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In metal: Nailing down compositional form and structure

Beethoven is widely regarded as one of the greatest masters of musical construction, sometimes sketching the architecture of a movement before he had decided upon the subject matter. He was one of the first composers to systematically and consistently use interlocking thematic devices, or “germ-motives”, to achieve unity between movements in long compositions.

Now what I'd like to know is what methods Beethoven had used to create his music can be applied to metal aside from the obvious riff/motif. Did he literally sketch out the structure of his compositions like a diagram or drawing to maintain unity of thought?

What sort of practical, pencil-and-paper methods do metal musicians use to achieve more substantial compositions?

A lot of metal is really stuck in that catchy 4x riff repetition cycle, a vestigial holdover from the old rock and roll days. Basically you take a unique riff and run with it four times; lather, rinse, repeat.

While a lot of great metal songs have been composed this way using this similar basic micro pattern (Beherit Engram gets fairly creative with it on the macro-scale), it's entirely possible to create something a little more dynamic that reaches beyond the four-time (AAAA) and binary (ABAB) repetition cycles on the small (micro) scale of the song.

I think the four-time repetition of a given melody is a real modern kind of expectation, which might explain why some people find classical-era music to be unpalatable. I think it's a crutch that metal should eventually be weaned off of.

Hey man, I'll just create a formula for creating music of eternal value, then we can pump it out of a factory in plastic packaging and make millions.

In all seriousness, I think a good understanding of theory and the constituent elements of composition, coupled with an almost unquantifiable element of vision, is really about as far of an extent of an algorithm you'll be able to create for writing music.

Gorguts did utilize a similar technique of creating a physical representation of structure, however. If you're interested in hearing about it, Luc Lemay goes over the concept as well as a few other nifty ideas about music theory in the following links.

part 1:

part 2:

I think there's a slight misunderstanding of my post.

An architect has his blueprint to organize and oversee how his creation should be built, I'm looking to see what analogues to blueprints that musicians have. IMO, sheet music and tablature qualify more as instructions rather than blueprints.

The Gorguts interviews touched a little bit on the subject though, thank you. Lemay mentions writing down on paper for arrangement and coming up with unique "algorithms" for each song. A good musician essentially creates his own "language" or "algorithms", and not treading down the same boring, beaten paths.

On the subject of musical algorithms:

Beethoven (5th Symphony, Appassionata, Waldstein)

The use of mathematical devices is deeply embedded in Beethoven's music. Therefore, this is one of the best places to dig for information on the relationship between mathematics and music. I'm not saying that other composers do not use mathematical devices. Practically every musical composition has mathematical underpinnings. However, Beethoven was able to extend these mathematical devices to the extreme. It is by analyzing these extreme cases that we can find more convincing evidence on what types of devices he used.

We all know that Beethoven never really studied advanced mathematics. Yet he incorporates a surprising amount of math in his music, at very high levels. The beginning of his Fifth Symphony is a prime case, but examples such as this are legion. He "used" group theory type concepts to compose this famous symphony. In fact, he used what crystallographers call the Space Group of symmetry transformations! This Group governs many advanced technologies, such as quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and crystallography that are the foundations of today's technological revolution. At this level of abstraction, a crystal of diamond and Beethoven's 5th symphony are one and the same! I will explain this remarkable observation below.

The Space Group that Beethoven "used" (he certainly had a different name for it) has been applied to characterize crystals, such as silicon and diamond. It is the properties of the Space Group that allow crystals to grow defect free and therefore, the Space Group is the very basis for the existence of crystals.


Beethoven was particularly fond of this four-note theme, and used it in many of his compositions, such as the first movement of the Appassionata piano sonata, see bar 10, LH. Being the master that he is, he carefully avoids the pitch based Space Group for the Appassionata and uses different spaces -- he transforms them in tempo space and volume space (bars 234 to 238). This is further support for the idea that he must have had an intuitive grasp of group theory and consciously distinguished between these spaces. It seems to be a mathematical impossibility that this many agreements of his constructs with group theory just happened by accident, and is virtual proof that he was somehow playing around with these concepts.

Why was this construct so useful in this introduction? It certainly provides a uniform platform on which to hang his music. The simplicity and uniformity allow the audience to concentrate only on the music without distraction. It also has an addictive effect. These subliminal repetitions (the audience is not supposed to know that he used this particular device) can produce a large emotional effect. It is like a magician's trick -- it has a much larger effect if we do not know how the magician does it. It is a way of controlling the audience without their knowledge. Just as Beethoven had an intuitive understanding of this group type concept, we may all feel that some kind of pattern exists, without recognizing it explicitly. Mozart accomplished a similar effect using repetitions.

