steve losh
 

Posted on April 2, 2009.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a blog entry strictly about music. Usually I’ll reference it when I write about dancing, but today I just want to talk about music. In particular, metal.

“Metal” can refer to a lot of music. For this post I’m referring to the newer forms of metal that sprung up in the past decade or so. One example of this is Should Have Stayed in the Shallows by Fear Before (the March of Flames). I know there are many, many more bands out there but this one song is a good sample of what I want to talk about.

“I Don’t Like all the Screaming”

If you play a metal song for someone that doesn’t usually listen to the genre, this is probably the first thing you’ll hear. There might be a mention of “everything is so loud” but almost without fail the screaming is what seems to turn people off. Why is that?

The vocals of a song are usually the most noticeable part, especially for nonmusicians. Most people who don’t play an instrument don’t have the background to absorb and appreciate complicated instrumental work in any kind of music, but everyone has vocal cords. Everyone can appreciate speech and singing at some level.

So what is it about screaming that most people don’t like? If you ask them, you’ll get an answer, but I don’t think it’s the correct one.

“I Can’t Understand the Words”

This is what you’ll usually hear when you press the issue. It seems reasonable – the lyrics to most metal bands are indecipherable without a written copy, even to people that love them. Surely this is the problem?

I don’t think it is. To get at the real issue, I usually respond with one more question:

Do you enjoy any bands whose vocalist sings in a language you don’t know?

I’ve never had anyone tell me: “I can’t stand any music not in my own language.” I’m sure there are some out there that feel that way, but I think they would be in the minority. I’ve met plenty of people that enjoy hearing Sigur Rós and I’m fairly certain that exactly none of them speak Icelandic fluently. Many don’t even pronounce the name correctly.

If people enjoy listening to music with vocals in a language they don’t understand, then their dislike of metal must not stem purely from unintelligible lyrics. What could it come from?

Timbre

Here’s one idea: many people are put off by the timbre of a metal band.

Timbre usually refers to the quality of a musical sound or note. It’s what makes an E on a guitar sound different than an E on a cello, even if it’s the same pitch. It’s how you can tell your mother’s voice from your friend’s voice, even if she speaks at the same frequency.

A concept I first came across when reading This Is Your Brain On Music is “the timbre of a band as a whole.” The idea of timbre can be expanded to neatly describe why two bands playing the same song in the same key can sound completely different. The instruments of the band each contribute their own sound and when taken together you have a timbre just as unique as a particular instrument’s.

Metal bands each have their own timbre, but they’re all related — that’s what makes them into a genre. A screaming vocalist is an extremely distinct element of this that isn’t really found anywhere else. Perhaps the answer to “why do people dislike metal?” is that they simply don’t enjoy the timbre, just as some people don’t enjoy violins or saxophones.

Lack of Musical Background

This is another possible answer. As I mentioned before, everyone has vocal cords. Everyone can relate to a singer through the words they’re singing. Even if the words are in a different language they can still relate to the act of singing. Not everyone knows how to sing well, but I believe you’d be hard pressed to find someone that has never sung in the shower or somewhere just as private.

Very few people can (or want to) relate to screaming. Screaming is something we usually do only when threatened or angry, which is hopefully a minority of our lives. So once the vocalist is screaming constantly, people that don’t enjoy metal no longer have the element they’re most used to focusing on.

What’s left? If you can’t understand the words, the voice becomes another instrument instead of something “special.” Many people simply haven’t ever tried listening to and appreciating purely instrumental music and so they lose interest.

What Can We Do?

I’m sure I haven’t completely nailed down the reasons why people don’t enjoy metal. It’s almost certainly a combination of quite a few things. But if someone is genuinely interested in learning more about metal and about why people like it — perhaps a close friend listens and they’d like to know more — I think there’s two things they can do that may help.

Think of the vocals as another instrument, and listen to how they interact with the rest of the band.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of really terrible metal out there. As the genre has expanded in popularity a lot of “musicians” (barely) have jumped in and created bands no more musically meaningful than the average pop singer. It’s easy to come across this and dismiss the whole genre as a bunch of untalented hacks.

Word of mouth is probably the best way to pick out the good from the bad. If you look hard enough you can find some amazing music that you might grow to love and appreciate.