Characteristics of Music: Heavy Metal

Jul 21, 2021

Our journey through the realm of music characteristics has taken us down a winding road as we’ve explored the ins and outs of music’s many genres.

From pop to opera, country to Indigenous, gospel to punk, we’ve seen how these genres relate to and grow from each other to weave the tapestry of music. This week we’re going to take a detour down a path we’ve only begun to explore. On the tree of music, rock and roll is a pretty hefty branch, supporting many offshoots.

One of the most robust, diverse, and popular subgenre of rock and roll is known as “Heavy Metal,” and today we’re going to find out what makes it rock!

What is Heavy Metal

As a subgenre of rock and roll, heavy metal is defined by, and gets its name from, its use of volume, distortion, and an overall aggressive attitude. But heavy metal is more than screaming into a microphone while guitars wail.

Heavy metal is, in fact, an umbrella genre itself and includes an array of styles. Everything from ‘80s glam metal, to speed and thrash metal, and even black and doom metal can be considered cousins under heavy metal.

The thing that unifies each of these subgenres is a guitar-driven rock template, backed up with a powerful rhythm section made up of bass guitars and drums, along with a lead singer whose vocals can be a match for the power of the instruments around them.

Another element that connects the different styles of heavy metal is the heavy lyrical content. Although many metal songs are celebratory, reflective, and often inspirational, they each still carry at least a hint of aggression, dismay, and a certain rebellion against society in their lyrics.

But, much like hip hop, heavy metal is more than simply a genre of music. It’s a lifestyle. And everytime there are efforts to suppress metal, the community has only been strengthened.

4 Key Characteristics of Heavy Metal

As a large genre of music, there are many characteristics that define the sound of heavy metal. These are the four most commonly found across all metal’s subgenres.

Blues-Rock Lineups

Heavy metal, as a style of music, can trace its roots back to the British Invasion, and bands like The Beatles, The Moody Blues, and The Rolling Stones. The vast majority of these bands were made up of one or two guitars, a bass, and drums. However, unlike most British Invasion bands, heavy metal singers usually don’t play an instrument. There are, of course, notable exceptions, like James Hetfiels of Metallica.

Dark Lyrics

As mentioned before, metal songs are often written around darker themes of fear, mistrust, paranoid, anger, or sadness. Each of these emotions tie metal to its roots in the blues aspect of the British Invasion bands they sprang from.

That said, each subgenre of metal tend to stick to a handful of the darker emotions. Death metal, for example, usually concerns itself with sinister matters or gruesome concepts. Pop or hair metal, on the other hand, tend to focus on the “good times” and the ups and downs of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle.

Emphasis on Guitar

The guitar is an incredibly powerful and versatile instrument. Its ability to distort and alter both its sound and volume are the very bedrock of what makes metal metal. Every other part of the band, even the singer, operates to emphasize and support the power of the guitar.

Vocals to Match the Music

In heavy metal’s earliest days, the force and volume of the music easily overpowered most sound systems and drowned out most vocalists. To make it as a successful metal singer, a performer would need both a commanding voice and the lung power to project it. People like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Black Sabboth’s Ozzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford had the ability to belt out a tune and be heard over the sonic fireworks of their bands. This became the standard for all metal vocalists to come.

How this sound and power is achieved is done differently across the metal spectrum. Lyrics can be shouted, growled, shrieked, and even rapped. The important part if the power behind those lyrics.

Under the Heavy Metal Umbrella

Let’s take quick look at some of the subgenres that make up heavy metal.


Deathcore, as epitomized by groups like Dillinger Escape Plan ad Whitechapel, focus on downtuned guitars, a “death growl” vocal style, hard riffing, and solo instrument breaks.

Glam Metal

Glam borrows pop-inspired guitar riffs, vocal harmonies, and stage presence (think make-up and costumes) of glam rock, and folds all of it into a heavy metal format. Glam metal dominated the radio throughout the 1980s, with bands like Mötley Crüe and Poison leading the way.

Traces of this can still be seen in bands like the Darkness and Wolfmother today.


Although not always considered a subgenre of heavy metal, grunge does meet each of the 4 characteristics in spades. The attitude, as personified by bands from the US’s Pacific Northwest like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, enjoyed a lot of popularity throughout the early 1990s.


With a name like “hardcore,” you might expect something similar to metalvore of grunge, but this subgenre is more similar to thrash metal with its furious energy. Motorhead is an excellent example of hardcore metal, as is the newer group Killswitch Engaged.

Nu Metal

When it first emerged in the 1990s, nu metal began borrowing from a wide range of musical genres outside of metal, including funk, industrial, hip hop, and electronic music. Nu metal doesn’t have guitar solos and emphasises rapping lyrics rather than singing them.

Examples of nu metal bands might include Linklin Park, Papa Roach, and Rage Against the Machine.

Speed Metal

The element of speed metal that sets it apart from other heavy metal genres is right there in its name: the speed. Bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax play fast-paced riffs taken from punk and stand in direct opposition to the more pop-metal genres.

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