for engaging and applying knowledge of other topics associated with higher learning, inspiring musicians to become virtuosos, and directly affecting the mental wellbeing of humans in a positive way.
To prove that heavy metal is beneficial, the term must be defined. Per Merriam-Webster, heavy metal music is defined as “energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat.” This definition is a general statement that does nothing but minimize the genre’s impact on society. Heavy metal cannot be defined in one sentence, because there are so many different genres that fall under this definition that would not be considered heavy metal; dubstep and rockabilly music would fall under this definition. To have a solid foundation of what heavy metal is, it must be explained, in depth, from its roots.
The creation of heavy metal begins with a genre dubbed “hard rock”, in the mid-1960s, towards the end of the “Flower Power” era. This brief period was an era of extreme social expression which coincided with the Vietnam War and the eventual demise of segregation. Many people, especially the youth of the era, supported the ideas of peace, love, equality, and an end to social injustice. Hard rock acts like The Who, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones created music that reflected the fight against inequities, which encouraged the youth and other progressive individuals to take a stand against the injustices in the environment they lived in. This was not the first-time people used music to reflect their feelings towards the lack of fairness occurring in the world around them. However, hard rock received much more attention because of “technological advances that enabled new heights in sonic disruption” (Pearlin 2014). The music was louder, bolder, and more forceful.
Armed with lyrics that reflected “brutally blunt social commentary” (Pearlin 2014) and the power of sonic disruption, hard rock musicians inspired and appealed to less-privileged people all around the world, especially to aspiring musicians. Some musicians chose to recreate the sound and become hard rock and psychedelic rock artists, themselves. Others chose to build upon what was given to them; most notably in 1968 in West Midlands, Birmingham, where pioneering heavy metal band, Black Sabbath created a name for themselves. By “recalling the clamor of the steel mills that dominated landscape of their hometown” (Pearlin 2014), Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Geezer Butler created a genre (appropriately dubbed heavy metal) that intensified the sound of bands before them. These sounds included heavily distorted guitar riffs, throbbing basslines, fast pounding drums, and lyrics that reflected morbid themes. The subject matter also took a detour from injustices that affect the world, to injustices that affect specific individuals. Topics included: death, drugs, the effects of war on a person, and alienation. These topics attracted the interest of those who could directly relate to the lyrical content. Whether they be drug addicts, socially out-casted adolescents, or those looking to deviate from the popular music on the radio, this audience allowed heavy metal to grow as a popular genre of music.
After Black Sabbath made their impact on the music world, several other inspired, English musicians decided to build upon their music to create a similar sound. Bands like Judas Priest, Diamondhead, Iron Maiden, Angel witch, and Motörhead took the drive that Black Sabbath created, but made guitar riffs and basslines faster, more melodic, and more complex. Drums were faster due to the growing popularity of having two bass drums (commonly known as double bass) and double bass pedal, enabling drummers to make the music more attention grabbing. Their lyrics, while still touching on the same subject matter, also included topics like fantasy, horror, and mythology. The result was an explosion of heavy metal music in Europe,
North America, and South America. This event, known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), was the main catalyst for the number of heavy metal bands that formed in the United States in the 1970s and 80s. Bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, Annihilator, and Metal Church fused the original metal sound that Black Sabbath created with NWOBHM. The result was thrash metal, whose musicians lived by three principles: “harder, faster, louder” (Pearlin 2014). Whereas their predecessors focused on a melody, thrash musicians were more concerned with the rhythm. Guitar riffs were completely distorted, heavy (due to the usage of down picking), and were played at “break-neck” speed. Lyrics heavily criticized the masses and challenged their socially accepted values; waging war to create peace, the concept of uniformity, etc. This impressed musicians, listeners, and critics who were amazed at the capabilities of these musicians and the messages and stories their lyrics conveyed. However, this sensation was short-lived, as mainstream audiences found the music too extreme to listen to. Because of this, the genre of metal schismed, causing even notable thrash metal bands to “experiment with a streamlined and commercially palatable direction” (Pearlin 2014). Others embraced their newfound underground status and settled for a “cult following” of fans. Through the small groups of people who wanted to stay true to the fast, hard, and loud metal sound they were exposed to in the 1980s, extreme metal was born. Jeffrey Pearlin of MIT describes it as a genre which “represented the traditional conventions of metal taken to every conceivable extreme: severely detuned guitars, guttural vocals, unimaginably fast tempos, and radically taboo lyrical content.” Subject matter became explicitly about hard drugs, murder, rape, suicide, crime, and other subject matter deemed as deplorable by American society.