Creating an all-encompassing algorithm is "trodding down the same old, boring, broken paths", or however you put it. Music that is consciously refuting an old form is often only communicative of its wish to be a refutation, and in the case of metal, consciousness in general seems to be almost antithetical to creating a work of quality. Look at the differences between Transilvanian Hunger and, say, the overwhelming majority of orthodox black metal. A few acts have managed to transcend this, like Averse Sefira and Gorguts, but only when the conscious architecture of structure is done with an artistic, i.e. passionate goal in mind. Luc Lemay himself is an example of this process gone awry with his Negativa project.

 I just don't see making great music an assembly line process of form (a) + application (b) = result (c). Sure you can apply that sort of thought in isolated laboratory conditions, but the real world is a bit more gritty and unpredictable than that.

Consciousness never overruled intuition.

Consciousness never overruled intuition.

I'm confused about this statement. Are you saying that it's impossible for someone to put form before content? That you never meant to imply that consciousness should overrule intuition? That you never implied it in the first place? I'm going to need some elaboration.

The best advice I ever got on composing music?

"Don't TRY to compose any one genre." In my view, one should be mindful of their musical influences while composing; however, one should do well to keep them at arm's length (mentally speaking), or risk regurgitating the past.

Good point, Deadite. That is why I have personally decided to limit how much bands I listen to: quality rather then quantity.

As a former music theory student myself, I believe my blue print would be tab and music sheet. I wrote awhile ago that tabs should not be discredited as they have the music tradition in the French, Italian, German, and Welsh vernacular.

A basic movement of any standard piece is for instance, is G-C-D. What notes are there in a G major chord while in G major scale? 1-3-5 ( G B D). There is one sharp, the F sharp. The opposing minor scale would be E minor.

When we know what notes are in a scale, and what forms a chord, we can then make movement in that scale by using harmony which you then can use, counterpoint or a bass pedal. (this being I would pluck a G note in a steady beat with one instrument while making a movement with the other, G C D C D...)

This is why I can never wrote any of my music for just one guitar and play live. When I play live I use at least one guitar backing track while playing the other live. This modus operandi has stuck with me for these many years.

Now, apply this to metal, we can then say how we can get that sound which makes it metal(not by tone alone as this is a different subject) we can harmony any of the riffs with thirds minor thirds fourths and the augmented and diminished chords.

In the G major scale that is our example:

Gmaj Amin Bmin Cmaj Dmaj Emin F# dim

The Amin, Bmin, Emin and F#dim chords would be great to use in this scale to get that harsh wicked and unghastly tone. In this case,  a music tone and not the above mentioned sound.

In the follow example I have made, the left guitar will play a Amin chord to a Bmin chord, while the right guitar will play a Emin to a F#dim. Since each chord is struck twice before moving, I can then have that F#dim strike the minor third in the first strike then during the second strike, I use the diminished chord(1-b5).

I am still in G major, but now I am utilizing the "darker" parts of the scale to full effect:


I tend to think even the best metal compositions were less concerned with following theoretical rules than they were with building the right song structure. I've heard many great musicians say they had no formal training, but it's not too hard to know what note goes with what if they're naturally creative. I also think too much (or partial) knowledge of music theory can detract from the creative energy i.e. later Immortal, Emperor and probably countless other 'matured' bands.

I like the idea of making a diagram or graph to explore how the song structure would build up, ebb/flow etc the only thing is it would automatically assign a time-scale to the composition which could limit it.

I agree entirely. I've personally never delved much into theory other than understanding how scales and notes when grouped together "interact" in an interesting way, that was all I ever seemed to care for -- I prefer to intuit much of it. All I ever closely examined from a theoretical perspective was how people used plain chromatics and the octatonic scales, the whole-half scale, diminished fifth intervals, even-interval scales and the like, particularly in metal.

The more intuitive diagrammatic graph/map idea you mentioned looks like it could be useful for somebody somewhere but I couldn't think of a way I could apply it myself.

As far as mapping out the bigger structure of a song, I've mostly been limited to writing riffs that last a full measure or so due to the software I use(unless I'm stringing together a more important part), and on paper assigning each one a letter and then grouping and plotting them out like so:
AAAA BBBB AACC (and so on) so that I can see where the song is going from a birds-eye view.

Without physically writing down the structure and organization of my songs, I found out I could not remember how I wanted it to be organized, particularly if I was trying to play it for the first time. I did not want the complexity of my music to be limited to how much I could remember on the fly.

My basic goal with each song I make has always been to illustrate some kind of conscious process occurring beneath all of the sounds so that everything "clicks" together as a whole and using structures that vary. I'm learning how to incorporate more melody and counterpoint with this approach.

But anyhow, there's clear limitations with the whole letter-mapping riff catalog for a song -- the main point of this thread was to see if there were other methods for overviewing song construction that I hadn't learned of yet.

As far as time constraints, I think it's really limited to how much you want to conclude the song or leave it open ended. A lot of rock and punk doesn't have much of a solid conclusion other than ending on the same note (more often, the same riff) they began the song with which is probably more of something a lot of people are conditioned into and accustomed to doing. This conclusive method works well as a recapping kind of conclusion if you've gone on quite a journey (Kraftwerk The Robots), but it leaves little to the imagination if you've got only 3 or 4 different riffs that hook right onto the verse and chorus of the lyrics.

