‘Doesn’t it make you feel better?’ Why Angry Music Feels Good…
by Hannah Cahill
Angry music is not new. People have always been angry and written music to suit their mood – music is a universal language which can often express the inexpressable.
I am a classical musician and teacher and I love angry music. My favourite musicians of all time are Beethoven and NIN’s Trent Reznor, two surprisingly similar men. Beethoven was the first angry music I connected with and the reason that I went on to study music. He was the rock star of his day – women fainted at his gigs as he played the piano wildly with his long black hair falling over his eyes. His music was shocking and new. Comparing Beethoven to most of his predecessors is like comparing Nine Inch Nails to Take That. He was also the first ‘artist’ as we think of them – he was not employed by a church or court like most composers, he did his own thing. He was an isolated, misunderstood, sometimes depressed man who, at one point, was very likely suicidal at the thought of losing his hearing forever. You can read Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament HERE if you are interested.
So many people find angry or aggressive music comforting because they connect with the lyrics, and the feeling of catharsis that screaming them out can give, but the music itself is speaking to us too. I find a lot of metal music to be rhythmically far more innovative and interesting than most other modern genres – something especially important when much of the music has a lack of distinctive melody.
Here are some thoughts on a few angry songs I love and why I think they feel good. I find it interesting that a lot of the reasons that music like Slipknot and Nine Inch Nails seem to speak to me on a deeper level are rooted much more in classical music than in pop music – frequently changing dynamics (volume) for example, is a huge part of the classical music world but really not that common in pop music.
- Nine Inch Nails & Changing Metre
The vast majority of pop and rock music picks a nice regular time signature like 4/4 (4 beats in every bar) and sticks to it for the duration of the song. This allows people to dance to it, and it feels comfortable. It also makes the song more easily memorable and therefore usually more sellable.
Metal and some Rock music is known for its love of 7/4 and 7/8 (which means they have 7 beats in the bar) – time signatures which we call ‘irregular’ because they don’t fall into the comfortable zone of having 2, 3 or 4 beats in the bar like most music does. This can give the music a stilted, unsettled feel. Some songs which use these time signatures (for some or all of the song) are Spiders by Slipknot, Money by Pink Floyd, Outshined by Soundgarden and 2+2=5 by Radiohead.
Irregular time signatures don’t necessarily feel good by themselves, but they can enhance the overall nervous mood in a song like Spiders, which in turn can make the song speak to us on a more visceral level. When it does feel good though, is when you have an irregularly timed song which breaks into regular time, like having a regular chorus after an irregular verse.
NIN’s Somewhat Damaged from The Fragile is a really interesting song. When it starts you think it’s in a totally different time than it is (it sounds like 6/8). Then the drums kick in and you realise it’s actually 9/4, kind of. The 9th beat is at the end of every ‘normal’ 8 beat sentence, like he just leaves each line lying there a little bit longer than its supposed to be, just hanging there. The 4 note motif from the beginning is still there underneath sort of fitting in. The whole effect is really unsettling.
Before the final section, the drums disappear for a while, leaving you feeling rhythmically lost. When they return, he finally allows you into everyone’s comfort zone of 4/4. You feel safe, everything is where it should be… but then it builds to the most amazing, angry, cathartic ending, with him screaming ‘fell apart, where the f**k were you?’ before releasing you into the floaty calm sounds of the intro to The Day The World Went Away.
For me, this song is the ultimate cathartic musical experience – it starts off so simply and you have no sense of how different the end will be. It is so unsettled all the way through until you reach 4/4 where you somehow feel more comfortable with the rising aggression than you did when the rhythm was constantly changing. It is a very clever trick. The link into the next track allows you to hold that feeling a little longer and bathe in the newly found calm after the storm.
Rhythm and metre is so important in the way music makes us feel. Take for example NIN’s March Of The Pigs. Its time signature keeps changing between 7 and 8 beats per bar, and the mood goes from wild to calm and then almost jazzy and then back to wild again within minutes. It is a song which is virtually impossible to ignore. However, play the remix All The Pigs, All Lined Up, which is altered to be totally in 4/4, and the mood completely changes; although it is still loud and angry, it is suddenly much more rhythmically comfortable and predictable, which has the effect of making it sound a little less desperate.
