June 3

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Metal Music Theory for Beginners: 5 Things You Need to Learn to Make it Easy

By Ken Candelas

June 3, 2024


Whether you’re just starting or looking to expand your understanding, this guide is designed to make the complex world of music theory accessible and fun. You’ll learn essential concepts and techniques that are specifically tailored to the unique demands and sounds of metal music.

In this beginner’s guide to metal music theory, we’ll break down key elements such as scales, modes, and chord progressions. You’ll understand how to create powerful riffs, harmonize melodies, and develop the dark, aggressive sound that defines the genre.

What You’ll Learn Here:

  • Basic metal scales and how to use them
  • Common metal chord progressions
  • Understanding modes and scales in metal music
  • Creating and harmonizing metal riffs and melodies
  • Tips for developing a metal songwriting process

Does Metal Use Music Theory?

Diving into metal music theory is easier than you might think! We’ll start with the basics, like learning simple scales and chord progressions that are fundamental to metal. For example, mastering the minor pentatonic scale can help you create dark and heavy riffs, while power chords will give your playing that classic, aggressive metal sound.

You’ll also discover how modes like Phrygian can add an exotic flair to your music, making your riffs stand out. With just a few simple concepts, you’ll be able to create powerful, unique metal music.

1 – Theory of Power Chords Explained

Power chords are a staple in metal music, known for their simplicity and heavy sound. A basic power chord consists of just two notes: the root note and the fifth. For example, if you’re playing a power chord starting on the 5th fret of the low E string (an A note), the fifth would be the 7th fret on the A string (an E note). This creates a strong, harmonically rich sound perfect for metal.

Here’s a quick guide to understanding and using power chords:

Basic Power Chord (Root + 5th)

  • Root Note: The starting note of your chord (e.g., 5th fret on the E string – A)
  • Fifth Note: Two frets up and one string over (e.g., 7th fret on the A string – E)

Variations

  1. Adding the Octave:
    • Play the root note, fifth, and add the octave of the root (e.g., 5th fret on E, 7th fret on A, 7th fret on D).
    • This gives a fuller sound.
  2. Changing the Fifth:
    • Lowered Fifth (diminished power chord): Move the fifth down one fret (e.g., A and Eb).
    • Raised Fifth (augmented power chord): Move the fifth up one fret (e.g., A and F).

Inversions

  1. First Inversion:
    • Play the fifth as the lowest note (e.g., E as the bass note, then A).
    • This gives a different, sometimes tighter sound.
  2. Second Inversion:
    • Add another fifth above the octave (e.g., A, E, A).

Using these basic principles and variations, you can create a wide range of powerful, crushing riffs. Experiment with these shapes and find what sounds best for your style!

2 – Scales for Metal Music

Whereas general music theory may start with major scales or blues scales for guitar, we can lean on the fact that most metal is written with minor and darker-sounding scales. These scales provide the intense, moody atmosphere that characterizes metal music.

Common Metal Scales

1. Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is a go-to for many metal guitarists because of its simplicity and dark sound. Here’s a basic A minor pentatonic scale:

e|————————5-8-|
B|——————–5-8—–|
G|—————5-7———-|
D|———–5-7————–|
A|——-5-7——————|
E|—5-8———————-|

2. Natural Minor Scale (Aeolian)

The natural minor scale is another staple in metal music, adding more notes and complexity compared to the minor pentatonic. Here’s an A natural minor scale:

e|————————-5-7-8-|
B|——————-5-6-8——-|
G|—————5-7————-|
D|———–5-7—————–|
A|—–5-7-8———————|
E|-5-7-8————————-|

3. Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian mode adds an exotic, Spanish flair to your metal riffs. Here’s an E Phrygian scale:

e|————————-7-8-10-|
B|——————-8-10———|
G|————-7-9-10————-|
D|———–9——————–|
A|—–7-8-10———————|
E|-7-8-10————————-|

Using these scales, you can create riffs and solos that capture the dark, intense essence of metal. Experiment with these patterns and find the sound that suits your style!

3 – Theory Behind Tempos in Metal Music

Explaining tempos for metal music can help you understand how different subgenres achieve their unique feels and intensity. Tempo, measured in beats per minute (BPM), plays a crucial role in defining the energy and aggression of a metal track.

Common Tempos for Subgenres of Metal

  • Doom Metal: Slow tempos (40-80 BPM), creating a heavy, crushing atmosphere.
  • Black Metal: Fast tempos (120-200 BPM), emphasizing intensity and raw emotion.
  • Thrash Metal: Very fast tempos (180-220 BPM), driving a relentless and aggressive sound.
  • Death Metal: Varied tempos (100-200 BPM), often shifting between fast and slow for dynamic impact.
  • Power Metal: Fast tempos (140-200 BPM), delivering a high-energy, epic feel.

