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  • Theory and Analysis of Classic Heavy Metal Harmony
  • John J. Sheinbaum
Theory and Analysis of Classic Heavy Metal Harmony. By Esa Lilja. (Publications of the Finnish Music Library Association, vol. 136; Advanced Musicology, vol. 1.) Helsinki: IAML Finland, 2009. [229 p. ISBN 9789525363357. €88.50.] Music examples, tables, bibliography, audiovisual material, discography.

In many portraits of rock music history, the 1970s and 1980s represent something of a decline after the explosive growth, experimentation, and social importance of rock during the 1960s. The style often known as "heavy metal"—think distorted guitars, loud volumes, dark subject matter, and generally aggressive attitudes—enjoyed its chief popularity precisely during this period, putting it at something of a critical disadvantage within the field of popular music studies. From a cultural standpoint the style largely aimed at white middle-class teenage boys, and was little concerned with affecting social consciousness. Musically, metal was seen as simple, the virtuosity of numerous players notwithstanding, and little concerned with irony or emotional distance. The book-length scholarly studies that do exist tend to focus on individual bands (such as Susan Fast, In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001]; and Glenn T. Pillsbury, Damage Incorporated: Metallica and the Production of Musical Identity [New York and London: Routledge, 2006]), or sociological approaches (such as Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture [rev. ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 2000]; and Keith Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge [Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2007]). Against this background, Robert Walser's Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993) continues to hold up well in focusing on the music of heavy metal, and doing so in ways relevant to the culture surrounding the major bands, the history of the style, and fans' interactions with the music.

In this published version of his 2009 University of Helsinki dissertation, Esa Lilja expands the groundwork by situating metal more directly within the confines of music theory and analysis, particularly as applied to traditions of "classical" music. From Lilja's point of view, "there has been a common consensus between social scientists and musicologists that systematic structural analysis of popular music is not worthwhile" (p. 15), and he wishes to correct this seeming imbalance, for "it seems that basic work with musical structures has yet to be done" (p. 17). As scholars have tended to be less resistant to analyzing classical music, Lilja wants to open the door to analyzing metal by showing how the style, similar to many popular genres, historically has been intimately bound up with numerous features of classical music, leaving "the notion of popular music as autonomous of the so-called art music … in fact, a myth" (p. 17). [End Page 94]

Lilja rehearses the difficulties in defining heavy metal, and provides a concise historical overview. He argues that metal can be understood as an outgrowth of the 1960s counterculture, where, for example, the "theme of love" might play out in metal's "explicitly sexual … lyrics and performance style" (p. 26); the "hippie ideology" of peace becomes "unmasked frustration and depression about mankind's evil deeds" (p. 27); and Eastern-derived "New Age religions" transform into metal's frequent "mystical and oriental references" (p. 28).

Placing metal practices within the context of the history of music theory, Lilja touches on figures such as Zarlino, Rameau, Helmholtz, Riemann, and Schenker. Unlike conventional tools, which assume triadic chords to be the "basic harmonic unit," Lilja notes theories that instead focus on intervals above the bass, and twentieth-century approaches that "seek definitions for the term 'chord' that are not solely tied to triads" (p. 51). Such a perspective allows the metal "power chord"—normally played as a root with a fifth above—to seem less like a simplification of normative harmony, and more in line with numerous traditions in music history. Similarly, as metal is "mostly dependent on chord root progressions, and far less dependent on the voicing and melodic construction of the upper parts" (p. 86), the prevalence of parallel motion as power...


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