Trent Reznor (pic from NiN archive)
2. Slipknot & Structure
Most pop/rock music is structurally very predictable. It usually consists of alternating verses and choruses, broken up by a middle 8 before the climactic return of the chorus. It is a very old structure dating back hundreds of years.
A noticeable difference with more extreme music in many of its forms, is that it is often far freer with its structure. Although it does often follow the same old structure, there are so many examples of when it doesn’t. I find that there is so much more variety and unpredictability in these genres than in most.
There are countless varying structures and it would take forever to look at them all but one song that works really well is Slipknot’s XIX from The Gray Chapter. This is a different kind of anger – it is desperation, loss, grief at the death of bassist Paul Gray. Lyrically, it is not at all suited to a standard structure. It starts small and builds layer upon layer of sound, building up to a desperate sounding climax. This song has a lot in common with the first three minutes or so of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Both them are in the key of A minor and are structurally similar. Both use an ostinato (a repeated musical idea) which moves between different octaves and both have a slow build up texturally, adding new layers on to existing ones.
This kind of structure allows us to be gently drawn into the mood. By the end of the song you have built up to an emotion which you may not be able to access right away. It draws you in. XIX has the added point of ending with one last yell on the 7th (G), a dissonant (clashing) note. By finishing the song on the 7th, the song doesn’t end ‘properly’, allowing you to hold on to that feeling a little longer and embrace it. Instead of shutting those difficult emotions out, you are asked to really feel them.
3. Dissonance & ‘Hurt’
If you want to experience how a tiny harmonic change can totally affect the sound of something, try listening to both NIN and Johnny Cash’s versions of Hurt. The two versions usually divide opinion, but it really shows how harmony can make a song feel very different. Although this is not exactly an angry song, it demonstrates a specific type of dissonance in a way that is easier to hear, so I want to include it anyway.
The two versions vary a little in key, instrumentation and other things but it is the tritone in the original NIN version which gives this version its distinctive sound. A tritone, sometimes called diabolus in musica (the devil in music) is the interval (distance) of an augmented 4th or diminished 5th. It is one of the most dissonant intervals in music – some emergency vehicles have sirens tuned to this interval as it’s very hard to ignore!
In the NIN version, as the first word, ‘I’ is sung, the guitar plays a note which is a tritone above the home note. It reappears in that place in the bar throughout the song. In the Johnny Cash version, there is no tritone so that clash is missing. Personally, I think the tritone in the NIN version adds an uncomfortable feel to the music, whereas the Cash version simply sounds sad. NIN also fills the background space with something like white noise which adds to the mood.
Another great use of the tritone is the last two notes of the piano melody in the opening of NIN’s The Wretched. In both this song and NIN’s Hurt, the tritones (and white noise) are dropped in the chorus, making the choruses feel more euphoric.
Tritones are found everywhere in music, two together make up the chord of a diminished 7th which is your standard ‘scary’ chord from old horror films, but using them in a melody like this is far less common.
There are, of course, other more technical effects such as extreme vocal techniques, distortion, detuning guitars and other less theory based things as well as the lyrics which all contribute to the emotional impact of angry music, but I will leave those areas to the singers and guitarists.
The key point with all of this is the unpredictability. The songs that have the most dramatic effect on the listener are often the ones with the most extreme contrasts. They allow us to feel unsafe and wild and get in touch with the more hard to reach parts of ourselves.
It is said over and over that music expresses that which cannot be said – so what if you are feeling angry? Frustrated? It seems that is much more acceptable historically to connect with music that is happy, calming, sad (in a gentle kind of way) or exciting, but far less acceptable to enjoy music which emulates states of extreme anger or frustration, which most people feel just as much as they might feel happy.
It is so important to be able to connect with all sides of ourselves and music is a fantastic way of doing just that. If you need to get something out of your system, a nice poppy song won’t always help with that… I am a big believer in constructive anger, embracing those feelings and letting them out in a healthy way, channelling them into something creative.
And, as Trent says, doesn’t that make you feel better?
Hannah Cahill is a music theorist and teacher with an interest in the psychology of music. You can find her on Twitter at @cahill_music (twitter) or via her blog http://www.cahillmusic.co.uk
The play lists for this piece can be found here:
Money Pink Floyd
Somewhat Damaged NIN
March OF The Pigs NIN
All The Pigs, All Lined Up NIN
(2nd Movement of 7th Symphony Beethoven)
Hurt Johnny Cash
The Wretched NIN