How to analyze music


Recent posting of an interesting article about transcendent realization in metal provoked a number of confused comments, none of which addressed the substance of the article. The objection was to modern metal, which many view as a misbegotten genre, and to secondarily to the bands involved.

As a thought experiment, I thought I might share some thoughts on analysis of metal. You will not find nice easy binaries and “objective” analyses here, more like qualitative assessments in a shifting frame of reference. Mostly these are questions which do not resolve to nice, uniform and balanced answers. They embrace the controversy.

However, you will find that as you look back over the journey — and that is the best metaphor for experiencing music, that of looking into a field of data — you will see that taken as a whole, the details point toward an overall picture. Your job then is to assess that against all other music and place it in context.

I start with these general questions:

  1. What changes between start and finish?
  2. What patterns can be found?
  3. Do these patterns form a language of sorts?
  4. If so, does it lead to the conclusion?

Art is a communication. Art that extends over time, like novels or music, takes the listener from a starting point to a conclusion. It is not very powerful, usually, to have the precepts equal the conclusion, but sometimes — rarely — a full circle can be revealing, like when one recognizes how utterly futile an idea was when applying it to an experience, and ends up abandoning it. Patterns can consist of any data that is discernibly isolated (relevant to all of its parts) and can often change meaning when repeated. Language uses patterns to build meaning by expressing tokens in context and changing that context to apply more attributes to those tokens. Language leads to a conclusion when internal conflict results in a clear answer as to what has become victorious, been destroyed or a merging of ideas.

These lead to other questions, such as regarding technique:

  1. Does this technique fit a need, or is the need made to fit the technique?
  2. Is it evocative of any real-world experience or vivid thoughts?
  3. Are the values of proportion, balance and purpose applied in this use of the technique?
  4. Is there another more relevant technique that was not use?

The biggest question here is whether the technique is used for a purpose or not. A band that merely makes a list of all techniques, assigns them to songs and then barfs out a song using them will not only be boring, but will miss an opportunity to communicate something more than the technique — including composition — itself. The worst problem here is the “wallpaper effect” where the band does not vary the intensity within each song, creating a listening experience like listening to a faucet on full blast.

I also suggest the following for seeing past aesthetic:

  1. If the lyrics were absent, how well would this piece stand up?
  2. If I played this on a kazoo or acoustic guitar, would it still sound as powerful?
  3. Is there depth to this imagery, or is the song a framing for the presentation of an image?

I find it useful to have a smaller CD player or computer in another room with not-so-excellent speakers. You can fire up the music on one of those and listen from a room or two away, which creates a sort of ad hoc filter that removes the value of production. You end up hearing root notes and rhythm the most, but also lose many of the flourishes that hide the actual music.

Then you should ask of its artistic relevance:

  1. What does this piece of music express?
  2. Does this address something relevant to life itself?
  3. What have I learned or experienced through this piece?

These questions explore significance. That exists on both a musical and thematic level, with the best music having the two operating at once toward the same ends. Music that is relevant expresses something we know of in life, and finds a way to make it beautiful and create transcendence from it. Clarity, or truth about reality, can itself have a transcendent effect in that it clears aside confusion and opens up a pathway to future creation. Good art creates a world that you want to step into and help fight it out so that the best, the beautiful, the good and the interesting prevails over Big Macs and Cheetos.

And then, finally, your duty to the reader:

  1. How many times could I listen to this without getting bored?
  2. In what situations would I discuss with others what this conveyed?
  3. How does this expand the metal lexicon of technique and ideas?

If you are writing as a reviewer, your readers do not have infinite time or money. They can purchase a few albums but are going to rely on these for enjoyment and learning over the course of the coming years. Remember your Bell Curve: most albums are in the middle, with some outright turds to the left and a few real standouts to the right. Your job is to pick the standouts because people can love these for years, and/or some of the high middle albums. Do not be afraid to be vicious. This is the money of normal people being spent on this music, and if they end up dissatisfied, it creates more landfill and causes them to despair on quality. Whatever is rewarded in the marketplace predominates, meaning you get more of it, so any sane person will be strict about quality.

