Death Metal Composition Techniques

author: oozeslime date: 11/14/2011 category: music styles
rating: 6.8 / votes: 14 
Death Metal is one of the genres with the most sophisticated harmony and scales in all music genres, and this is no faint affirmation, so congratulations if you, like me, is a fan of this genre! Indeed, in many aspects it rivals Jazz, Progressive and contemporary classical music, and paraphrasing Dante's Inferno sign: "Abandon every traditional tonality, who enter here." It is a passionate genre, full of energy and speed, and it inspires all of us in many aspects. This leads us to the subjective question: how to get inspiration to write Death Metal music? For me, the real pleasure of listening and writing Death Metal relies on discovering new musical landscapes, that are rarely touched by other genres. To start this voyage, we have first to build our ship, and it'll be made, among other things, with some scales, techniques, and a bit of theory to glue everything up. I'll assume you already know the Major/minor scales. So, let's start to collect items to bring to our travel. In this Death Metal village, let's stop by the Scales Store to buy some useful items.  

Item 1 - The diminished scale

The diminished scale are made of the alternation of whole tones and semitones, thus making 8 notes per octave. It can start with a whole tone or with a semitone. The diminished scale:
|-------------------------------------------1-2---|
|-----------------------------------1-3-4---------|
|---------------------------1-2-4-----------------|
|-------------------1-3-4-------------------------|
|-----------2-3-5---------------------------------|
|---2-4-5-----------------------------------------|
The diminished scale, only chord notes:
|-----------------------2---------------------1-4---|
|-------------------1-4---------------------3-------|
|---------------2---------------------1-4-----------|
|-----------1-4---------------------3---------------|
|-------3---------------------2-5-------------------|
|---2-5---------------------4-----------------------|
Inside of the diminished scale you'll find a lot of tritones. A tritone is an interval of three whole tones, it divides the octave in half, and it is the most dissonant interval in the octave. In other words, it sounds mean. Some tritones inside the diminished scale:
|-----------------2-----------------4-|
|---------------1-----------------3---|
|-----------2-----------------4-------|
|---------1-----------------3---------|
|-----3-----------------5-------------|
|---2-----------------4---------------|

Item 2 - The melodic minor scale

You can think of the melodic minor scale as the major scale with its third degree lowered a semitone, or as a natural minor scale with its sixth and seventh degrees raised a semitone. One of the main characteristics of this scale is that it has a succession of 4 whole tones (the major/minor scales have only 3), and so it can produce more of a sensation of floating or suspension. This sensation of floating comes from the fact that these 4 whole tones makes the melodic minor scale more akin of the whole-tone scale, which itself has no tone center and is pure suspension. The melodic minor scale, in C:
|----------------------------------7-8---|
|-----------------------------8-10-------|
|----------------------7-8-10------------|
|---------------7-9-10-------------------|
|--------6-8-10--------------------------|
|---8-10---------------------------------|
We can feel more of this floating sensation, when starting the scale in its third degree. Here is the same C melodic minor scale, but starting in Eb:
|------------------------------------------10-11---|
|---------------------------------10-12-13---------|
|---------------------------10-12------------------|
|------------------10-12-13------------------------|
|---------10-12-14---------------------------------|
|---11-13------------------------------------------|
(As a side note, this mode is also called lydian augmented) Inside the melodic minor scale you'll find three augmented chords. Augmented chords are chords made of stacking up two major thirds. In our example, in C, they are at Eb, G and B:
|---------------------11--------------------------|
|------------------12---------------8-------------|
|---------------12----------------8---8-----------|
|------------13-----------------9-------9---------|
|------10-14-----------------10-----------10------|
|---11--------------------11-----------------11---|
If the tritone sounds evil, the augmentd chords sounds, let's say... eerie and evocative. For the beginning of our adventure, these two scales will do, together with the major and minor scales. Now let's cross the street and collect some items at the Techniques Shop.  

Item 3 - Tremolo picking

Tremolo picking is just hitting the same note rapidly several times. Present in all metal genres, and almost omnipresent in Death Metal:
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1---|

Item 4 - Power chords with fourths and tritones

The traditional power chord, as you may know, is made of the root, the fifth, and the root above it. Power chords with fourths and with tritones just exchanges the fifth for them.
| Traditional Power Chord | Fourth Chord  | Tritone Chord  |
|-------------------------|---------------|----------------|
|-------------------------|---------------|----------------|
|-------------------------|---------------|----------------|
|---3---------------------|---3-----------|---3------------|
|---3---------------------|---1-----------|---2------------|
|---1---------------------|---1-----------|---1------------|

Item 5 - Phrasing with interval contrasts

One very important aspect in Death Metal is how you blast your intervals along your lick. A very powerful technique is achieved by intercalating very wide intervals with close chromatic passages. In the lick below, we can see how we leap from A# to F#(!), and then proceed with passages using semitones. This lick uses exclusively the diminished scale we saw above.
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|---------------------------------------------------------------------|
|--------------------0----------------9-10-9-------10----------9------|
|---3----------3-2-3-5----------6-5-6--------12-11--------------------|

Conclusion

This is a riff that brings up the points we saw above, in a very concise manner, and also serves as a recap.
||---------------------------------|----------------------------------|
||---------------------------------|----------------------------------|
||---------------------------------|-----------------4-------6--------|
||---------------------------------|-----------------2-------4--------|
||-------------------------3-3-3-3-|-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-------4--------|
||-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-4-4-4-4---------|----------------------------------|
 
                                                                      2x
|----------------------------------|----------------------------------||
|----------------------------------|----------------------------------||
|-7-------6------------------------|----------------------------------||
|-5-------4------------------------|----------------------------------||
|-5-------4-------7-------5--------|-4-------2-------3----------------||
|-----------------5-------3--------|-2-------0---------------2--------||
a) The first bar is an augmented chord played with tremolo picking, and is part of a melodic minor scale that concludes at the beginning of the second bar. b) In the first four notes, there are contrasting intervals of two major thirds followed by a semitone. c) In the second and third bars there are power chords with fourths to give a different flavor to it. d) At the end of the riff, there's a tritone to recall the first note of the riff. And this ends our lesson. I hope it was helpful. As a last word, don't get too obsessive about elaborated passages. Sometimes just a punchy rhythm in the E string is required for the job at hand.
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