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From Classical Music to Heavy Metal

At first glance, the world of classical music seems very different than the one of metal music. Indeed, how to find any point of agreement between the beautiful melodies carried by a symphonic orchestra within an auditorium or at the court of ancient kings, and the saturated riffs played by amplified instruments that reverberate in concert halls open to everyone? There might actually be more than just one reason to connect classical to metal music.

Like any other musical style, classical music and metal can be divided into many subgenres and varieties. Generally speaking, the expression ‘classical music’ encompasses the musical heritage carried by the so-called Western art music or formal music, namely Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary music. In the late 1960s, metal started to become popular in the United Kingdom and the United States. It stems from Rock ’n’ Roll and is characterised by heavy, saturated sounds provided by amplified and distorted instruments. Each of these styles has its own musical codes, its own key players, and its own historical context. Music roots itself within society and reflects a facet of the contemporaries who listen to it or play it. So what do these two styles have in common?

Nowadays, classical music remains a major source of inspiration for metal and hard rock bands. The search for virtuosity and technique are not what keeps them apart. The lead guitarist of a band is anchored in his musical formation as a solo violinist would be in an orchestra. The search for virtuosity is felt in the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor from Bach, which will later be used during their solos on stage by Van Halen and other forerunners of metal. Both classical music and metal music are very demanding and require their musicians to work several hours a day on their instruments or voices. And even if the rendering differs, it does not prevent the musicians from putting their heart into the shaping of their own technic.

Figure 1: Van Halen playing one of his guitar solo during one of his shows.

The Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen driven by his virtuoso impulse initiated a whole new style of metal through his practice, a style later coined as neoclassical metal. He has often been considered as the caricature of the virtuoso who wanted to make his guitar sound like the great baroque instrumentalists, such as the violinist Niccolò Paganini whom he admired. He even composed a concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E flat Minor which he performed with the New Tokyo philharmonic. Neoclassical metal, along with symphonic metal, is undoubtedly one kind of metal that connects to the classical heritage the most.

Figure 2: Niccolò Paganini
Figure 3: Yngwie Malmsteen

In symphonic metal, we often find classically trained singers who sing with a lyrical voice, like in opera. Either classical instruments and orchestras are used in the compositions (as it is the case in bands like Therion, Nightwish, Epica, etc.), or an amplified instrument (most often the guitar) is used to play melodies with classical influences. Many bands even use classical pieces as an introduction to their albums or in some of their songs. For instance, the search for the grandiose and the epic is as important for metal