Well-Known Metal Songs and Their Tempos

  • “Master of Puppets” by Metallica: ~220 BPM (Thrash Metal)
  • “Raining Blood” by Slayer: ~210 BPM (Thrash Metal)
  • “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath: ~75 BPM (Doom Metal)
  • “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” by Megadeth: ~190 BPM (Thrash Metal)
  • “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead: ~140 BPM (Speed Metal)
  • “Painkiller” by Judas Priest: ~180 BPM (Power Metal)
  • “Freezing Moon” by Mayhem: ~130 BPM (Black Metal)

These tempos can help you choose the right speed for your riffs and compositions, ensuring they fit the desired subgenre and feel of your metal music. Experimenting with different tempos will also help you find the perfect rhythm for your songs.

4 – How to Use the Circle of Fifths for Writing Metal Riffs and Song Structure

The Circle of Fifths is a useful tool for understanding the relationships between different keys and can help you create compelling metal riffs and song structures. It shows the relationship between the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the relative minor and major scales.

Using the Circle of Fifths for Metal Music

  1. Find the Key: Start by identifying your main key. For metal, minor keys like E minor or A minor are often used.
  2. Identify Related Chords: Use the Circle of Fifths to find chords that are closely related to your main key. For E minor, the closely related keys are G major (its relative major), and the chords one fifth away, like B minor and A minor.
  3. Create Progressions: Use these related chords to create progressions that sound cohesive and powerful.

Example: E Minor and Related Notes

E minor (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D) is surrounded by G major (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) and B minor (B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A) on the Circle of Fifths. These keys share many notes and chords, making it easy to transition between them in a song.

E Minor Chord Progression

Here’s a simple chord progression using E minor and its related chords:

  • Em – G – D – C

You can play these as power chords:

  • E5: (E, B)
  • G5: (G, D)
  • D5: (D, A)
  • C5: (C, G)

Another Example: A Minor and Related Notes

A minor (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) is surrounded by C major (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and E minor (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D) on the Circle of Fifths.

A Minor Chord Progression

Here’s a simple chord progression using A minor and its related chords:

  • Am – C – G – F

Power chords for these:

  • A5: (A, E)
  • C5: (C, G)
  • G5: (G, D)
  • F5: (F, C)

Exploring Obscure Notes for Subgenres

For subgenres like death and black metal, you can use more obscure notes and scales to add dissonance and a darker tone. The Phrygian dominant scale, for instance, includes a flat second and a sharp seventh, creating an eerie, exotic sound.

Phrygian Dominant Scale (E Phrygian Dominant)

The E Phrygian dominant scale consists of the following notes: E, F, G#, A, B, C, D.

e|————————7-8-11-|
B|——————–8-9——–|
G|—————7-9————-|
D|———–9——————-|
A|——-7-8———————|
E|—7-8-11———————-|

Tying It All Together

Using the Circle of Fifths, you can create chord progressions that flow naturally and maintain a cohesive sound. Combine these progressions with the minor scales and power chords discussed earlier to write heavy, dark riffs. Experiment with adding obscure notes and modes like the Phrygian dominant to give your metal riffs a unique edge.

By understanding these basic concepts and how they interrelate, you can confidently craft your own powerful metal music.

5 – Understanding Melodies and Harmonies

Building on our discussion of scales, chords, and progressions, let’s delve into the concepts of melody and harmony, which are crucial for crafting compelling metal music.

What’s the Difference Between Melody and Harmony in Music Theory?

Melody is a sequence of notes that are perceived as a single entity. It’s the part of the music you typically sing along to or that stands out as the main theme. In metal, melodies can be found in vocal lines, lead guitar parts, and solos.

Harmony, on the other hand, is created when two or more notes are played simultaneously. It supports the melody and adds depth and richness to the music. In metal, harmonies are often created by multiple guitar parts playing together, or by vocalists harmonizing their lines.

Melodies in Metal

Melodies in metal music are often built using minor scales or modes to create a dark, intense atmosphere. For instance, using the E minor scale, a melody could be constructed like this:

e|————————0-2-3-|
B|——————–0-1-3—–|
G|—————0-2———–|
D|———–0-2—————|
A|——-0-2——————-|
E|—0-2-3———————|

You can create memorable and engaging melodies by focusing on the scale notes and experimenting with different rhythmic patterns and articulations.

Harmonies in Metal

Guitar harmonies are a hallmark of many metal subgenres. These harmonies are often achieved by having two guitarists play the same melody at different intervals, such as a third or a fifth apart. Using the melody in the last example, here’s another example of applying a harmony using the E minor scale:

Harmony (a third above):

e|————————3-5-7-|
B|——————–3-4-6—–|
G|—————2-4———–|
D|———–2-4—————|
A|——-2-4——————-|
E|—2-4-5———————|

When played together, the original melody and its harmony create a rich, full sound that is characteristic of many metal songs.