This is the music that most people in society think of when they hear the words “heavy metal.” They instantly think of death, lack of control, ignorance, and puerility to such a high degree that heavy metal has been deemed as having a set of attitudes which surpass the social norm; heavy metal has been marked as counterculture. Controversies over heavy metal are “social reactions to perceived deviance, usually triggered by boundary-challenging events” (Hjelm et al 2012). If a band is singing about something that directly contradicts their morals, they become concerned and do whatever is necessary to preserve their values, as if they are being directly affected by the counterculture. This is known as moral panic theory. Because of it, religious organizations have picketed heavy metal concerts, and groups of people united to destroy albums and paraphernalia of artists. An infamous example of this is the actions of former second lady and social issues advocate Tipper Gore. She founded an organization known as the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985. With the assistance of other PMRC members, she compiled a list of songs that conflicted with her moral beliefs (drugs and profanity are bad, violence is wrong, children need to be raised in environments free of any influence that may contradict these values, etc.) They saw to it that any songs on this list (called the Filthy Fifteen) were forever slandered for having lyrical subject matter pertaining to sex, violence, drug use, and sado-masochism. Nearly half of the songs on this list were by metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Venom, W.A.S.P, and Judas Priest. This moral panic does not imply that the youth of America will be corrupted. In fact, heavy metal music has done a lot more good than it is recognized for.
Heavy metal music is often a great source of inspiration for aspiring musicians. Because of the number of virtuoso musicians that have made a name for themselves through heavy metal, many musicians who used to sit alone in their bedrooms playing along with their favorite albums are now considered to be some of the greatest technical musicians of today’s generation. But how is virtuoso defined in this instance? Merriam-Webster defines the term as “a person who does something in a very skillful way.” While this definition does touch on the general basis of what it takes to become an exemplar performer, it is quite broad and could be more specific to this situation. To have one solid basis for what a virtuoso is, the following definition will be used when referring to a virtuoso: A musician whose playing style is unlike any other performer’s.
When looking for examples of virtuoso musicians, however, most lists are primarily composed of classical musicians. This may be an example of how metal musicians are dubbed as part of counterculture. They are not held in the same kind of regard for their contributions to the music world, due to certain lyrics, their sound, and the certain implications that their sound carries. However, this should not be a reason to overshadow the impact metal musicians have on the world of music. Yngwie Malmsteen is a great example of this. By fusing together neo classical and heavy metal music, Malmsteen managed to industrialize common but core standards of metal. His style of fast playing, sweep-picking (dragging the pick across the strings whilst playing) inspires many musicians to learn and practice guitar, in hopes of gaining enough technical ability to play fast. Another important part of his playing is his iconic tone. Like most metal musicians, Yngwie Malmsteen strives to produce a heavy, but clear sounding tone in order to play notes quickly and have the notes he plays to sound recognizable. This contrasts with beginner guitarists who have not yet established their sound. Thus, an amateur’s tone is often very “muddy.” Furthermore, Malmsteen inspires people to become the best they can be by teaching. He has become known to today’s generation of musicians because of his popular lesson videos that are free on YouTube. Often, viewers will attempt to mimic his virtuoso-like abilities. His contributions to making the genre of metal sound as distinct as it does have solidified Malmsteen’s virtuoso status in music history.
