Metal and Music Theory: What People Don’t Understand WiredGuitarist January 11, 2019 Articles, Tutorials, Uncategorized Music theory is a dirty word to anyone outside the circles of jazz and classical. But why? Is it too hard? Is it not relevant to the genre? There’s no simple answer to these things, but we’re going to try anyway. … and yes, I do hold a music degree, so bear with me. THE PROBLEM Music theory is an immensely powerful field of study. It helps you understand music, and how to apply new tools to your own songwriting. It’s empowering, music becomes so much less difficult and mysterious through learning more about how it works. Most musicians do not have any knowledge of music theory at all, but sadly, many of them also have an aversion to the idea. This objection comes from many misconceptions about music theory, and today we’re going to attempt to dismantle these thoughts and explain what it is and what it isn’t, and why it’s just as important in metal as any other genre. COMMON OBJECTIONS These are by far the most common objections I hear to music theory: 1) “It restricts you because it has all these rules.” 2) “No one needs theory to be good at music.” 3) “[insert successful musician] didn’t use music theory.” To give a clearer picture of music theory and how it functions in all types of music, we need to address these three objections individually. IS IT RESTRICTIVE? Music theory does not have rules. Music theory is not, in any way, supposed to be a set of rules for creating music. It IS, however, a method of analyzing and explaining sound. Music theory was created AFTER music, meaning it is not a compositional tool, it is a tool you use to understand why things sound a specific way. Why certain notes go together in a pleasing manner. Let me pitch it to you this way: A microscope is not capable of making living things. But, it can be used to tell us a ton of information about living things that have already been created. It’s a tool for analysis, not creation. Music theory works similarly. Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to see why it gets a bad reputation… Music theory primarily focuses on classical music and jazz music. These are two of the most harmonically complex genres in their own very different ways, which makes them perfect subjects to study. When we read about theory concepts from these genres and try to apply them to metal, they seem restrictive… This is because we are taking tools that are meant to ANALYZE one style of music, then trying to COMPOSE a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT STYLE of music using those tools. … I’m guessing you see the problem here. Not only that, but the “rules” people think of are simply common, repeating patterns we see in specific style of music. It’s not a “rule” that I can’t play a breakdown in a jazz song. It’s not a “rule” that I can’t write an entire song using the major scale on my death metal record. These are simply uncommon occurrences, and therefore we spend time talking about what’s common in a specific genre, or what are commonly found to be pleasing to the human ear, not what’s uncommon. There are no rules, and music theorists know that. Theorists analyze, they teach patterns and guidelines. THEORY KNOWLEDGE DOESN’T MAKE YOU GOOD This is absolutely true. Going back to the previous example, using a microscope to learn everything about what’s inside a cell doesn’t mean you can create one yourself. So what’s the benefit of it then? How many of us played Minesweeper as kids? It was one of the only games installed on computers when you got them. The school computers, your home computer, grandma’s 8 year old snail of a computer, no matter what you used it was always there. As kids, almost everyone I know played that by just clicking around and hoping for the best, not really knowing what the numbers meant. Eventually, you’d get pretty far before you lost. Once we grew up and understood how to play the game, it became much easier. We could get much further more consistently. The bottom line is this: when we understand something, we can create and recreate with much more consistent success. Similarly, if there’s a chord in a song that I love the sound of, I can’t just use it any which way and hope to get that same sound in my own song. But, if I understand that it’s a G7sus4 chord, and I know how a G7sus4 chord works in the key, I know exactly when and where to play it on the fretboard in my own song to get the same effect. How about those licks you used to learn from solos, or from YouTube lessons? Most of those licks were just that, a lick. No explanation of what key it’s in, what chord it’s using, or how you can apply it to your own music. Music theory can bridge that gap for you. Theory allows us to give names to sounds, which means I can communicate with others and they will understand what sounds those words represent. If you don’t know theory, telling you the song is in C doesn’t mean anything. If you do, you can improvise a solo over that song without having heard or played it before. What if what you call the “moody chord”, and what your buddy calls “the blue chord”, and his sister calls “the octagon shape chord” could all be called the same thing? Think about how much communication would improve. That’s one aspect of music theory at work. Music theory won’t guarantee success, nor is it a requirement for musical success, but it’s undeniable that understanding music – something you’ve dedicated so much of your time to – is advantageous to not understanding it at all. BUT ____ DIDN’T KNOW THEORY This is where things get tricky. No, most of your favorite musicians do not have any formal training in music theory, you’re correct. But let’s go back to that definition of music theory: it’s a tool used to identify and name patterns that occur in music. No musician you listen to is purely operating out of magic, randomness, or musical ignorance. They’ve been playing for long enough that they’ve recognized patterns of their own, and assigned their own identity to those sounds. Just because they can’t name the chord they’re playing doesn’t mean that they haven’t discovered “I love this chord and use it a lot.” In short, just because they don’t know the proper music theory terminology does not mean that they aren’t using the same devices of pattern recognition and matching sounds to visual fretboard patterns as music theorists do. They found these through experience and experimentation. So, we first need to establish that they do indeed have some grasp of music theory that is a fundamental part of their music. You likely have your own patterns, chords, or “moves” that you know “work” for you, you just might not have a formal label for those things. Now… what if they didn’t have to learn those things through trial and error, what if those musical insights could be taught? Because that’s what theory can do. STILL DOESN’T APPLY TO METAL This may come as a shock to some of you, but any metal song can be analyzed using music theory. Yes, it’s true. Just because you may not be thinking about scales and chords while you write doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of relationship between those notes that can be identified and named. Anything done in music can be analyzed and categorized by music theory, which is why it still is equally relevant and applicable to metal. Now once again, no one is suggesting that you should adhere to writing only using music theory principles, we’ve already addressed the problems there. We can still acknowledge the use of the Phrygian scale in Necrophagist’s work, or modal interchange in Devin Townsend’s compositions, or the superimposition of chords borrowed from other keys in Wes Hauch’s solos. Not only that but by knowing these tools and names we can then learn how to easily borrow those same sounds and apply them to our own compositions without fiddling around blindly hoping to stumble upon that same sound we heard on a record. Everything in music is borrowed in some way. There are only 12 notes, they’ve all been played before, and any combination of those notes has been played in a chord before, and so on. But it’s not the notes or chords that make a song unique, it’s the combination of factors that come together to create a cocktail that’s never been tasted. It’s the combination of scales, chords, instruments, rhythms, layers, emotions and countless more variables that are what make a composition and an artist unique. Music theory aids in your ability to borrow, by understand what someone else did in that one short musical moment, and how you can too. CLOSING THOUGHTS I’ve played or recorded several genres of metal including shred metal, tech death, metalcore, progressive metal, and more in my short lifetime. In each of these genres, I’ve composed by ear by experimenting, or by hearing something in my head and trying to recreate it, as most of us do. However, I’ve also put my knowledge of music theory to good use creating some of my favorite riffs ever… and yes, it still sounds like metal. Not classical, not jazz, metal. This is because – as you hopefully understand by now – music theory is not a set of rules. It is not a compositional requirement. It is simply a tool we can use to identify and communicate different sounds, which can bolster our musical abilities and unlock new concepts, sounds, and ultimately compositions. The lesson here is not that everyone has to learn music theory, it’s simply to correct the misconceptions that theory has no place in rock/metal, that it is a hindrance to expression, and that successful musicians have no knowledge of it at all – they all do in their own way. While theory is a great compositional aid, it is not a checklist of requirements and rules. While theory is not a guarantee of musical success, it can be a great part of it. While theory is not mandatory, it’s only going to serve as a strength.