Rhythm, Meter and Meaning in Metal

Dr. Jose Garza headshot

Dr. Jose Garza, College of Fine Arts and Communication, School of Music

To a person outside the discipline, the field of music theory may seem like it should be a settled science. The term might initially conjure images of classical composers and church hymnals, styles of music that have been studied for decades or centuries. However, artists are innovators by nature. As time passes, new forms and genres emerge and from them musical elements that are not readily apparent in music from the past become relevant and worthy of study. Dr. Jose Garza of Texas State’s School of Music recently published his dissertation exploring the innovative musical features of a genre largely untouched by the field of music theory: metal. 

Garza is a longtime musician himself, with a passion that is apparent in his manner when discussing his work. “Most of the time I consider myself a fan first and a researcher second. It can actually make my work difficult because I would love to sit down and interview the artists personally, but so would a million other fans, so I tend to rely on secondary sources like magazine and documentary interviews in addition to the music itself.” His research focuses on the way a handful of metal artists use time, rhythm and meter to communicate meaning and invoke different kinds of responses in listeners. Garza elaborates: “Music theorists, especially the handful of researchers discussing metal music, tend to focus on things like pitch, melody, harmony and lyrics. I felt that there were techniques artists were using in relation to rhythm and meter that were being somewhat taken for granted. I see my research as a way to draw attention to that and expand the way we think about those elements and their connection to musical meaning, and to the culture of metal music.” 

Metal was born in the late 1960s

with the emergence of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It remained relatively under-studied until the mid-2000s when music theorists took an interest in Meshuggah, a Swedish metal band first formed in 1987. 

Displaced downbeats

are offset notes before or after a note at predetermined intervals, which can create a sense of disorientation in music.

metal band show

Some of the rhythmic techniques Garza studies include what he calls normalization, requantization and displaced downbeats. Normalization is the practice of changing the meter of a song that is mostly in an uncommon or asymmetric meter to be more “normal” in relation to other popular music — so a song that has an asymmetric meter will transform it into a symmetrical meter. Requantization allows musicians to create variation within a piece while maintaining thematic consistency by “re-setting” a rhythm from one metrical context into another. This can be something like presenting an intro with a 3+3+2 rhythm and then using the same musical material in an outro in a 2+2+2 rhythm. Displaced downbeats can create a sense of disorientation in music by placing offset notes before or after a note at predetermined intervals. This may contribute to a song’s “danceability” by creating a predictable syncopation that the crowd can engage with. In metal, this can influence the flow of action in a mosh pit. 

Understandably, Garza spends a lot of time listening to, transcribing and analyzing music. For his dissertation, he chose 13 bands he felt were under-studied and that exemplified the use of techniques in rhythm and meter he wanted to display. He stresses that the list is far from comprehensive and encourages researchers to seek out further examples of innovative musical styles using his analysis. The application of Garza’s analytical techniques to other forms of popular music can help uncover deeper and richer meaning in the work of a variety of artists. 

Garza has given multiple conference presentations discussing his analysis. His dissertation, written at Florida State University, is titled “Adapt and Prevail: New Applications of Rhythmic and Metric Analysis in Contemporary Metal Music.” In his own words, “a researcher’s work is never finished,” and he is currently working to expand upon his research in further analyses.

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