Heavy metal is traditionally characterized by loud distorted guitars, emphatic rhythms, dense bass-and-drum sound, and vigorous vocals. Heavy metal subgenres variously emphasize, alter, or omit one or more of these attributes. The New York Times critic Jon Pareles writes, "In the taxonomy of popular music, heavy metal is a major subspecies of hard-rock—the breed with less syncopation, less blues, more showmanship and more brute force." The typical band lineup includes a drummer, a bassist, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a singer, who may or may not be an instrumentalist. Keyboard instruments are sometimes used to enhance the fullness of the sound. Deep Purple's Jon Lord played an overdriven Hammond organ. In 1970, John Paul Jones used a Moog synthesizer on Led Zeppelin III; by the 1990s, in "almost every subgenre of heavy metal" synthesizers were used.
The electric guitar and the sonic power that it projects through amplification has historically been the key element in heavy metal. The heavy metal guitar sound comes from a combined use of high volumes and heavy distortion. For classic heavy metal guitar tone, guitarists maintain moderate levels gain at moderate levels, without excessive preamp or pedal distortion, to retain open spaces and air in the music; the guitar amplifier is turned up loud to produce the characteristic "punch and grind". Thrash metal guitar tone has scooped mid-frequencies and tightly compressed sound with lots of bass frequencies. Guitar solos are "an essential element of the heavy metal code ... that underscores the significance of the guitar" to the genre. Most heavy metal songs "feature at least one guitar solo", which is "a primary means through which the heavy metal performer expresses virtuosity". Some exceptions are nu metal and grindcore bands, which tend to omit guitar solos. With rhythm guitar parts, the "heavy crunch sound in heavy metal ... [is created by] palm muting" the strings with the picking hand and using distortion. Palm muting creates a tighter, more precise sound and it emphasizes the low end.
The lead role of the guitar in heavy metal often collides with the traditional "frontman" or bandleader role of the vocalist, creating a musical tension as the two "contend for dominance" in a spirit of "affectionate rivalry". Heavy metal "demands the subordination of the voice" to the overall sound of the band. Reflecting metal's roots in the 1960s counterculture, an "explicit display of emotion" is required from the vocals as a sign of authenticity. Critic Simon Frith claims that the metal singer's "tone of voice" is more important than the lyrics.
The prominent role of the bass is also key to the metal sound, and the interplay of bass and guitar is a central element. The bass guitar provides the low-end sound crucial to making the music "heavy". The bass plays a "more important role in heavy metal than in any other genre of rock". Metal basslines vary widely in complexity, from holding down a low pedal point as a foundation to doubling complex riffs and licks along with the lead or rhythm guitars. Some bands feature the bass as a lead instrument, an approach popularized by Metallica's Cliff Burton with his heavy emphasis on bass guitar solos and use of chords while playing bass in the early 1980s. Lemmy of Motörhead often played overdriven power chords in his bass lines.
The essence of heavy metal drumming is creating a loud, constant beat for the band using the "trifecta of speed, power, and precision". Heavy metal drumming "requires an exceptional amount of endurance", and drummers have to develop "considerable speed, coordination, and dexterity ... to play the intricate patterns" used in heavy metal. A characteristic metal drumming technique is the cymbal choke, which consists of striking a cymbal and then immediately silencing it by grabbing it with the other hand (or, in some cases, the same striking hand), producing a burst of sound. The metal drum setup is generally much larger than those employed in other forms of rock music. Black metal, death metal and some "mainstream metal" bands "all depend upon double-kicks and blast beats".
Enid Williams from Girlschool
singing "Please Don't Touch" live in 2009. The ties that bind the two bands started in the 1980s and were still strong in the 2010s.
In live performance, loudness—an "onslaught of sound", in sociologist Deena Weinstein's description—is considered vital. In his book Metalheads, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett refers to heavy metal concerts as "the sensory equivalent of war". Following the lead set by Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Who, early heavy metal acts such as Blue Cheer set new benchmarks for volume. As Blue Cheer's Dick Peterson put it, "All we knew was we wanted more power." A 1977 review of a Motörhead concert noted how "excessive volume in particular figured into the band's impact." Weinstein makes the case that in the same way that melody is the main element of pop and rhythm is the main focus of house music, powerful sound, timbre, and volume are the key elements of metal. She argues that the loudness is designed to "sweep the listener into the sound" and to provide a "shot of youthful vitality".
