A former professor of mine once met with me in his office years ago while I was studying for my English BA, and I told him how I was constantly frustrated how many of the students didn’t seem to care. It just sucks to be in a class where you can smell the laxness wafting off your peers, where the most intelligent thing—usually the only thing, for that matter—spoken is just a rewording of or agreement with what a previous person said. College is a time for your mind to exponentially grow, and I felt like I was getting none of it. As I said this, the professor said (and I paraphrase): “It doesn’t matter what you think, as long as you just think.”
The reason I even begin this article in such a fashion is that this sentiment remains ubiquitous to every facet of one’s life, including music and appreciating music. Most people think that you need to know music theory to appreciate music. Yet, there is a stigma of sorts regarding music theory in the heavy metal community—that is, one usually doesn’t think most metalheads bother with it. (Obviously I am generalizing, and am not referring to musicians, most of whom have some idea of the compositional complexities behind music.) Before you start brandishing your pitchforks, please know that I am completely clueless when it comes to composition and theory. I have tried to learn it, believe me. I’ve played music for most of my life. I might know how to play trumpet and guitar, but I can’t tell you for the hell of me what a key exactly is, or how to play a Mixolydian scale.
The people that assume that you can’t appreciate without theory are part of that pretentious upper crust who also look down at “popular music” and use the word “philistine” like it’s a proper noun. Frankly, they aren’t the people to decide music appreciation. Music—and art in general—is such a subjective phenomenon that one can’t really judge with any sort of absolute authority on its goodness.
However, awareness is a completely different concept than goodness. To truly appreciate music, you must be intelligently aware of it. This doesn’t mean you have to know what a double-stop is to call yourself a music lover. So, is music theory necessary to truly appreciate metal, or any genre for that matter? No, not really, but it is necessary to think intelligently about music, and intelligent thinking can be augmented by knowing music theory.
Classical composer Aaron Copland, in his famous essay “How We Listen,” considers there to be three distinct “planes” of listening: the “sensuous,” the “expressive,” and the “sheerly musical.” He later explains, in more layman’s terms, what each means. Essentially, sensuous is exactly that—you’re listening for the aesthetic beauty that the song contains. “Expressive” refers to meaning, that is, the meaning of a certain song (something that Copland admits is a bit of a gray area, as meaning and expression to artists can differ).
The “sheerly musical” plane is essentially where music theory comes in. It’s being able to discern the different parts of a song. One that recognizes this plane can note a song’s rhythm, dynamics, song structure, etc.
I don’t suppose these concepts are anything really groundbreaking; conceptions of music aestheticism whirl around us all the time, no matter what genre you listen to. Copland was merely able to expand upon them with the written word, and, moreover, he expresses the importance of how all of these concepts need to fit together. To be aware of music—intelligently aware—is to be able to have all of these planes working.
However, that doesn’t mean that theory is mandatory—at least, in the sense that one must understand time signature or the difference between adagio and adagietto or augmented fourths. A lot of the same things apply to the other arts, like abstract art, if you want an analogy. While, say, surrealist art is virtually defined by the writing of André Breton, you don’t necessarily need to read him to understand what a painter like Salvador Dalí is saying; you just need to look at it with an open mind.
This is what is needed today: openness. Awareness. When you put on a metal record—say, for this example, Iron Maiden’s seminal Number of the Beast—awareness should be in all of those planes described above. You can decipher the lyrics, listen to Steve Harris’s bass gallop, and see how everything in turn sort of rides on that bass line. You don’t necessarily need to know every single scale or guitar technique used; you just need to be mentally present at the time that it’s all happening.
The late author David Foster Wallace used a great—albeit cheesy—joke about awareness as the cornerstone of his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
One needs to be able to get out of the cage of their mind and freely explore the world before them with no strings attached. It’s not an easy thing to do, but the reward of understanding is more than worth it. And what music theory and understanding of music composition bring to the table is a more specific set of words and a different facet of awareness to describe what’s going on.
But, please, don’t think that this is something that needs to be applied to every single second of your listening experience. You can make yourself nuts that way. I listen to music for fun all the time; one can’t expect to be. Above all else, you should enjoy what you’re listening to. If you don’t like Mayhem or black metal or whatever, that’s fine; but you, at the very least, need to elucidate why you don’t like it, whether that’s just to yourself or whatever. Music theory can augment your understanding of the metal world greatly—I highly recommend looking at our column Beyond the Veil if you’re interested in theory that is specific to metal—but to love and truly appreciate music, you just need to be open to what is going on.