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What is Heavy Metal Music?

Dan Cavallari
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the 1960s and 70’s, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, a new type of rock and roll music was evolving. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were turning up the volume and thickening their sound to create a new genre called heavy metal music. From its earliest days, heavy metal music took elements from traditional rock, folk, jazz and blues, and combined them all to make a heavier sound that was both more vicious and aggressive. Widely panned by critics in its earliest days — and throughout its evolution as a genre — heavy metal music has continued to be a force in rock and roll and has since spawned several sub-genres.

Heavy metal music is comprised of any number of metal sub-genres: in the 1980s, glam metal became the craze as bands like Poison and Whitesnake donned long hair and make-up to accentuate their on-stage personas. Around that same time, thrash metal became extremely popular when bands like Metallica hit the scene and built off their predecessors by not only playing loud, but playing fast and with thick drum beats. Heavy metal music later spawned the genre of nu-metal in the mid 1990s and into the 2000s, which combined the elements of all the sub-genres before it but with the added element of modern instrumentation such as synthesizers. It also touched on genres outside of metal, such as hip hop and electronica.

But originally, heavy metal music was based off the same sound as blues, jazz, folk, and rock. Bands began to play louder and more aggressively, transforming the sound into a new genre that caught on with younger audiences but was panned by older critics for lacking structural roots and tried-and-true sounds. Experimentation became vital to heavy metal music, as guitarists like Jimmy Page dabbled into new effects as well as new methods of playing established instruments. Vocalists became a more powerful facet of the sound, and in later years, it became common for vocalists to scream with deep, raspy voices.

Eventually, heavy metal music became infused with punk rock sounds. Bands like Motorhead sped up the pace and simplified much of the song structure, and eventually the blues component of the genre began to disappear. Later on, a sub-genre called grunge hit the scene, with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam at the forefront. Their sound was aggressive and melodic and spoke to the angst of teens and young adults throughout the United States.

The characteristics of each sub-genre of heavy metal music are so varied that defining them all under the category of metal is sometimes a stretch. All the sub-genres share similar qualities — primarily aggressive sound coupled with excessive volume and experimental instrumentation — that classify them as distinctly heavy metal.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari , Former Writer
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.

Discussion Comments

By anon185497 — On Jun 12, 2011

@CopperPipe: Just wondering have you listened to any of the heavy metal from today? Yeah I know, some of it is ridiculously generic sounding because most metal bands today have no creativity and steal other bands' styles (like you said, a way to make money.) However, there are a few bands that could knock 80s heavy metal the bleep out.

Unlike most metal bands today, they actually have their own unique heavy sound. It's like a perfect blend of metal from over the years. I'm not trying to rag on 80s metal, but don't knock it until you have listened to a metal band from today that actually has talent.

By yournamehere — On Sep 12, 2010

I may make myself unpopular here, but I always find heavy metal news hilarious. I mean, you see these people with really hard core on stage personalities giving interviews where they sometimes sound as spoiled as the starlets they make fun of.

Cracks me up every time.

By StreamFinder — On Sep 12, 2010

My son got a heavy metal DVD for his birthday, and I've always thought of myself as a tolerant parent, but I think that putting "Rat in a Cage" on repeat at 3 in the morning is way, way past understandable or appropriate.

For some reason he never wants to play the DVD during the day, only at night.

I should have just told him to get his fix on youtube heavy metal videos -- at least then he'd put in some headphones and I could get some sleep.

By CopperPipe — On Sep 12, 2010

I loved heavy metal back in the day when it first came out, and I still have a lot of heavy metal cds.

But I think that so many of the new heavy metal bands, like Slipknot and Death and ones like them just don't have the same "oomph" as the old ones.

I'd take an AC/DC or Metallica cd over any heavy metal cd that comes out today -- it's become an act, a farce, a way to make money. I don't think they have the authenticity of the older bands.

Dan Cavallari

Dan Cavallari

Former Writer

Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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