Heavy metal performers tended to be almost exclusively male until at least the mid-1980s apart from exceptions such as Girlschool. However, by the 2010s women were making more of an impact, and PopMatters' Craig Hayes argues that metal "clearly empowers women". In the sub-genres of symphonic and power metal, there has been a sizable number of bands that have had women as the lead singers; bands such as Nightwish, Delain, and Within Temptation have featured women as lead singers with men playing instruments.
Rhythm and tempo
An example of a rhythmic pattern used in heavy metal. The upper stave is a palm-muted rhythm guitar
part. The lower stave is the drum part.
The rhythm in metal songs is emphatic, with deliberate stresses. Weinstein observes that the wide array of sonic effects available to metal drummers enables the "rhythmic pattern to take on a complexity within its elemental drive and insistency". In many heavy metal songs, the main groove is characterized by short, two-note or three-note rhythmic figures—generally made up of 8th or 16th notes. These rhythmic figures are usually performed with a staccato attack created by using a palm-muted technique on the rhythm guitar.
Brief, abrupt, and detached rhythmic cells are joined into rhythmic phrases with a distinctive, often jerky texture. These phrases are used to create rhythmic accompaniment and melodic figures called riffs, which help to establish thematic hooks. Heavy metal songs also use longer rhythmic figures such as whole note- or dotted quarter note-length chords in slow-tempo power ballads. The tempos in early heavy metal music tended to be "slow, even ponderous". By the late 1970s, however, metal bands were employing a wide variety of tempos. In the 2000s decade, metal tempos range from slow ballad tempos (quarter note = 60 beats per minute) to extremely fast blast beat tempos (quarter note = 350 beats per minute).
One of the signatures of the genre is the guitar power chord. In technical terms, the power chord is relatively simple: it involves just one main interval, generally the perfect fifth, though an octave may be added as a doubling of the root. When power chords are played on the lower strings at high volumes and with distortion, additional low frequency sounds are created, which add to the "weight of the sound" and create an effect of "overwhelming power". Although the perfect fifth interval is the most common basis for the power chord, power chords are also based on different intervals such as the minor third, major third, perfect fourth, diminished fifth, or minor sixth. Most power chords are also played with a consistent finger arrangement that can be slid easily up and down the fretboard.
Typical harmonic structures
Heavy metal is usually based on riffs created with three main harmonic traits: modal scale progressions, tritone and chromatic progressions, and the use of pedal points. Traditional heavy metal tends to employ modal scales, in particular the Aeolian and Phrygian modes. Harmonically speaking, this means the genre typically incorporates modal chord progressions such as the Aeolian progressions I-♭VI-♭VII, I-♭VII-(♭VI), or I-♭VI-IV-♭VII and Phrygian progressions implying the relation between I and ♭II (I-♭II-I, I-♭II-III, or I-♭II-VII for example). Tense-sounding chromatic or tritone relationships are used in a number of metal chord progressions. In addition to using modal harmonic relationships, heavy metal also uses "pentatonic and blues-derived features".
The tritone, an interval spanning three whole tones—such as C to F#—was a forbidden dissonance in medieval ecclesiastical singing, which led monks to call it diabolus in musica—"the devil in music".
Heavy metal songs often make extensive use of pedal point as a harmonic basis. A pedal point is a sustained tone, typically in the bass range, during which at least one foreign (i.e., dissonant) harmony is sounded in the other parts. According to Robert Walser, heavy metal harmonic relationships are "often quite complex" and the harmonic analysis done by metal players and teachers is "often very sophisticated". In the study of heavy metal chord structures, it has been concluded that "heavy metal music has proved to be far more complicated" than other music researchers had realized.
Relationship with classical music
Robert Walser stated that, alongside blues and R&B, the "assemblage of disparate musical styles known ... as 'classical music'" has been a major influence on heavy metal since the genre's earliest days. Also that metal's "most influential musicians have been guitar players who have also studied classical music. Their appropriation and adaptation of classical models sparked the development of a new kind of guitar virtuosity [and] changes in the harmonic and melodic language of heavy metal."