Another example of a musician becoming of virtuoso status is in the case of Metallica’s lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett. Any knowledgeable fan knows that Hammett’s ability to play guitar started by him trying to emulate Yngwie Malmsteen’s fast guitar playing on records. Unlike Malmsteen however, Hammett did not contribute in popularizing metal’s presently distinct sound, but popularized the genre instead with a new sound. Like Malmsteen, Hammett is known for his incredibly fast playing style, which entices people to listen to the music of Metallica. Because of their mainstream success, playing fast has become a notable and desired skill in learning how to play guitar. He further exemplifies virtuoso capabilities by using melodic layering with co-guitarist James Hetfield. Creating a melody from nothing takes great knowledge of how music notes and other melodies work. Creating an additional melody line to sound aurally pleasing is an entirely separate skill that requires knowledge of various scales (such as Ionian, Aeolian, and Phrygian), and being able to recall notes, or knowing what a note sounds like before it is played, to aid the visualization process of constructing harmonies. When musicians hear these compositions, they may try to create their own guitar harmonies, because they sound aurally pleasing to any general listener. Hammett also is known for his various effects. By using a combination of wah pedal (a device which changes the tone of the emulating signal from the amplifier) and tremolo arm (a lever located on the bridge of a guitar used to change the pitch of the strings), his solos are notable to the point where anyone listening to a Metallica song knows it is Hammett playing. Because of him, these tools can be seen in almost every guitarist’s setup. This work not only demonstrates Hammett’s technical capabilities, but also how he is capable of inspiring other musicians to reach their fullest potential.
Furthermore, heavy metal can benefit students who frequently listen to or play it because the music incorporates knowledge of other subjects they might learn in school. One example that heavy metal applies is basic physics concepts. The modulation of sounds that comes out of a guitarist’s amplifier or the way that vocals sound on a record or during a concert is no accident. The musicians and technicians alike work tirelessly to create a sound that truly defines the music and separates it from any other sound in the genre. In doing so, they must have some foundation of background information on what changes the sound of an instrument. Since most metal musicians could not afford sound technicians when they were first starting, they had to learn what knobs on their amplifier do what. Most guitar and bass amplifiers have five basic effects knobs. Gain which controls the distortion, an effect that adds inharmonic and harmonic overtones to the sound emitting from the amplifier, making it heavy and gritty. Sometimes, this effect is also known as “drive.” Bass which controls the amount of low frequencies (in the unit hertz) the amplifier emits. Middle which controls the amount of midrange frequencies (in hertz). Treble which controls the amount of high frequencies (in hertz). And reverb (diminutive of reverberation), which controls the persistence of a sound over a period of time, providing depth. By understanding these very concepts, metal musicians can work their way up to not only understanding basic physics, but also developing insight about first year engineering concepts. While most people who listen to metal may not go out and become engineers, those who are studying engineering can apply what they have learned in class to the heavy metal music they may listen to. University of Michigan professor in electrical engineering Gregory Wakefield states that the faculty “is able to teach the students how… resonance works, how if you push a shape in different ways, it is going to sound different… It makes a lot of sense to them because they can relate it to what they are hearing” (Daniel 2011). Because of heavy metal music and my involvement with it, I have heavily considered going to college to study audio engineering. In doing so, I could further my own music career or work live sound for events. I hold the potential to be learned in a trade, because of the music I am interested in.
Heavy metal not only incorporates science with the music, it also applies and adapts advanced music theory. Oxford Dictionary defines music theory as “(The study of) the theoretical aspects of music and its notation.” Learning music theory provides the musician with an understanding of how notes and rhythms are put together.” Most of the guidelines of music theory are constructed around the rules of the common practice period. Per Phillip Magnuson of University of Dayton, the common practice era is the period between 1600-1900 in which a foundation of rules had been established for music in Europe and North America, primarily. While heavy metal musicians may not have created the renowned phrasing and structure that their music has, they should be respected for taking these concepts used in classical music, making them fit their genre, and exposing these concepts to a new audience. With this knowledge, musicians can either follow and apply the rules of the common practice period, or deviate from it. Metal musicians are most often the musicians who tend to deviate from it. For example, in the common practice era, parallel fifth intervals, for example playing a G in the soprano voice and a C in the alto voice then raising or lowering both notes by the same interval, was completely frowned upon because of poor voice leading. Heavy metal completely disregards this rule because the basis for most of their music is based around the very concept of parallel fifths. Most metal music is based around power chords; a root note, its fifth interval, and sometimes the root’s octave. The simplicity of this chord is responsible for part of the drive and energy that gives metal its distinct sound.
