by Rebecca Baumgartner
The cultural cachet of classical music and the countercultural tone of metal music would initially seem at odds with each other – one represents the Man, the other rails against him. Even many of the aficionados of both types of music would agree with that assessment. However, the listener unencumbered with such stereotypes can appreciate the similarities in both genres of music, similarities both of musical form and structure, as well as in the subjective experience of the listener.
There are many technical similarities between classical music, especially music from the baroque period, and metal, which others more versed in music theory are better qualified than I am to discuss. At a fundamental level, both types of music are interested in exploring complexity. Sometimes this can appear like complexity for the sake of complexity, giving us the negative connotations of the word “baroque” (as in “the baroque language of government documents”). However, both the best baroque music and the best metal put their complexity to work in the service of building a musical architecture, an abstract structure that keeps the brain in motion, trying to work out how the pieces fit together.
Examples are numerous, so to narrow the field a bit, I want to focus on two concepts that are critical in creating that complexity, and how it makes both types of music more intellectually satisfying and fulfilling than your standard Top 40 hits. Those concepts are counterpoint and movement.
In basic terms, counterpoint is the braiding together of two or more independent melodies, which, when played together, sound cohesive. You can zoom in and focus on the independent motion of one of the parts, but you can also zoom out and hear how multiple parts are in dialogue with each other.
To give an example, listen to any of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, here played by Simone Dinnerstein, and notice how her right and left hand seem to be each pursuing their own objectives, sometimes echoing each other, sometimes chasing each other, other times appearing to wander off to do their own thing. They’re called Two-Part Inventions because they have two parts, but many of Bach’s other contrapuntal pieces have three, four, or five parts. Each part is modular and independent – neither part can claim to be the primary one – while clearly they are each sustaining pieces of the same structure and speaking in reference to each other.
Counterpoint is different from the more familiar pop and rock structure of homophony, or melody and harmony, where the melody is the part that gets stuck in your head and the harmony plays a supporting role; harmony is there to make the melody look good. In a piece using counterpoint, however, each part has as much inherent right to get stuck in your head as another. The performer can choose to emphasize one melody over another at a particular moment and hand the baton back and forth, so to speak, to create a sense of dynamism and movement. For the listener, this often means shifting your focus multiple times within the same piece. For the player, this often means getting proficient at musically patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.
Once you appreciate counterpoint, you recognize that this complexity is instrument-agnostic, as well as genre-agnostic. Because it’s an abstraction, it’s infinitely transferable. When you focus your attention on the abstraction rather than the superficial differences created by time and place and culture, you then have a means of hearing the parallels between normally disparate genres. For instance, you can appreciate how completely metal Bach’s Fugue in C Major (BWV 953) is, and how classically baroque Tool’s Wings for Marie (Pt 1) is. Both pieces have a layered, contrapuntal complexity and driving force that leaves comparatively simple homophony in the dust. It’s undeniable that if Bach were alive today, he would be a songwriter for a prog metal band.
The tempo direction for Bach’s Prelude in C Minor (BWV 999) is con moto, meaning with movement. And if you listen to Glenn Gould’s performance, you can clearly hear that movement taking shape. Con moto, notably, doesn’t carry the same meaning as allegro, or any of the other markings indicating the piece should be played fast. In fact, con moto can be combined with other indicators of tempo, showing that it means something more than simply how fast one’s fingers are moving. The movement in question is partly literal and physical, but also figurative and emotional.
Combining elements of both counterpoint and the spirit of con moto is Rammstein’s Deutschland. From the very beginning, we have a sense of motion that’s more than just pure speed; rather, it’s a sense of being propelled forward into the song (and notice the tonal similarity to the Bach Prelude just mentioned). As the song progresses, it expands and retracts each of its different parts at different moments, with different themes weaving semi-independently throughout the course of the piece, eventually coming to rest in the way a music box winds itself down.
Counterpoint is in fact inherently associated with movement, because a polyphonic piece will naturally have many different places where your ear can “rest” – it is unsettled and dynamic by nature. A song that beautifully illustrates this is Nine Inch Nails’ Complication, which with the addition of each part gains a bit more momentum and energy. As the song nears its end, the parts slowly pull back, until eventually it resolves into a stripped-down soundscape that, appropriately enough for industrial music, brings to mind a complex machine finally coming to rest. Another example is Zeal & Ardor’s Firewake, which, if played on an organ, would not sound out-of-place alongside Bach’s fugues.
In my experience, metal musicians are much more open to the idea that their music shares core structures and forms with classical music – in fact, many of them have explicitly stated that classical composers, especially Bach, were an inspiration for their songwriting. It seems less common for fans of classical music to recognize or admit that music often derided as “noise” could possibly have anything in common with pieces once played in cathedrals and royal courts. However, this is pure vanity, the punishment for which is missing out on entire avenues of musical appreciation that blur or entirely dissolve the arbitrary limits we’ve built around different types of musical expression.