In an article written for Grove Music Online, Walser stated that the "1980s brought on ... the widespread adaptation of chord progressions and virtuosic practices from 18th-century European models, especially Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, by influential guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, Uli Jon Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen". Kurt Bachmann of Believer has stated that "If done correctly, metal and classical fit quite well together. Classical and metal are probably the two genres that have the most in common when it comes to feel, texture, creativity."
Although a number of metal musicians cite classical composers as inspiration, classical and metal are rooted in different cultural traditions and practices—classical in the art music tradition, metal in the popular music tradition. As musicologists Nicolas Cook and Nicola Dibben note, "Analyses of popular music also sometimes reveal the influence of 'art traditions'. An example is Walser's linkage of heavy metal music with the ideologies and even some of the performance practices of nineteenth-century Romanticism. However, it would be clearly wrong to claim that traditions such as blues, rock, heavy metal, rap or dance music derive primarily from "art music'."
According to scholars David Hatch and Stephen Millward, Black Sabbath, and the numerous heavy metal bands that they inspired, have concentrated lyrically "on dark and depressing subject matter to an extent hitherto unprecedented in any form of pop music". They take as an example Sabbath's second album Paranoid (1970), which "included songs dealing with personal trauma—'Paranoid' and 'Fairies Wear Boots' (which described the unsavoury side effects of drug-taking)—as well as those confronting wider issues, such as the self-explanatory 'War Pigs' and 'Hand of Doom'." Deriving from the genre's roots in blues music, sex is another important topic—a thread running from Led Zeppelin's suggestive lyrics to the more explicit references of glam metal and nu metal bands.
, known for writing conceptual lyrics about horror stories.
The thematic content of heavy metal has long been a target of criticism. According to Jon Pareles, "Heavy metal's main subject matter is simple and virtually universal. With grunts, moans and subliterary lyrics, it celebrates ... a party without limits ... [T]he bulk of the music is stylized and formulaic." Music critics have often deemed metal lyrics juvenile and banal, and others have objected to what they see as advocacy of misogyny and the occult. During the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center petitioned the U.S. Congress to regulate the popular music industry due to what the group asserted were objectionable lyrics, particularly those in heavy metal songs. Andrew Cope states that claims that heavy metal lyrics are misogynistic are "clearly misguided" as these critics have "overlook[ed] the overwhelming evidence that suggests otherwise". Music critic Robert Christgau called metal "an expressive mode [that] it sometimes seems will be with us for as long as ordinary white boys fear girls, pity themselves, and are permitted to rage against a world they'll never beat".
Heavy metal artists have had to defend their lyrics in front of the U.S. Senate and in court. In 1985, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider was asked to defend his song "Under the Blade" at a U.S. Senate hearing. At the hearing, the PMRC alleged that the song was about sadomasochism and rape; Snider stated that the song was about his bandmate's throat surgery. In 1986, Ozzy Osbourne was sued over the lyrics of his song "Suicide Solution". A lawsuit against Osbourne was filed by the parents of John McCollum, a depressed teenager who committed suicide allegedly after listening to Osbourne's song. Osbourne was not found to be responsible for the teen's death. In 1990, Judas Priest was sued in American court by the parents of two young men who had shot themselves five years earlier, allegedly after hearing the subliminal statement "do it" in the song Better by You, Better than Me, it was featured on the album Stained Class (1978), the song was also a Spooky Tooth cover. While the case attracted a great deal of media attention, it was ultimately dismissed. In 1991, UK police seized death metal records from the British record label Earache Records, in an "unsuccessful attempt to prosecute the label for obscenity".
In some predominantly Muslim countries, heavy metal has been officially denounced as a threat to traditional values. In countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Malaysia, there have been incidents of heavy metal musicians and fans being arrested and incarcerated. In 1997, the Egyptian police jailed many young metal fans and they were accused of "devil worship" and blasphemy, after police found metal recordings during searches of their homes. In 2013, Malaysia banned Lamb of God from performing in their country, on the grounds that the "band's lyrics could be interpreted as being religiously insensitive" and blasphemous. Some people considered heavy metal music to being a leading factor for mental health disorders, and thought that heavy metal fans were more likely to suffer with a poor mental health, but study has proven that this is not true and the fans of this music have a lower or similar percentage of people suffering from poor mental health.