With that being said…

Here’s a couple tracks for you to try. The only comments that are worthwhile are analytical ones. If you want to call someone a fag, go to one of the other threads and call me a fag. I got over it long ago and now I just ask for phone numbers or cock pics.

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28 thoughts on “How to analyze music”

  1. Phil says:

    I gave Elixir a few more listens.

    The song feels empowering at the outset, then the mood changes to doubt and whininess- but to such an extent I don’t know why. Around halfway through the song tries to resolve these two feelings in somewhat of a daze.

    I think the guitar parts from around 3:10 onwards are really good, both headbangingly and as a conclusive device, as hard as it is to conclude something with as many themes as there are passages. I feel like there is a germ to much more exposition within them.

    The middle of the song is forgotten about by the end of the piece, however. Maybe that was the intention.

  2. Thunder Pants says:

    I´d start with these general questions:

    1. What changes between start and finish after I stimulate my anus?
    2. What patterns can be found between my contracting sphincter?
    3. Do these patterns form a language of sorts besides moaning?
    4. If so, does it lead to the conclusion, is it feces, is it ejaculate?

  3. Disremember says:

    As a listener of metal music for more than 20 years
    I’ve found generally my pattern of taste follows a strict form molded
    The DNA of the first three albums from all these bands

    Merciless/Carcass/Repulsion/Morbid Angel/obituary/impaled Nazarene/exploited/discharge/sabbath/Deicide/darkthrone

    It’s very rare and hard for me to go out of from these parameters or to extract my thought out from these DNA when I listen to metal ….

    Most of the time if I like any new bands is because they have a lot of these DNAs in their material

    So based on the above , astringency -elixir elicits a more positive form of feelings from me because they have a more melodic form of approach that combines power metal,death metal like techniques in their approach , the parts combine well to produce a decent metal song

    Fields of Elysium for me feel us like they are trying like a free jazz like approach to their music , totally opposite to elixir,
    Feel more randomized , and wants to break free from the traditional approach of extreme metal…

    Too old to cold … Can’t teach an old dog like me new tricks !

  4. Blorp says:

    “How many times could I listen to this without getting bored?”

    Too subjective. Let’s say I’m a windowlicker who loves Nicki Minaj; I couldn’t get through Mozart’s 41st once without getting bored. No indication of quality.

    1. fenrir says:

      You should be able to perceive a difference as a listener. You cannot get through Mozart’s 41st because it is too much for you, any lazy ass would admit it.
      The important question is how many times can a Nicki Minaj “fan” listen to her album? how many times will they actually come back to it to listen to that shit by itself (not in a party or something).

      1. LostInTheANUS says:

        People who are into that kinda muzak:
        A) Don’t listen to albums, but singles
        B) Go regularly back to them by themselves

        Now, when it comes to long term and short term listening, I’d say that in the short term pop listeners would even listen to those songs more regularly. I’m measuring this in time of listening, not amount of listening because Mozart’s 41st can take anywhere from half an hour to 40 minutes while pop songs usually are about 3 and a half minutes long. I dunno about other people, but I like to spice things up a bit and listen to compositions and albums of various musicians rather than just listening to the same ol’ stuff all day.
        However, in the long term someone who listens to Mozart will probably regularly go back to the 41st, be it weekly or monthly or bimonthly or whatever and that they’ll enjoy it just as much (if not more) as 20-year-olds as when they’ll be 40. Nicki Minaj fans however will most likely have forgotten about her by then. There’s always exceptions to both rules, but in general this is how things break down.

  5. Chris says:

    It’s apparent that neither track has the wallpaper effect. Even more surprising is both bands kept focus on the primary theme, minimizing unnecessary tangents. That’s almost unheard of in modern metal/deathcore. The Fields of Elysium track has a couple of cool ideas that wouldn’t have suffered from longer repetition, and even expanded upon to counter some of the sweeps. The deathcore vocals have got to go, too.

  6. Is that Indonesian flag with pentagram embedded to it?

    I love you guys. No, really, I do love it and you guys for making it.

  7. If you’re musically inclined, transcribing or arranging a work is a good way to enhance your understanding of it… besides possibly giving you an opportunity to learn and perform it yourself.

