Why I like death metal

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Tagged: music


A short answer to this question can be found in this little quiz. If you get a low score or even as much as get a little confused by the game you will see why someone can simultaneously like classical music and death metal.

Some people find the very existence of a music genre such as death metal to be obnoxious. Although there is a lot to loathe about this genre—loathing is actually its very essence—I would like to show its admirable qualities.

I was introduced1 to this kind of music2 when I was at the height of my teenage angst and the weight of Metallica didn't cut it any longer. I felt like an outcast anywhere I went and needed heavier drugs, so to speak. Death metal helped channel that energy towards something positive—that is, I never used actual drugs or got involved with the wrong kind of kids. My point here is that the attitude was an important driver for me. But there was also something else to it that resonated with me beyond the pathos, which could arguably be quenched by other genres—such as black metal—or actual drugs or violence.

I have never had propensity for violence and the heaviest drug I have ever abused was chocolate. But another aspect of my personal history that had a major role in this issue was the fact that I had been playing guitar with my brother since the age of nine—and piano before that. In addition we used to have musical discussions with my father about melody and harmony from a very early age. I was raised in a musically rich environment.

I have always been deeply musical and the intrinsic qualities of music—melody, harmony, rhythm, arrangement, etc.—have always been reason for admiration and awe. And those are the aspects of death metal that spoke to me even more deeply than the grotesque. I suppose this statement may be more shocking than burning churches, so I will spend the rest of this piece trying to explain it.

Melody and harmony

A common feature of many metal sub-genres is a great emphasis on technical aspects. In all of my years in this genre I have never found myself in a discussion about the lyrics of a song, except as a side note. I suspect this is related to the fact that the fans are very often themselves musicians. Even those who don't play any instrument seem to be very comfortable discussing melody, rhythm or other compositional elements. In metal, music making is part of the listening experience.

Death metal and its related genres (such as doom metal) are, to the best of my knowledge, some of the few popular music sub-genres that make use of (loose) atonal techniques, apart from jazz—if we can call it popular—and music explicitly labeled experimental.

There is nothing intrinsically good about this feature, but it shows that subscribers to this genre have an experimental attitude to composition. (The title of this article is not "why you should listen to death metal".) Classic rock riffs tend to revolve around some musical scale or mode, but death metal riffs are very often chromatic to the point of eclipsing any reference key, and they only resemble popular music in their repetition patterns (see Form, below). I was listening to atonal music before I knew what its historical significance was. In fact, when I discovered contemporary classical music, some years later, it felt like the right next step.

This classic rock riff is written in E Mixolydian. The only accidental seen here—F double-sharp—is simply a passing tone, also known as the blue note. Nothing to see here.

I will illustrate this claim with a fairly typical example, from one of the inventors and most emblematic bands of the genre. The introduction to Death's Flattening of Emotions is hard to describe in terms of tonal keys, despite its simplicity and frugality of resources. Is it in D major? This leaves the natural C unexplained (C is sharp in D major). It could be a flat 7th of a local dominant chord, but only if it led to G major, which it doesn't. We could also start with the assumption that it is in G major, but then the C sharp becomes the contentious point. Again it could be a local dominant chord. D major again? In that case it should resolve to D, which it doesn't. Or maybe it's a D flat leading to C? But how to explain the F sharp in between?

Is it D major? Is it G major? This riff can't be explained in terms of a tonal key.

In reality none of these hypotheses account for the perception, which is that of a bunch of notes without a meaningful sense of tonality. On the other hand, this riff is very easily explained by a mechanistic approach: the shape and tuning of the guitar. It is simply composed of the open E string3 followed by a tritone (augmented fourth)—that is, two notes in adjacent strings at a semitone distance—followed by a transposition of itself half a step lower. Everything happens within three frets (the first D is the open string), and actually the player's hand doesn't need to move more than one fret, if any.

Dancing with the Devil

This is pretty much all there is to it. There is no major concern with creating a beautiful melody or an elaborate harmony. In fact, during the Middle Ages the tritone was considered so ugly that it was associated with the Devil—hence its notorious nickname diabulus in musica. From the Baroque onwards the interval lost its spooky connotation, but it remained a harmony problem that needed to be solved. It wasn't until the latter half of the nineteenth century, more precisely in the opening of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, that this interval appeared without a resolution. That's over a thousand years of bad reputation.

Behold the first unresolved trintone in music history. You can see it (and hear it) on the last bar, lower pentagram between G sharp and D. (Not to be confused with the tritone between the E on the bass and the A sharp on the melody, which does resolve to B.)

Partially thanks to Wagner popular music in our time is not so strict about the tritone and doesn't see any otherworldly phenomena in need of exorcism, but it is still something to be used carefully, lest the harmonic consistency might be compromised. This is true even for musicians without formal training, in which cases this is managed intuitively.

Some might argue this aspect is exactly why the tritone is so widespread in death metal. The bands are trying to shock people, they would say. Although this might be true to some bands, I find it hard to believe this would be the case for the whole genre. As I mentioned I have been learning music from a very early age, but it wasn't until I started studying music theory and history that I learned about the diabolic reputation of this interval.

On the other hand, its "ugliness" is fairly universal. And the beauty of death metal is that it embraces the ugly and the forbidden, which suits outcasts like me perfectly. If others think you are ugly, or that there is something wrong with you, you are still welcome in this group. This music provides a sense of belonging at a deep level.

To attest to my claim that shocking is not the sole purpose of these musicians some riffs in the same Death song are a great deal more conventional, and, even if they couldn't be strictly described as tonal, they still have a very recognizable center of gravity. Some are even lyrical. And that tells how much freedom the genre allows; there are no rules for or against tonal keys—nor for beauty or ugliness—and the musicians take advantage of it.