Image and fashion
performing in 2004, wearing makeup.
For many artists and bands, visual imagery plays a large role in heavy metal. In addition to its sound and lyrics, a heavy metal band's image is expressed in album cover art, logos, stage sets, clothing, design of instruments, and music videos.
Down-the-back long hair is the "most crucial distinguishing feature of metal fashion". Originally adopted from the hippie subculture, by the 1980s and 1990s heavy metal hair "symbolised the hate, angst and disenchantment of a generation that seemingly never felt at home", according to journalist Nader Rahman. Long hair gave members of the metal community "the power they needed to rebel against nothing in general".
The classic uniform of heavy metal fans consists of light colored, ripped frayed or torn blue jeans, black T-shirts, boots, and black leather or denim jackets. Deena Weinstein writes, "T-shirts are generally emblazoned with the logos or other visual representations of favorite metal bands." In the 1980s, a range of sources, from punk and goth music to horror films, influenced metal fashion. Many metal performers of the 1970s and 1980s used radically shaped and brightly colored instruments to enhance their stage appearance.
Fashion and personal style was especially important for glam metal bands of the era. Performers typically wore long, dyed, hairspray-teased hair (hence the nickname, "hair metal"); makeup such as lipstick and eyeliner; gaudy clothing, including leopard-skin-printed shirts or vests and tight denim, leather, or spandex pants; and accessories such as headbands and jewelry. Pioneered by the heavy metal act X Japan in the late 1980s, bands in the Japanese movement known as visual kei—which includes many nonmetal groups—emphasize elaborate costumes, hair, and makeup.
Fans raise their fists and make the "devil horns" gesture at a Metsatöll
Many metal musicians when performing live engage in headbanging, which involves rhythmically beating time with the head, often emphasized by long hair. The il cornuto, or devil horns, hand gesture was popularized by vocalist Ronnie James Dio while with Black Sabbath and Dio. Although Gene Simmons of Kiss claims to have been the first to make the gesture on the 1977 Love Gun album cover, there is speculation as to who started the phenomenon.
Attendees of metal concerts do not dance in the usual sense. It has been argued that this is due to the music's largely male audience and "extreme heterosexualist ideology". Two primary body movements used are headbanging and an arm thrust that is both a sign of appreciation and a rhythmic gesture. The performance of air guitar is popular among metal fans both at concerts and listening to records at home. According to Deena Weinstein, thrash metal concerts have two elements that are not part of the other metal genres: moshing and stage diving, which "were imported from the punk/hardcore subculture". Weinstein states that moshing participants bump and jostle each other as they move in a circle in an area called the "pit" near the stage. Stage divers climb onto the stage with the band and then jump "back into the audience".
It has been argued that heavy metal has outlasted many other rock genres largely due to the emergence of an intense, exclusionary, strongly masculine subculture. While the metal fan base is largely young, white, male, and blue-collar, the group is "tolerant of those outside its core demographic base who follow its codes of dress, appearance, and behavior". Identification with the subculture is strengthened not only by the group experience of concert-going and shared elements of fashion, but also by contributing to metal magazines and, more recently, websites. Attending live concerts in particular has been called the "holiest of heavy metal communions."
The metal scene has been characterized as a "subculture of alienation", with its own code of authenticity. This code puts several demands on performers: they must appear both completely devoted to their music and loyal to the subculture that supports it; they must appear uninterested in mainstream appeal and radio hits; and they must never "sell out". Deena Weinstein states that for the fans themselves, the code promotes "opposition to established authority, and separateness from the rest of society".
Musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie observes, "Most of the kids who come to my shows seem like really imaginative kids with a lot of creative energy they don't know what to do with" and that metal is "outsider music for outsiders. Nobody wants to be the weird kid; you just somehow end up being the weird kid. It's kind of like that, but with metal you have all the weird kids in one place". Scholars of metal have noted the tendency of fans to classify and reject some performers (and some other fans) as "poseurs" "who pretended to be part of the subculture, but who were deemed to lack authenticity and sincerity".