Esa Lilja’s foot is tapping to the heavy metal beat of the music. He’s sitting in the practice space of the metal band Tyrantti and is carefully listening to the musical stylings of band members who go by the noms de guerre Nahka-Sami, Henkka and Paha-Tapio.
He has a doctoral degree on the topic, but he has also won an award for his composition for a symphony orchestra.
As a musicologist, Lilja’s research focuses on the chords and melodies of heavy metal and other genres, as well as the way they connect in harmonies.
“My most important finding was that because of distortion, which is essential in all heavy metal, every chord contains a major third. This means that acoustically speaking, all the chords are major chords, and there is nothing that the musician can do to change this,” Lilja says.
The third is a significant interval in Western music, as it is the basis for making both major and minor chords.
“Unlike people often say, a major chord isn’t ‘happy’, or a minor chord ‘sad’.”
People also talk about major chords being “bright” and minor ones being “dark”, and these highly simplified definitions have also found their way to the thinking of many heavy metal musicians.
“It’s funny that even when somebody wants to make the darkest, gloomiest metal possible, they have to use major chords,” Lilja points out.
However, minor-type scales are much more typical in heavy metal than major ones. ”Since the chords are inevitably major chords, the results are interesting: major and minor exist in the pieces simultaneously.
This feature connects heavy metal stylistically to renaissance polyphony. A later example of the style can be found in the “Lacrimosa” movement of Mozart’s Requiem, which has a final part that could easily be from a heavy metal piece – and does, in fact, feature at the end of the song “Sinner” by Judas Priest: [NB: The link takes to the full album Sin after Sin: “Sinner” is the first track.]
Ph.D. Adjunct Professor Esa Lilja in the Tyrant's studio; from the left to the right Nahka- Sami (vocal, base), Henkka guitar vocals) and Paha-Tapio (drums). Photo: Karin Hannukainen
Pioneering metal research
Esa Lilja is a pioneer of Finnish academic research into heavy metal.
“I think I started to study heavy metal academically in 1998. At that time, I was mainly interested in two things – music theory and heavy metal – and I thought I’d combine the two in my seminar essay. To my surprise I found that there was next to no academic source literature on the subject. As I kept feeling like there was more to explore, I wrote my master’s thesis in 2002, my licentiate thesis in 2004, and ultimately my doctoral dissertation in 2009, all on the same topic.”
Today, heavy metal research has made its way to the mainstream in Finland and the other Nordic countries. Lilja believes that this is partially due to the simple fact that unlike in many other parts of the world, heavy metal music and subcultures are fully socially accepted here.
The University of Helsinki currently has two new doctoral students working on their dissertations in heavy metal research. Lilja is supervising Paolo Ribaldini, who studies vocal techniques.
“In addition to analysis, Ribaldini is building a classification system for different vocal techniques, based on the physical features of the vocal apparatus. To my knowledge, this is the first time such a comprehensive classification has been created, at least in the field of popular music,” says Lilja.
Lilja is also supervising Kristian Wahlström, who studies the educational dimension of heavy metal – how metal could be employed in music education.
“If a student is interested in heavy metal and has an emotional connection to it, new learning material could be built around excerpts from heavy metal, which the student is already familiar with. They could be used to indicate commonalities and similarities between different musical genres,” Lilja explains.
Many Finnish heavy metal bands have a robust international following, built over years or even decades – a thing that is not exactly common in the Finnish popular music industry. Lordi and Apocalyptica and many others have served as Finland’s cultural ambassadors to the world. They have even been thought to reflect the Finnish cultural identity.
Lilja believes that Finnish heavy metal has always been a part of the international scene.
“I think the national features have more to do with extramusical factors, such as mythological allusions in the lyrics or the overall image of the band.” One well-known example is Amorphis, a band whose lyrics are rife with references to the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.
Lilja also believes that an innovative ability to combine different influences and styles makes the Finnish heavy metal sound stand out. Audiences love the gloomy stories and melancholy nature of Finnish music, and the same stereotypes get repeated again and again. For example, Academy Research Fellow Toni-Matti Karjalainen has studied the associations relating to Finnish heavy metal in more depth. Even though heavy metal music and its audience are international, Lilja doesn’t think there is a unified heavy metal worldview.
“We middle-aged metal heads in particular are as eclectic a bunch as any set of middle-aged people,” says Lilja, who is 45.
The scholar thinks for a beat and realises one potential common factor.
“Maybe it’s a preference for guitar distortion and a certain degree of pathos. But there are people who may disagree with me.”