A Contemporary Connection Through Inspiration
Heavy Metal And Classical Music

By Alfredo Madrid

As a general rule, music has an underlying inspirational, spiritual, intellectual and uplifting tone. Although the different genres in this particular art forum are rather diverse, especially considering all the developments of the modern canon, including but not limited to electronic and rap music to list just a few of the rapidly aggregating forms, some manage to hold closer affinities to one another than do other types.

One such group, that upon first consideration actually seems far out of tune and extremely displaced—at least as far as the comparison is concerned—are classical music, in the historical sense, and a branch stemming from hard rock that first appeared during the late 1960s on through the early 1970s: heavy metal.


The long winded solos, maybe even the technicalities of the actual musicianship, or simply the indifferent approach to its audience members may or may not link the two genres together depending on the approach and side taken. In reality, all music begins to intertwine at some level.

The point is, heavy metal and classical music, especially when collaborating together, seem to prevail in harmony. This was exactly the case in April of 1999 when the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in Berkeley teamed up with arguably the greatest and most popular heavy metal band, Metallica, for a couple of nights of groundbreaking frolicking and display of masterwork on the latter’s contemporary songs.

In fact, on a slight tangent, the same can be said for Jazz music; that also began as a regular commodity and went onto form its own respectable niche. When looked at chronologically, heavy metal is still in a form of infancy. Common knowledge of the genre would compare the advancements to Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and more directly Led Zeppelin, but the fact of the matter is that these groups influenced the growing category of music slightly less than is initially presumed.


In "The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal," Ian Christe writes, "dozens of early contemporaries of Black Sabbath contributed to the development of what would later be considered heavy metal. Some were blues-based, like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Others like King Crimson, Queen, and Rush, attempted to introduce elements of classical music."

The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (N.W.O.B.H.M.) that spawned in the U.K. during the late 1970s with such influential groups as Motorhead, Diamond Head, Judas Priest, Saxon, and Def Leppard to list just a few, took a different approach when founding some of this faster, louder form of rock ‘n’ roll. Some groups, such as Motorhead, embraced the thrash and speed of the punk movement burgeoning in the U.K. at the same time.


Still, others such as the dominating and melodic English metal band Iron Maiden denied such claims. One thing was for certain, though, a new form of hard rock was being brewed. This mixture was about to unleash powerful resonant sounds of rebellion and anger at a world that the proponents found to be hostile to its foundation.
In the midst of considering the archaic influence that concert music definitely did have upon contemporary heavy metal, it cannot be stressed enough that it is not a full imitation, a definite homage.

Christe continues, "along with European classical music, the Middle East had been a popular source of ideas since the 1980s, when Mercyful Fate recorded 'Curse of the Pharoahs' and Iron Maiden titled an Egyptian-themed album Powerslave."

On Blogspot.com, in the section, “The History of Heavy Metal,” there is a disclaimer of sorts that appears to appease the ongoing debate.

“The appropriation of ‘classical’ music by heavy metal typically includes the influence of Baroque, Romantic, and Modernist composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Niccolò Paganini, Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky. The ever evocative tritone was already exploited by Romantic composers like Liszt, and most specifically by modern classical composers (such as Bartok, Stravinsky or Schoenberg) who used it especially for its anguishing and dark connotative qualities.”


There were classical developments and innovations that led to the 20th century sprouting of metal, but it was not completely decisive and conclusive.

Written in “The History of Heavy Metal,” “Deep Purple/Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had been experimenting with musical figurations borrowed from classical music since the early 1970s. Following Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads and Uli Jon Roth, the ‘classical’ influence in metal guitar during the 1980s looked to the early eighteenth century for its model of speed and technique; notably, classically-inspired guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, whose technical prowess inspired a myriad of neo-classical metal players including Michael Romeo, Michael Angelo Batio and Tony MacAlpine. However, while heavy metal musicians may have often been inspired by classical composers, it is important to stress the fact that their music does not descend from classical music. Classical music is art music (that is to say ‘erudite music’) whereas heavy metal is popular music.”

Concert music and heavy metal share similarities, although they may not necessarily be related through exact delineations.

Continued in “The History of Heavy Metal,” “moreover many specialists and critics have observed that heavy metal musicians actually focus on and borrow superficial aspects of classical music (motives, melodies, scales or even sometimes real orchestral sets). However, heavy metal bands, including neo classical and progressive metal bands, generally do not try to exploit the compositional depth and complexity of classical music. For example, the players who name Bach as an influence on their work seldom make use of the complex counterpoint which is central to Bach's compositions. Furthermore, the extensive use of power chords in heavy metal (implying countless consecutive fifths) goes against one of the main principles of classical music. The use of consecutive fifths and octaves is a violation of an important rule of harmony and classical aesthetic.”

In essence, the two branches of music are related, but in a more familial sense. The one, heavy metal looked to the other for a stepping stone, a form of guidance and inspiration.

As recounted on another site dedicated to the topic, Answers.com, under the title, “Heavy Metal Music,” “heavy metal is a subgenre of music whose individual elements were present in the works of early Baroque and Classical composers like J.S. Bach and Beethoven. Early musical examples include Bach's ‘Toccata’ and ‘Fugue in D minor,’ Mozart's ‘Requiem,’ and Beethoven's ‘String Quartet Opus 132 (1st movement).’ It was Richard Wagner whom actually invented the genre: introducing fantastical elements; exploring chromatic composition like no one before; and pioneering a crushing instrumental sound (today it would certainly be called ‘heaviness’) that is yet to be matched in overall intensity of effect.”

When considering another aspect that the two musical forms share, it is somewhat compelling to see that the lifestyles of many of the classical composers seem to mirror those of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll adherents. The theatricality, the over indulging in excesses of every sort, the anti-establishment motto--it was all set by these classically trained musicians.

"Ever since the Beatles, rock bands had toyed with classical music with rather mixed results," writes Christe. "As part of a fondness for times past, heavy metal musicians in particular romanticized the image of the classical music composer tearing out his hair to find the perfect dramatic chord."

There is a possibility that as the future unfolds for this still burgeoning musical genre, classical music will begin to correlate stronger with it and even attract a larger pool of attention from the public.

"Everyone from Accept and Yngwie Malmsteen to Master's Hammer and Emperor nodded to classical music," writes Christe. "As metal musicians matured and found their way into university music departments, especially in Europe, it was possible that metal would develop into a neo-classical institution, complete with allusions to the Swedish death metal school."

In order for society to advance in a healthy manner, the arts in particular need to remain potent and strong for the sake of culture, in every sense of the word. Music, through its enchanting and impressive powers, could be the key to the entrance of this sensible door. As the famed 19th Century German Existentialist Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote in “Twilight of the Idols,” “without music, life would be a mistake.”

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