Metering Constructions and 3+3+2 Rhythms in Thrash Metal

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One of the reasons I haven’t posted on this blog recently is that I’ve been busier with the scholarly side of my life. I just presented a metal-related paper at the Music Theory Midwest 2017 conference in Iowa City, IA, so I thought I’d share my abstract.

Iowa City is beautiful this time of year and has a couple of mean hamburger joints. The University of Iowa hosted this conference in its new music building, which is an awesome concrete and glass behemoth aerie that almost feels like a modern art museum instead of a school. Excellent atmosphere for a paper about metal. 🙂

I’m happy to announce that I will be presenting this paper again at the national Society for Music Theory conference this November in Arlington, Virginia!


Title: Meter Without a Fixed Cycle: Headbanging 3+3+2 as a Metering Construction

Abstract: Meter is traditionally described as a cyclical system of isochronous pulse layers, but I advocate for also theorizing meter as a patchwork of recognized rhythms. This recognition can come from having heard a passage before, or from a familiar “metering construction,” a generalized pattern of rhythmic motion that can be recognized in unfamiliar music. This paper demonstrates this perspective by analyzing headbanging as an embodied practice of metrical interpretations, and describing a construction of phrase-ending 332-family rhythms in metal music.

Headbanging is active metering (Butler 2006), a process of creating beats rather than a sympathetic response to beats that are “already there.” Feeling rhythm as a headbanger involves identifying a way of nodding the head that is a workable interpretation of heard sounds. 332 rhythms are traditionally described (and notated) as syncopations against 4/4. One particular drumkit setting of phrase-ending 332 rhythms is associated with headbanging to the 332 instead of a regular quarter- or half-note pulse. I argue that this metering construction briefly suspends or replaces 4/4 time, offering another familiar way of interpreting rhythm to headbangers. Unlike some other uses of 332 rhythms in metal music, the association between this drumkit setting and this way of moving is stable enough that if used “out of phase” it can displace or reset a 4/4 “background” meter. The 332 construction is not a rhythmic dissonance, but a border in a patchwork of recognized rhythms, a moment of transition between two metering constructions.

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