Why metal riffs delight us

hedge-labyrinthWhy is metal riff-crazy? These twisted little quasi-melodies of sliding power chords, notes and harmonics are tiny puzzles for our brains. Now science hints at why metal loves them.

Apparently, our brains love guessing what’s next in music, and perceive an intense sensation of reward if they guess correctly. For all those who identified metal’s riff-salad as a “puzzle,” you win a prize.

Like the labyrinths to which they are frequently compared, metal songs create a prediction game within the brain and cause an explosion of neural activity in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This tiny wad of cells, which sits in the pleasure/reward center of the brain, gives us a throbbing blast of “reward” every time we play the guess-where-this-riff-goes game.

Both metal and classical play this game. They specialize in intense repetition of certain phrases, but unlike rock music, the repeated phrases do not necessarily lead to the same conclusions, and in fact alter their destinations and form throughout the work. This keeps the guessing game intense and, while we’re distracted with the riffology, shows a change in themes, which if themes are metaphorical, shows a learning process by whatever protagonist may be inferred from the work.

Musicologists have often wondered at the tendency of metal fans and classical fans to be more devoted and to be more likely to enjoy the music over the course of life itself than your average rock or pop fan. In fact, the similarities between metal and classical frequently emerge among those who take their music very seriously. Could it be they’re simply getting a higher sense of reward from the riff-puzzle and its tendency toward non-repetitive repetition than they are from the relatively straightforward repetition of other styles?

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12 thoughts on “Why metal riffs delight us”

  1. Tralf says:

    Speaking of labyrinthine riffs, I saw Suffocation last night. In short: performance was great, but don’t go if you want an old school set. We got 2 from Effigy, 2 from Pierced, and Catatonia, which was a nice treat, but sitting through the rehashed wiggercore snoozefests from their post-1995 albums made me question the whole outing. After seeing Morbid Angel, I assumed all DM bands from the glory days would focus on their glory days material. Should have checked the set list online first before dropping $60 between the ticket, train, and cab rides. Oh well.

    Exhumed was a nice surprise though. High tempo speed influenced death metal with mid paced breaks and spastic power-chord riffing. Still B grade, but was a fun romp nonetheless.

    1. I’ll say this about Exhumed: they’ve never lost sight of what their audience wants, which is Autopsy, Carcass and Entombed in a blender.

  2. The guess-where-this-riff-goes shouldn’t feel like a rewarding game. It’s supposed to flow naturally so it feels like a story unraveling as opposed to a movie comprised of MTV fast edits.

    1. fallot says:

      It is unwise to consider biological reward as something conscious. These manifest as potentially quite complex feeling. Also, the level of organization you are talking about is much higher than this mechanism; after all, merely understanding why riffs would be pleasurable at all does not explain what you describe. An artist uses these natural sensations in order to say something and that is the art of music, the storytelling you are referring to.

    2. Yeah, but not be predictable, right?

  3. Graywolf says:

    Is there a list in which metal is not like classical music? If classical music is the standard from which other forms of music are compared then why not just make classicalmusic.org? It seems as if an excuse is being made for liking metal, some sort of justification.

    1. bitterman says:

      All music has already been written anyway, with Rock, Rap, and Country genres being the perverted, lowly bastardizations of sound conceived. Slayer came out with more intricate stuff than the everyday band at the time. Same with Judas Priest. Even going back to Black Sabbath, it was more interesting than the average band at the time just with their structures alone. I think the staff is trying to turn peoples attention to the good shit that isn’t verse-chorus stuff in extreme metal clothes, like Hate Eternal or Behemoth shake and bake death metal, or 3 chord groove rock like Nirvana, Sepultura Roots or later Entombed, which is why Neptune Towers and Tangerine Dream is covered here. When NWOBHM got put through the gimmick grinder and became corporate stadium metal, it distracted a lot of people from realizing metal’s true potential. It still goes on today but look at something like electronic music: there’s a reason Scorn and related Mick Harris or Justin Broadrick projects were seen as interesting beyond the Napalm Death association, and something like Skrillex, who uses the same Dub/Dubstep techniques, is relegated to being meth house background noise. I guess you can say, where Slayer Reign in Blood has all the makings of a classic release in music, Gojira uses metal sounds to make something that results in creating an Elton John album with different aesthetics. Do you want metal, or metal riffs in what is effectively rap music? Is Pantera a metal band or Beastie Boys esque rap/rock party music with metal riffs?

    2. They’ve already admitted that they don’t listen to metal much anymore. I guess it’s just those old Burzum and Bathory LPs in between giant orgies of Mozart and Haydn.

      1. TXFANBOI says:

        Where is black metal terrorist SRP? He’d bring the metal…. grrr…..

  4. kvlt attakker says:

    Thank you for the interesting article.

    Fresh air after the Ara articles.

    1. Metalcore is the musical equivalent of getting raped by your own blow up doll.

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