Heavy Metal Music and Its Subgenres

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Heavy metal music’s roots date back to Blue Cheer’s “Born to Be Wild” album from January 1968 and Black Sabbath; their sound and dark themes gave rise to its reputation of immorality and insanity; further reinforced by many musicians’ wild antics.


Heavy metal music emerged during the 1970s. Its signature elements are distorted electric guitar, powerful rhythm section consisting of bass and drums, and highly amplified and aggressive vocals. Bands in this genre frequently glorify violence, unrestrained hedonism, occult practices, mock religious symbols and faith and often use imagery associated with violence and death in song lyrics by megadeth, Slayer, Black Sabbath and Nine Inch Nails that explore apocalyptic themes of power and darkness within their song lyrics.

Early on in its development, songwriters drew inspiration from various sources. According to scholars, mid-1960s British bands such as Cream and the Jeff Beck Group as well as guitar icon Jimi Hendrix became major influences. Jimi Hendrix’s lengthy yet technically brilliant guitar solos became iconic of this genre; Emerson, Lake & Palmer also helped shape it further.

By the 1970s, rock music had been further codified through bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Their distinct sound included distorted “power chords,” flamboyant guitar solos and drum solos as well as mystifying lyrics with vocal styles ranging from Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin wails to Ozzy Osbourne’s whines of Black Sabbath; heavy clothing such as leather jackets and pants was heavily worn by performers during shows.

Blues musicians generally favored acoustic instruments such as guitars and harmonicas for playing blues music; heavy metal’s pioneers relied heavily on electric guitars with amplified distortion for creating their signature sound, which distinguished the genre from other blues-based rock genres.

Birmingham was a postwar blue-collar town without many entertainment options for youth in the late 1960s. A vibrant youth culture quickly developed among factory workers and young people began looking for alternative forms of expression through music; heavy metal music emerged as a distinct musical style as an outlet to vent frustration and anger over limited options available within its boundaries; writer and counterculture figure William S. Burroughs coined its term; initially it referred specifically to chemical processes but soon took on wider meanings.


Heavy metal has given birth to an array of subgenres. From black metal’s signature sound of rebellion and aggression, to deathcore’s harsh sound and exploration of more obscure themes and philosophies – metal’s wide array of styles provides a musical journey across cultures and emotions.

Heavy metal bands usually consist of four key instruments, including a drummer, bass guitarist, rhythm guitarist and lead guitarist. Keyboards may be utilized but are generally less prominent. Guitar is the cornerstone instrument in this music style as its sound amplified through distortion creates its signature thick sound.

Heavy metal music traces its roots back to blues music, but has since evolved into an influential genre which influences hard rock, punk, and other types of rock music. Black Sabbath and Deep Purple played key roles in developing this style; their heavier, downtuned guitar riffs, darker theme songs, and mystical imagery set them apart from other bands at that time.

Heavy metal acts such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Nine Inch Nails revolutionized heavy metal music during the 1980s and 90s. Their live performances often featured elaborate pyrotechnics while exploring themes of violence, death and unbridled sexuality in song lyrics – these bands also sought to challenge cultural norms and societal expectations through their music.

Heavy metal music stands apart from hard rock genres by using more complex guitar sounds, slower pace, and intense drumming compared to its other genres. Lyrics often include darker themes while its musical foundation can be found in blues music.

Heavy metal guitarists utilize various techniques, such as alternate tuning and the utilization of distortion. They also employ an inimitable guitar picking style that distinguishes it from other genres of rock music. Many guitarists also incorporate diatonic scales and chord progressions into their solos – another hallmark of the genre.


Heavy metal music in the 1980s saw several subgenres emerge. Bands incorporating blues, punk and hard rock influences into heavier, more aggressive sounds created a heavier metal sound; additionally they introduced themes of fantasy and mythology that became hallmarks of later metal music. Though never reaching commercial success like their predecessors did, these bands provided musicians a foundation to create more intricate, diverse and virtuosic musical works within this genre.

Heavy metal music’s roots can be traced to the British Invasion movement of the late 1960s, where bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath combined blues scales and riffs with amplified distortion to form modern heavy metal music. Bands like these along with American psychedelic rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix influenced guitar distortion techniques for use with power chords which relied heavily on harmonic overtones and reverberations for increased volume and perceived weight.

Research has demonstrated that heaviness is often determined by pitch, distortion and tempo. Lower pitched, thickly distorted riffs played at slower tempos tend to sound heavier than higher-pitched and less-distorted riffs played faster (Mynett Metal 14-20). Heaviness may also come from finding the appropriate mix between spectral density and clarity – producing teams often face difficulty finding this perfect balance and many describe its resultant “tightness” as feeling heavier than its actual volume (Zaghorski-Thomas 214)

Metal’s popularity in the 1970s gave way to glam rock, an offshoot using loud guitar distortion and theatrical imagery to attract young women. Although glam rock eventually lost favor during the early ’80s, its legacy lived on through heavy thrash metal and speed metal, both of which feature fast tempos with aggressive guitar tones, as well as vocal styles which may range from harsh or clean vocalizations.

Acid rock and psychedelic rock also had significant influences, both of which utilized rock’s blues roots for more experimental musical structures. When combined with industrial sounds, these sounds produced what is today considered to be thrash metal; an ancestor to modern heavy metal and hardcore punk.


Heavy metal can often be misunderstood by non-fans, leading them to create negative stereotypes of the genre. Such stereotypes may negatively influence how heavy metal music is perceived by listeners; and may influence social attitudes, policy decisions and therapeutic recommendations. It is important to acknowledge some of these stereotypes are false while remembering the genre’s visual aspects – like album covers and stage shows – are also powerful influences.

The exact origins of the term “heavy metal” remain obscure. Most scholars cite three sources for its definition: Steppenwolf’s song, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and rock critic Lester Bangs’ piece in Creem magazine which refers to this genre as being heavy, loud and fast.

Although metal has garnered considerable controversy in the 1990s, its popularity remained consistent during that decade. Many subgenres emerged during this time; for instance, gothic metal combined the dark aesthetics of gothic music with intense metal dynamics to produce haunting atmospheres, keyboard arrangements and introspective themes in bands like Type O Negative and Lacuna Coil that create complex sonic experiences. Grindcore emerged during this same era characterized by short song lengths with fast tempos and aggressive drum beats, screaming vocals and distorted guitar riffs to produce its aggressive sound; although many other subgenres developed during this time such as gothic metal.

Other metal subgenres include black metal and death metal. While both genres explore themes of darkness and suffering, death metal features graphic depictions of bodily destruction. Carcass and Cannibal Corpse are two such groups who incorporate death fantasies such as murder or dismemberment into their songs while still managing to exhibit musical virtuosity that goes far beyond simply lyrics. Phillipov points out how both groups demonstrate an impressive level of skill beyond simply lyrics alone.

Metal music may seem to provide a form of resistance against neoliberalism; however, its emphasis on individualism and hedonism impedes any progressive or constructive solutions. Furthermore, male-centred normativity perpetuates gendered violence and exploitation within its culture; studies have also revealed that young female metal fans frequently associate with depressed peers which can lead to feelings of helplessness in them as well.