Vocal Melodies and Harmonies

In metal, vocal melodies often follow the same principles as guitar melodies, using minor scales and modes. Harmonies can be added by layering vocals at different intervals. For example, a lead vocalist might sing a melody in E minor, while a backup vocalist harmonizes a third or fifth above.

Example: Dual Guitar Harmonies in Metal

Bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest are famous for their dual guitar harmonies. These harmonies are typically played using parallel intervals to create a powerful, synchronized sound. Here’s how you might harmonize a simple E minor riff:

Original Riff:

e|———————————|
B|———————————|
G|———————————|
D|———2———5————-|
A|—2-5—0—2-5—0————-|
E|—0-3——-0-3—————–|

Harmony (a third above):

e|———————————|
B|———————————|
G|———4———7————-|
D|—4-7—2—4-7—2————-|
A|—2-5——-2-5—————–|
E|———————————|

When combined, these harmonized riffs provide the intricate, layered sound that defines many metal tracks.

Exploring Obscure Notes for Unique Harmonies

For subgenres like death and black metal, incorporating more dissonant and obscure notes can create a unique, dark sound. Using diminished or augmented intervals can add tension and an unsettling quality to your harmonies.

By understanding the difference between melody and harmony in music theory and applying these concepts to your metal compositions, you can create complex, engaging music that stands out. Experiment with different scales, intervals, and harmonies to find your unique sound.

How to Make Metal Sound More Metal with Music Theory

In this video, we take a metal chord (power chord) progression in the key of E minor and we throw in two notes that don’t fit in the key of E minor. We also show you an easy way to use the Circle of Fifths to build your riffs, progressions, and songs so that they have this metal twist to them.

Do You Need Music Theory to Play Metal?

The question of whether you need music theory to play metal is a common one, and the answer isn’t straightforward. Many legendary metal musicians have both formal music education and have learned purely by ear.

Examples of Great Musicians

Musicians Who Know Theory

  • Yngwie Malmsteen: Known for his neoclassical metal style, Malmsteen’s deep understanding of music theory allows him to blend classical music with metal seamlessly.
  • Dream Theater: The members of Dream Theater, particularly John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess, are well-versed in music theory, which is evident in their complex compositions and intricate playing.

Musicians Who Don’t Rely on Theory

  • Tony Iommi: The Black Sabbath guitarist, often credited with creating the heavy metal genre, primarily relied on his ear and feel rather than formal music theory.
  • James Hetfield: The Metallica frontman is known more for his riff-writing prowess and raw musical instincts than for formal theoretical knowledge.

An Unbiased Approach

While a strong grasp of music theory can certainly enhance your playing and composition skills, it’s not a strict requirement for creating great metal music. Many musicians have achieved success by focusing on their ear, creativity, and practical experience.

However, understanding music theory can provide a framework that makes learning and writing music easier. It can help you communicate ideas more effectively with other musicians, understand why certain notes and chords sound good together, and explore new musical concepts.

Ultimately, whether or not you delve into music theory depends on your personal goals and learning style. If you’re passionate about creating music and curious about the theoretical aspects, learning music theory could open up new avenues for your creativity. But if you prefer to play by feel and intuition, that’s a valid path too.

The choice is yours, and both approaches have their merits. If you’re interested in learning more about how music theory can benefit your metal playing, there’s a wealth of resources available here on Metal Mastermind to help you get started.

Your Next Step: Metal Music Theory Online Course

Diving deeper into music theory offers numerous benefits, especially for metal musicians looking to expand their creative horizons. Understanding theory can help you comprehend the building blocks of music, such as scales, chords, and progressions, allowing you to craft more complex and interesting compositions. For example, knowing how to use modes like Phrygian or harmonic minor can add an exotic and intense flavor to your riffs and solos, setting your music apart from others.

Moreover, music theory provides a common language that can facilitate better communication with other musicians. Whether you’re in a band or collaborating with others, being able to discuss concepts like key changes, time signatures, and harmonic structures can streamline the creative process and lead to more cohesive and polished results. Additionally, theory knowledge can accelerate your learning process, making it easier to pick up new techniques and styles by understanding the underlying principles.

Another significant benefit is the ability to analyze and draw inspiration from a wide range of music. By studying the theoretical aspects of your favorite metal songs, you can gain insights into why certain elements work so well together and apply those techniques to your own music. This analytical approach can help you break through creative blocks and continuously evolve your sound, ensuring your music remains fresh and innovative. Ultimately, while theory isn’t a necessity for playing metal, diving deeper into it can profoundly enhance your musical journey.

Ken Candelas

About the author

Professor, pro audio engineer, creator of symphonic cinematic metal opera Homerik, and co-founder of Metal Mastermind.

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