  8. Lone Star of the Goat says:

    Seems to me the recent conversation between Ara and Brett on a past article has revealed the former as what he really is:

    1. Ara says:

      And what would that be? I myself love the fantasy aspects of metal and utilize them in my own band but I’m not going to pretend I understand reality enough that my silly artform can approach reality any more than anyone else’s, despite the bleak perspectives enforcing that yes all things do come to an end- but if only death is real, why say anything? Why do anything? Might as well crawl into our coffins now.

      1. Blorp says:

        The attempt to reconcile nihilism with volkish Romanticism has been the elephant in the room since the early anus days.

        Ironically “only death is real” always sounded like an affirmation of life to me. Continuance, rebirth, whatever.

        1. The attempt to reconcile nihilism with volkish Romanticism has been the elephant in the room since the early anus days.

          Not really. Romanticism was death-obsessed and often struggled with the meaninglessness of things, but its best thinkers opted for an eternalist viewpoint. The idea that we must separate beliefs into idealized categories which are their own causes is the downfall of any thinking. Go where the data leads.

          1. Bestial Rapist says:

            “The idea that we must separate beliefs into idealized categories which are their own causes is the downfall of any thinking.”

            Those people are exactly like bible-thumpers. Like idiot savants they can only quote long passages and paragraphs.

            1. Most people on the internet seem to be unable to discern topic from any piece, like the excellent essay Martin Jacobsen wrote. Most people simply missed the point and focused on details. I think it’s just because what our brains easily understand, we gravitate towards, and anything above that level, we cannot see. (This applies to myself and “higher cinema”).

              1. little red riding hooker says:

                Nah breTT. We just wanna see the world burn.

              2. Richard Head says:

                Probably it was rather frustration that your readers were being told of a transcendental experience brought on by music of the sort that has been degraded and ripped to shreds by your site for years.

                I “got” that the author was trying convey this type of experience, I was just incredulous that such mysic could bring it about in such an experienced and musically-educated listener.

                1. His point was that the experience occurred because of the actions of the band, namely their bravery in unleashing new music and defying expectations and what is “comfortable,” among an audience familiar with that type of music. Not everyone has been fortunate enough to hear the best of death metal and become intolerant of modern metal as a result. In this case, the story involves an audience that already likes this type of music, but sees it taken to the next level in defiance of what would be a safe bet at pleasing the audience.

                  In my experience, the only way to defeat bad music is to explain why it is bad and point to better, keeping in mind that most of the audience simply does not care. They want novelty and currency most of all.

                  1. Ara says:

                    I highly doubt most people read the article. One look at the band photos and you could tell the readers here wouldn’t like the bands in question.

                    1. Thunder Pants says:

                      The ARA girls for once are correct!

                      Those photos made me wanna click on the very old INTERVIEWS section instead, far away from those fags that don’t even look like real metalheads, you know, the sort of metalheads that looked like real men on a fucking mission.


    hi brett. may i send you my very best cock pic?

    despite its curvature to the left, it’s gleaming juicyness and size will deliver on you transcendental enjoyment for multiple years to come. it will most definitely expand your inner realms of awareness.

    1. My inbox is always open for you.

  10. Mythic Imagination says:

    As far as ouroboric albums go, I think Atrocity’s Todessesehnsucht is the best, in that its circular nature represents its theme.

    Regarding kazoos, I don’t believe Transilvainian Hunger would hold up particularly well, nor Suffocation on an acoustic guitar. The organization of notes should not be the sole matter to which music is judged(though the most important) aesthetics(in this sense instrumentation, distortion, vocal style) are required to point the notes in a direction that can communicate no clearly.

    1. fenrir says:

      Those two would hold particularly well on acoustic guitars, actually. It just depends on if you can get over the instrumentation to appreciate the music or not.

  11. FroggyWentACourtin' says:

    Nice article. I used to teach “music appreciation” and I could have used this for discussion.
    I especially like the suggestion to listen with less-than-great equipment. Many an album I’ve bought after listening to tracks through good headphones have turned out to be boring as hell after the first or second listen.

    1. Spinal says:

      I try to recommend the same to people once in a while. Listen first on a crappy mp3 player. But it requires patience and attentiveness, something which is often lacking.

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