This riff from Flattening of Emotions is unmistakenly in E minor: the last bar contains the leading tone D sharp, which is the seventh degree in the scale and an essential part of the dominant chord (itself one of the hallmarks of tonal music). It resolves to the implied F sharp chord or latest on the tremollo F sharp the next time the riff repeats.


The features I am presenting here are not exclusive to this genre (which doesn't even claim to be experimental, mind you). There is a lot more experimentation in, say, electronic music when it comes to timbres, in jazz when it comes to harmony and rhythm, and even a band as popular as The Beatles employed bold, unusual solutions in their songs. And I do listen to a variety of music genres, but death metal happened to channel many of my preferences in a single, multilayered experience.

We have seen above what happens with the melody and the harmony. Yet these seldom come in isolation. Another aspect often addressed by experimental music is rhythm. Popular music—and even classical music from before the twentieth century—relies on stable, repetitive bars.4 This is usually a good thing—you can't dance to a song with unpredictable beat—but for those looking for the unusual this is a great playground. Death Metal is hardly dance music: in concerts those who are moving are either shaking their heads up and down or bumping frantically against their neighbors. But many are actually there, believe it or not, just to listen.

Take Once Upon the Cross5, the opening song in Deicide's third studio album. It starts off with a lonely 5/4 bar immediately followed by a traditional 4/4. Before you can notice any stability there comes again the lone 5/4, which now leads to sixteen bars of 3/4. No, wait, a 2/2 is inserted after every eight bars. And so on all the way to the end. Again, there is no concern with song-wide structure, it is just an amalgamation of different rhythms. The rhythm is free. So is the listener.

No more than four bars with the same time signature. Can you even bang your head to this? Metalheads will find a way.


In addition to the well-known microscopic musical components described above there is the macroscopic level of the form, that deals with what is the first verse, chorus, bridge, their repetition patterns, etc.

As it turns out, theme development, of which Gustav Mahler immediately pops up as a paradigmatic instance, is not the only hallmark of compositional quality. Igor Stravinsky, for example in his emblematic music for the ballet Rite of Spring, has legitimized the use of the collage as a compositional method.

Although I am not making any claims regarding the level of quality, it is interesting to see such method being reinvented in such a nefarious context. One could claim, though, that, unlike the previously examined elements, the deviation from the norm when it comes to form is rather accidental in death metal. Evidence to that is how musical form develops over the career of a band: usually the bigger the audience (and the record label) gets, the more conventional the form tends to become. Compare, for instance, the structure of the songs from Carcass's classic album Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious with their following, more mature Heartwork (hint: the latter has choruses).6

Having an iconoclastic attitude towards classical forms may be a starting point for innovation. But this is usually all there is to it here, and the songs only have an unusual structure because the authors write separate riffs and just juxtapose them afterwards. Surgically remove any riff from any song and insert it in any other and most people won't tell the difference. And at this point the form becomes quite unimaginative because there is no notion of theme development or progression of any kind. The riffs are just repeated several times before abruptly giving way to the next.

Still the result is music with a free form, that doesn't adhere to overused patterns. Take Taylor Swift's Shake It Off, which has a prototypical pop song form:

Pre chorus

Verse (same as above, but with different lyrics)
Pre chorus
Chorus (extended)


Chorus (extended)

Which can be simplified as:


Contrast that with Carcass' Symposium of Sickness, a typical—albeit somewhat unusually long—example:


Talk about collage! You can pick any of the letters above—or none—to play the role of the chorus if you really need it. I suppose it suits Carcass that most of their songs are Frankenstein monsters composed of parts of other songs (in potential). But at least with this song that's not the whole story (but I must leave that to some other occasion...)

Final remarks

To be honest, I have become convinced that there are no such things as music genres. I would rather say there are two oposite ends of one spectrum that ranges from conventional to experimental. Towards the latter end you will find most of classical music and jazz, alongside most of (but actually not all) the so-called experimental music. Today's experimental music might become tomorrow's conventional music (althought that rarely happens). And everything else is a matter of arrangements. For my reader's convenience I used the traditional labels in this article (and elsewhere on this site), but I thought I'd mention this idea here anyway.

I wrote this article as I started listening to death metal again after something like a two-decade hiatus. I'm still not sure why this happened, but it is quite telling that I started listening to more contemporary classical music around the same time. I felt the need to write about that phenomenon as well and figured my long term passion for its hellish cousin would also deserve a decent chronicle.

Contrary to the latter music genre, here I wasn't trying to convince anyone to start appreciating death metal. This was more of a public self reflection on the theme and its role in my life.


  1. By my dear and oldest friend Gilberto.

  2. In this article I will use the term death metal as a synonym for the 80's–90's Florida strain. Although this is a specific sub genre, it was a very influential one, and I would claim that it deserves the crowning, while other sub genres are the ones in need of further specification.

  3. Death tunes their guitar one whole step lower than usual, so the string named E is tuned to D.

  4. This says nothing about the repetitiveness of the music itself. There is plenty of innovative music written in four by four.

  5. I apologize if someone feels offended by some of the titles in this piece. Not only is this not my intention, but also completely beside the point of this article, which is about music. As an atheist I always found it surprising—if not downright dumb—that someone who actually believes in Satan would prefer him over God. If I believed in those entities I would certainly (even if against my will) try to please the self-described good guy to avoid eternal suffering. But I'm glad I don't have to worry about these things.

  6. In contrast to the first footnote, Carcass is a British band; the best and most innovative rock band from Liverpool, I should add. It just so happens to be my favorite band, so it couldn't be left out of this little brain fart.