Friday, April 06, 2012

Schoenberg Is Metal

"My music is not lovely."

Photo by Florence Homolka
When a co-worker asked me about my favorite classical composer a couple years ago, I responded that it was Tchaikovsky. His symphonies can be exceedingly dark, so that attracted me. My co-worker responded that it was a good choice--he was afraid I was going to say something crazy, like Schoenberg. Naturally, that piqued my interest. I picked some up, after a bit of research, and soon informed my co-worker that I loved it.

"Of course you do."

Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg is quoted as saying, "My music is not lovely." Instantly, metalheads should have an appreciation for him. You need another reason? He also said, ". . . if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art."

Schoenberg is one of the most influential figures in 20th Century classical music. He is famous for creating his 12-tone technique, a compositional formula that involves writing a melody using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. He would then create variations of that melody for use throughout a composition. No single note takes precedence over any other. The ideas were incredibly radical. He was not humble about it, stating, "I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years."

The music is often unnerving, and although not as bombastic as, say, Wagner, it's more metal in its rebellious spirit. It was unconventional enough to get labeled as "deviant art" by the Nazi party. The technique is still controversial today in classical music circles.

His strange view of what constitutes music could be seen as a direct forebear of bands like Meshuggah, who flout standard musical rules like key and monorhythm. In a way, it prefigures metal itself, rejecting beauty as the purpose of music more than what preceded it.

Sadly, his legacy is somewhat flawed. As with many great artists, it's their watered-down and normal stuff that is appreciated by the public. His earlier works are what you're most likely to find, and they tend to follow the rules of classical composition. What you want to find, though, is his work from the late 1920's onward.


  1. I have to chime in to suggest the metal band Ehnahre because they used a type of 12-tone technique in composing their album "The Man Closing Up" and it is pretty good stuff.

  2. "... who flout standard musical rules like key and monorhythm" These are not standard rules.

    Okay, I'll elaborate. These are often seen as standard rules in the popular music scene, but no seriously artistic band or composer would see sticking to a key or keeping things monorhythmic as a rule whose rebelling against is a notable achievement.

    Also, as radical as 12-tone was, it's worth noting that it's flawed; the elimination of notes' repetitions in a phrase actually limits the number of possible melodies quite brutally. The atonality is a nice effect, but you're actually much better off following an extended variation on 12-tone for that (having said that, I have experimented with 12-tone myself for fun).

  3. I'm going to have to disagree. I will concede that dissonance is becoming more and more commonplace in metal, and particularly in extreme metal, but nearly every band still follows a key (guitar solos notwithstanding, thank you Slayer) while using dissonance as counterpoint. They may switch keys within a song, but that is almost always at a notable turning point in the song. There are a few exceptions, as I noted, but that is still far and wide the norm, even in metal. The same goes for monorhythm. Very few bands use polyrhythm on a regular basis.

    More to the point, Schoenberg was the guy who broke that open. You'd be hard-pressed to find examples of music that doesn't follow key (including the non-Western scales) before Schoenberg. Maybe I go a little too far in crediting his rule-breaking for polyrhythms (ragtime dates from the 19th century, and he never used polyrhythms to my knowledge). But the point is, he was one of the first to really break the rules.

    I'll agree the 12-tone technique is limiting, but I think that's a lesser point. Worth noting, still, but a lesser point.