Regarding compositional form and structure, classical music is rather simple when viewed from a very high level. The most important form, the sonata form, consists essentially of exposition-development-recapitulation (metal example: Iron Maiden - Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner). Pretty simple for such a complex genre.

This is why Beethoven and friends didn't need to write out complex structural plans. They're actually simple, usable off-the-rack, and easy to tweak as necessary. The hard part is coming up with good basic musical ideas, and how to treat them to create chaos, suspense, climax (all of which can only exist in contrast with their opposites- hint hint), and end in satisfying resolution. This is the stuff Beethoven filled countless notebooks with (pics: http://tinyurl.com/2brff3a).

As an aside, Sacramentum have always impressed me as masters of riff-flow, especially on Far Away From The Sun.

Perhaps this "Practical Guide to Musical Composition" might be of some help : https://www.webdepot.umontreal.ca/Usagers/belkina/MonDepotPublic/bk/index.html

It's interesting, what you say about 4x repetitions of riffs.  I distinctly remember Fenriz complaining about that in an interview, saying that the Darkthrone trilogy was something of an intentional throwback to the days when you could play the same riff for most of a song (Sabbath, anyone?) and have it remain interesting.  I've always fluctuated between falling for the 4x repetition trap and consciously avoiding it, through various methods, depending on the length/adaptability of a riff.  In the end, I've occasionally done what I think Morbid Angel do in Evil Spells, and had one passage of music be based on a single, repeated pattern, with different notes, ultimately creating a "riff" of eight/sixteen/thirty two bars, which can then be repeated, or simply left as is.

Typically, when I decide to write a song with a definite structure, there are really many different "structures" going around.  I'll tend to focus on a narrative to start with, and then develop riffs to represent the different aspects of the narrative, but time isn't exactly linear after that.  For example, if the narrative is of a journey, then different parts of the journey will be focused on more than others, and will be represented by longer/more/more repeated riffs, to the extent that you end up with a definitive "song structure" in the pattern of riffs, and also a narrative structure as regards what's actually happening in the overall "story" of the song.  I also tend to write any lyrics after I've written the music, and that generally creates an entirely different structure from any of the others already created, because I find it incredibly hard to write lyrics to express what I'm trying to convey in the music.  The only exception to that last is the Wiht demo/album, for which I wrote the lyrics long before I'd written the music, and for which I really should have cut down the lyrics, with hindsight.

It's definitely a good idea to envision the passage of a song before writing, even if only in a very general and vague manner.  Without a certain beginning/end, and a direction to the song, you end up writing "Cascadian Black Metal" or "drone metal", or whatever they call that meandering crap (note: blatant hypocrisy, here).

Most metal musicians, like the rest of the pop world, bang on their instruments like chimpanzees, and feel lucky if it ends up sounding like music.  You mentioned the lingering "play this 4 times, then that 4 times" paradigm that still plagues metal, but that is largely due to inexperience on the part of young bands, or a rushed lack of concern and urgent need to "move units" on the part of older ones.  This, coupled with the outright mimicry of most younger bands towards only a handful of original, trend-setting artists, means that Metal has a long road to travel before it can reach the sophistication and vision of more "serious" music.

Of course one could utilize some classical and romantic techniques in their work, such as counterpoint (ie Anathema's "Crestfallen"), or through-compose their music with occasional repeated motifs (Negura Bunget's "N'Crugu Bradalui" or Nightbringer's "Rex Ex Ordine Throni"), or follow the path of modern composers and eschew notions of tonality and phrase altogether (Blut Aus Nord's "MORT.")  

But I think that, more often than not, all this complication can lead to music that is not only NOT METAL (ie Kayo Dot), but is also disassociated from the reality of Metal existence.  Metal and Classical may have much in common, but they are musics made in different times, played by different ensembles, for different reasons.  What works for a commissioned piano sonata doesn't work for a Metal band.  Some of the best metalists use only the simplest compositional tools and shun technique altogether (Ildjarn, Godflesh, the previously mentioned Darkthrone), but for the listener there is never a want for more complexity.  What might be the strongest link between modern Metal and Classical is an appreciation for perfectly composed, simple melodies.

I thought of this thread when I saw this graph made by Klaus Schulze to depict the progression of one of his pieces. Hopefully the scan isn't too blurry, it shows what instrument and roughly what sequence comes in at what point, how it changes and interplays etc. note that it's only a basic guide and leaves a lot of room for improvisation around a few central ideas.

That Schulze image is a trip!

On a whim of curiosity, I've roughly outlined the structure of Incantation "Golgotha":



A (intro)
B (waltz)x2
B (waltz)x2
E (pre-chorus)
F (chorus)
G break +solo
E (pre-chorus)
F (chorus)
A (intro)
B (waltz)x2
B (waltz)x1

This is a fun way to explore a song!