I have a very wide taste in different types of music. One of the genres that I enjoy listening to is metal. Now before you grimace at the alleged prospects of metal being ‘noise’ and ‘disturbing music for angry people’, I implore you to keep an open mind and hear me out. I’ll explain to you why people like metal music!
Listeners tend to be confused about the appeal of metal music, and what metal entails in general.
Yes, metal can be loud. Yes, it may involve harsh screaming or growling. But the truth is that metal is actually SO much more than just being loud and angry.
In this article, we are going to explore some facets of metal and why metalheads love it, and hopefully dispel some misconceptions along the way.
1. It can be thrilling
Broadly speaking, the sound of metal is characterized by thundering guitars and pummeling rhythms. While the energy and speed of metal might not be everyone’s cup of tea, for metalheads, it can be a form of positive sensory overload.
That’s what makes metal such a great soundtrack for the gym or other tasks where you need to get pumped up. If you’re feeling lethargic and need a quick dose of adrenaline, some nasty metal riffage might just be what you need to get energized!
2. Metal can be ‘intelligent’ music
No, this doesn’t mean that you’ll need to solve differential equations to be able to stream the next Tool record (although who can be sure with those guys). Metal music is often complex and demanding to listen to and understand. It also often addresses non-mainstream themes and emotions, frequently drawing from literature and science.
This report talks about a study that found that a large proportion of students belonging to the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth listed metal as their favorite genre. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that an outsider genre like metal that requires mental and musical investment, appeals to those of an intellectual bend.
However, this isn’t to say that metal is always cerebral and serious; it can be equally fun and liberating for a casual headbanging session!
3. Metal gives a voice to outsiders
With metal’s reputation as a ‘weird’ and ‘rebellious’ genre, individuals, especially youngsters who are outsiders amongst their peers tend to gravitate towards it as a source of comfort and solidarity. There is a sense of identification with metal’s own status as a genre that refuses to stay down despite never quite being accepted by the mainstream.
This is also the reason why metal fans tend to be very loyal to the genre and towards the metal community as a whole. Metal becomes a common language and symbol of pride for all its fans who don’t quite ‘fit in’ – not because they can’t, but because they don’t need/want to.
4. There are a lot more subgenres than you might realize
I always say there is metal out there for everyone. From its arguable origins with Black Sabbath and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the 1960s, metal has expanded to become an umbrella term for a staggering variety of music. Yes, ‘blackened tech-death’ is an actual metal subgenre, not the name of a futuristic plague.
Some subgenres like thrash metal and heavy metal have seen considerable mainstream popularity with bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden, the former featuring fast aggressive riffing and drums with James Hetfield’s snarled vocals, and the latter embracing a more melodic approach with soaring guitar harmonies and Bruce Dickinson’s operatic delivery.
The guttural growled or screamed vocals that are often stereotypically associated with metal actually occur in a relatively small percentage of metal, in subgenres like death metal, black metal, and metalcore. Other subgenres take a far more melodic approach, like symphonic metal, progressive metal, power metal, and so on.
The ever-increasing number of subgenres has become something of an inside joke within the metal community, but it only goes to show that there is metal out there to cater to everyone. If you haven’t found a single metal song you like, you just haven’t looked hard enough!
5. Metal is usually more complex than mainstream music
Metal’s penchant for playing fast and tight means that it can be much more musically demanding than the average pop song to play. Listeners who appreciate musical skill therefore gravitate to metal for its precision and technical aspects.
Shredding guitar solos, thunderous blast beats, or even growled and screamed vocals involve considerable technique to pull off, which makes metal a perfect match for those looking for musical proficiency. It makes sense, therefore, that a lot of metalheads are musicians themselves.
Some subgenres of metal like progressive metal, technical death metal, or avant-garde metal especially focus on technical virtuosity. They stray away from conventional songwriting norms to explore complex and changing scales, harmony, song structures, odd time signatures, and themes. It’s not unusual for metal songs to run well over 15 minutes while exploring heady philosophical topics or concept storylines.
The Psychology of Metal Music
Researchers have often wondered what exactly makes certain people like metal. After all, it is a challenging, intense, and demanding genre that staunchly rejects the mainstream, and remains rejected by the mainstream. Could people who like metal have some common traits that make them drift towards this genre?
This article talks about a study at the University of Westminster in the U.K. which surveyed participants who rated metal songs and answered questions about their personality traits, need for uniqueness, self-esteem, and attitude towards authority.
The researchers found a correlation between a fondness of metal and a dislike of authority, a need for uniqueness as well as somewhat lower self-esteem. Empirically this makes sense since metal is known to have anti-establishment themes or even in itself be a rejection of mainstream musical conventions.
As mentioned before, metal is often a source of comfort and relatability to social outsiders, who often suffer from low self-esteem. Listening to metal is an act of solidarity and helps boost self-esteem in a form of catharsis.
While this research may not be representative of the whole metal community, it is an important step towards understanding the psychological appeal of metal and avoid stereotyping its listeners as angry or violent people.
Stereotypes about metalheads
Metal tends to embrace darker and more graphic themes than we’re used to witnessing in Top 40 pop music, conveying emotions like anger and despair. This often leads to people stereotyping metal fans as people glorifying violence and being angry, aggressive people.
George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher of Cannibal Corpse, renowned for their extremely graphic and gory lyrical imagery and artwork, dispels this misconception by comparing their music to horror films and books. Just because a movie or book depicts graphic violence or embraces dark themes, it doesn’t mean they glorify them. The same goes for metal music.
Conveying negative emotions through music like metal can actually be a healthy outlet for these emotions in listeners. Just like with happy music, listening to an angry song might resonate with one’s own anger and in turn help channel and finally placate it.
The themes of metal, therefore, do not reflect the actual personalities of metal listeners. This study, in fact, finds that metalheads tend to be more well-adjusted and well-rounded adults than their (non metal fan) peers.
Metal is a vast, unapologetic genre that has stood the test of time without much of the mainstream popularity and financing that more conventional genres enjoy. It is constantly experimenting, growing, and defying trends, covering the gamut of emotions from joy to rage and everything in between.
It can be complex or simple, harsh or beautiful, fast or slow, or all of these in the course of a single track. Besides its musical expansiveness, metal boasts of some of the most loyal fans and a sense of community and kinship amidst musicians and listeners alike.
If you’ve not yet dipped your feet in the deep waters of metal, I highly suggest catching a metal show live to experience the electric energy that flows through and unites the audience and artists. Be prepared for a sore neck after a night of headbanging though!