Heavy metal and classical music have more in common than you think

From Beethoven to Vivaldi, metal artists have drawn inspiration from composers for years.

From Beethoven to Vivaldi, metal artists have drawn inspiration from composers for years

Many metal bands take inspiration from classical composers such as Antonio Vivaldi. (Photos from Getty Images/graphic by CBC)

Written by Nancy Berman

Not every classically trained, world-renowned violinist joins a heavy metal band at the peak of her career. But then again, Rachel Barton Pine is not your average violinist. 

After making her debut with the Chicago String Ensemble at the tender age of seven, Barton Pine has gone on to solo with major orchestras around the globe. But in 1997, she took a seemingly radical turn, releasing the heavy-metal/rock-inspired recording Stringendo: Storming the Citadel, featuring covers of not-so-light classics such as AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" and U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday." And in 2009, she joined Chicago thrash/doom metal band Earthen Grave, with whom she played until 2014. 

While this may strike some music fans as odd, the links between heavy metal and classical music are well established. Professor Adrian North at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has undertaken the largest study to date on the connection between personality and musical preferences. His conclusions? Heavy metal and classical fans have more in common than you might think. Beyond sharing a love of the theatrical (think Wagner, Paganini, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss), both types of listeners tend to be introverted, creative and at ease with themselves.

Perhaps that explains why generations of headbangers have turned to "serious" music as a model for their own pyrotechnic guitar solos, propulsive harmonic progressions, dynamic extremes and every type of strut-your-stuff virtuosity. The best metal and classical musicians are masters of their craft, spending vast swaths of their lives practising, honing their skills in order to express grandiose sentiments in the most direct and expressive way possible.

It's no surprise that metalheads are more drawn to Paganini and Vivaldi than say Schumann and Telemann; Wagner over Verdi; and Bach more than Mozart. Theatrical display, unrestrained and inventive virtuosity, tonal and rhythmic drive, and chromatic expressivity link the two genres musically.

Take Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore, for example. A self-professed classical music fan, many of his works in the '60s were modelled on classical examples. 

"I still listen to a great deal of classical music," he said in 1985. "That's the type of music that moves me because I find it very dramatic. Singers, violinists and organists are generally the musicians I enjoy listening to most of all." If you listen to both Jon Lord's keyboard solo and Blackmore's guitar solo on Deep Purple's "Highway Star," both are distinctly Bach-like in harmonic progression and virtuosic arpeggio figuration.

Like Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and the infamous Yngwie Malmsteen all modelled their guitar playing on the great virtuosos of the baroque period, especially Bach and Vivaldi (it's worth noting that Bach himself was heavily influenced by Vivaldi). Van Halen, who studied classical piano and violin, invented new ways of playing guitar that bring to mind Paganini's extended violin techniques. Compare, for example, Van Halen's "Eruption" to Paganini's Caprice No. 24

Malmsteen imported diminished seventh chords, harmonic minor scales, phrygian and lydian modes from the classical repertoire he knew so well. On his first album, Rising Force, only two songs have lyrics — the rest are devoted exclusively to the realm of "absolute" music and virtuosic display. Whether he is imitating the bouncing bow spiccato violin technique used by Paganini and others, or a contrapuntal bass line similar to those used by Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli, Malmsteen's metal stylings most definitively have their roots in the great baroque masters.

While the baroque period seems to be particularly fertile ground for heavy metal musings, the Romantics, who were certainly no strangers to dark ruminations, chromaticism, virtuosity and over-the-top drama, certainly provide fodder for modern-day metal. Here's Rachel Barton Pine explaining how Brahms's Violin Concerto in D minor influenced everyone from Van Halen to Scorpions.

Many metal musicians have gone so far as to cover well-known classical works. Children of Bodom updated perhaps the most overplayed of all baroque pieces, Vivaldi's Four Seasons. This version will likely not be played in dental offices, elevators, or upscale restaurants. It does, however, clearly illustrate the affinity between the two styles. Here's their version of "Summer."

Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, and Baba Yaga from Pictures at an Exhibition undergo metal conversion in the hands of Mekong Delta.

Musician and YouTuber Dr. Viossy can be seen (and heard) applying Eddie Van Halen's tapping technique to the third movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. A quick perusal of the comments on this video highlights the irrefutable connections between the two musical styles, from "Beethoven Van Halen" to the brief dissertation explaining how musicians like Beethoven, Wagner, and Grieg wrote dark, foreboding, intense, wicked, shocking, intimidating and edgy music: the metalheads of their day.

Other covers include "Hope Lies Within," channeling Schubert's Der Erlkönig; Nargaroth's "Der Leiermann" from Schubert's Die Winterreise; Heavenly's version of Beethoven's Ode to Joy; and Pergamum doing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, among pieces.

In the arts, styles have a tendency to come full circle, and lines have a tendency to become crossed and blurred. Is Malmsteen's Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E-flat minor, Op. 1, metal or classical?

What about when Rachel Barton Pine plays Metallica or Ozzy Osborne on her 300-year old violin? 

And what about if she arranges a Metallica song for violin and cello? Is it still metal? Or is it a classical cover of a metal tune?

Perhaps the only conclusion here is that artists have always drawn on and borrowed the works and styles of other artists, even when they're reacting against them (Debussy reportedly copied Wagner's chromatic chords, then took an eraser to them and came up with his own radically "new" harmonic language). In the case of classical and metal, it doesn't take much digging to see that, like twins separated at birth, the two styles share a wealth of characteristics, and musicians specializing in one genre or the other can certainly recognize each other across what turns out to be only a very tiny chasm.

Listen to CBC Music's Canadian metal playlist now.