Along with adapting certain techniques from previous eras, heavy metal musicians also apply the same techniques their baroque and classical era predecessors used. An important aspect of this is polyphony. In all music, there is a melody, a memorable series of pitches which adds character to the accompaniment. Although having a melody makes a composition more interesting to listen to, a second accompanying melody adds even more appeal to the music. This simultaneous but different pitched arrangement is known as a harmony, and when used correctly (not sounding out of place, having the correct notes in the phrase), it makes the melody sound more enriched, and even more likeable. Classical musicians are not the only ones capable of applying harmonies to their music. However, because polyphony is so rare in modern music, when one refers to it, the first thing that may come to mind is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. However, one does not need to go back hundreds of years to find a concrete example .Take Scott Gorham of Thin Lizzy for example; during the band’s existence, he and co-guitarist Brian Robertson used harmonies extensively in their music. A notable example of their work is the song “The Boys Are Back in Town” (Jailbreak 1976) in which there is a solo which ends the song. This section applies the usage of major third, perfect fourth, and perfect fifth intervals to make this solo more interesting. Another technique used is toccata, a piece which demonstrates a musician’s full capability. This is very common in the compositions of most musicians of the common practice era, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach. Heavy metal “uses this technique through guitar solos” (Snapplejack2005 2016). Some pieces can have a short solo in the middle of a long composition like in Megadeth’s Holy Wars… The Punishment Due, or the song can be completely based around a solo like in Van Halen’s Eruption. By utilizing and adapting techniques from people before them, heavy metal musicians continue to apply common practice era theory to their music. Not only does this create a more interesting sound, it also holds the potential to help music theory students who are looking for modern examples of classical applications. By listening for these techniques, they are furthering themselves in their development towards learning how to become a better musician. These important educational aspects that heavy metal incorporates is hard evidence proving that the music can benefit its listeners.
Heavy metal is not only an educational resource, it is also a tool that directly affects the wellbeing of its fans and listeners, performers, and participants by acting as an outlet for negative energy to escape. As people go about their day-to-day life, they may face experiences which may induce anger or any other kind of unpleasant emotion. This anger can be gotten rid of by
listening to music that matches one’s current state of being. Since heavy metal is known for its intensity, it can be used in this case. In an interview with Mr. Forrest A. Hainline, Stage Director of School of Rock in Silver Spring, MD, I found that most fans believe that listening to heavy metal makes the listeners “excited, full of energy, and releases stress.” This popular belief was recently confirmed in the summer of 2015. A study conducted by the University of Queensland has found that listening to heavy metal music can induce positive emotions. Author Leah Sharman conducted a study of 39 people from around the world, ages 18-34. She found that “the music regulated sadness and enhanced positive emotions. When experiencing anger, extreme music fans liked to listen to music that could match their anger… The music helped them explore the full gamut of emotion they felt… Results showed levels of hostility, irritability, and stress decreased after music was introduced.” In addition to this, heavy metal acts as a stress reducer by inducing moshing; a style of dance where metal fans run and push each other at a concert. When one participates in moshing, their adrenaline is rushing, they are getting rid of excess, pent-up energy and unwanted stress. The satisfaction gained from the act is equivalent to punching your worst enemy in the face. Mr. Hainline claims that people “need to scream their heads off, and we need to be physically engaging other people… when people are literally just throwing themselves against each other.”
In a less physical sense, heavy metal also benefits the wellbeing of its participants by creating a sense of unity amongst them. The people who listen to bands like Lamb of God, Cannibal Corpse, Whitechapel, and Slipknot do not make up a very large percentage of music fans. Because of these fans extreme devotion to their music preference, they often feel like outcasts. They feel alienated from the society around them, and no one wants to be alienated. Psychologist Roy Baumeister claims that “the need to belong is a fundamental human need to form and maintain at least a minimum amount of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships. Satisfying this need requires frequent, positive interactions with the same individuals, and engaging in these interactions within a framework of long-term, stable care and concern” (Ben-Zeév 2014). A well-known example of this is Billie Joe Armstrong’s experience with being introduced to a mosh pit. The Green Day frontman stated that he “…felt like I was invisible and I did not exist. Where there, I felt invisible and I did not exist, but I did it with a bunch of other people that felt the same way” (VH1 2010).
The important part of this is to understand that people who appreciate heavy metal music have a special bond with others who appreciate heavy metal music. These fans, dubbed metalheads, have effectively created a cross-continental family. Like a family, they stick together when events go awry. On 13 September, 2015, there were a series of terrorist attacks in Paris, France where 130 people died. Many the reported casualties were at the Bataclan where the band Eagles of Death Metal were playing. As soon as the event was reported, the metal community reached out to the band and provided its most sincere condolences to band members and concert goers. Artists from popular bands like Anthrax, Slipknot, Killswitch Engage, August Burns Red, Cradle of Filth, Pantera, Avenged Sevenfold, Drowning Pool, and Bullet for My Valentine, as well as an incalculable number of fans participated in this overwhelming storm of support for the band. Halestorm vocalist Lzzy Hale even went as far as to tweet “This is an attack on my world.” Another example is when Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister (whose work with
Motörhead helped established the foundation of heavy metal music, through NWOBHM) died in December of 2015. Metalheads everywhere were devastated. Musicians everywhere quickly began covering the band’s songs and performing libations with Jack Daniel’s whiskey and Coca-Cola (Lemmy’s beverage of choice). A bar in West Hollywood called Rainbow held a 10 hour long memorial in his memory. The day of this event, Loudwire news reported that “the Sunset Strip was closed down to accommodate the crowd…” of people trying to go remember their hero. Many of the metal fans that I know personally threw or attended parties honoring Kilmister’s life, legacy and impact on the genre. Musicians who he inspired showed their overwhelming gratitude in the form of letters which were posted on Facebook and Twitter. Some musicians even appeared at Lemmy’s family memorial service. Musicians from Black Sabbath, Guns N’ Roses Metallica, Anthrax, Judas Priest, Foo Fighters, and of course Motörhead talked about how they would not be who they are without Lemmy’s contributions to music. Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich “cites Motörhead as the primary reason Metallica exists… thank you… for making me always feel a part of something that was so much bigger than myself.” Because of the shared love and the deep connection he and his future bandmates felt towards Motörhead, one of the most prominent bands in history now exists. Heavy metal creates a deep interpersonal connection between people. It unites them in a special way, allowing the social outcasts to feel like they belong.
Heavy metal music may forever live in infamy. It may always be referred to as the music of the devil. Reporters may never stop trying to link it to causes of suicide or school shootings. But one thing is for sure, it is not as negative as American society has been made out to be. Even though it may imply negative themes and receives attention via shock value, heavy metal music is capable of benefitting people in several ways. By acting as a resource for applied subject matter, inspiring musicians to become the best that they can be, creating a sense of unity amongst listeners, and directly affecting the mental wellbeing of humans in a positive way, the music becomes much more than music. It becomes a utility that people can use to affect their lives for the better. In terms of the future, I do not foresee a world in which the reputation of heavy metal is positive. Some people will never stop thinking of metal as noise pollution that corrupts the youth of today. However, in addition to persuading, the arguments posed are meant to provoke thought, and to provide insight to the other side of the “heavy metal is bad” argument. What I hope to see is that this issue is discussed between those who listen to metal and those who do not because they believe it is all screaming, talentless, garbage. If this paper can cause people to think more and carefully consider this issue, it will have done its job.
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