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I often hear things said along the lines of "band XXX makes some of the heaviest music around, but their guitarist doesn't even use that much distortion", or "Band YYY didn't even tune down on this album but it's their heaviest-sounding".

I'm pretty sure it's impossible to say precisely what 'heavy' means in this context, but still - is there any level of agreement on what 'heavy' means? Does it, for example, refer to a combination of a bass-heavy mix and the presence of distortion?

  • Can you link us to some examples? Which heavy metal songs are described as heavy, and which ones are not? – Bebs Jan 2 '17 at 9:07
  • @Bebs I'm not even sure if there are particular songs or sounds that are consistently described as 'heavy', but if you google for "heaviest sounding" metal you'll see lots of people using the word in a way that implies that it makes sense to make a judgement about how "heavy" something is. – user16 Jan 2 '17 at 9:22
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I personally don't think it has to do with distortion, down-tuning, or mixing. There is a reason classical music sounds like a range of different moods and emotions, and that same idea is often carried over in heavier music. Its the same reason that Tool, while not being heavy metal, sounds heavy. Adam Jones's writing for guitar makes use of note choices and chord combinations that evince a certain kind of response.

The same principle is present in every single genre, not even just metal. A song could be written in guitar tuning of one whole step up, but if you write the parts accordingly, it could be described as 'heavy.'

Kyuss's desert/stoner rock sound is really thick, C standard tuning. But, Josh Homme uses the same C tuning in Queens of the Stone Age as he did in Kyuss, and No One Knows sounds remarkably more upbeat than, say, Demon Cleaner.

That being said, distortion and other effects serve to embellish the original sound. It doesn't define the weight the song carries so much as it magnifies the intent of the song.

This is purely subjective though, because everyone has different definitions of heavy. When I was a kid, a Slayer fan teased me for saying SOAD was heavy. At the time, SOAD was like listening to lead because no other music I had listened to prior to them had that emotional intent. Nowadays, I can throw on Acid Bath and jam out because I've heard a huge range and interpretations of "heavy" music.

TL;DR

It's the emotional intent you write the song with. Writing happy music will sound happy. Writing angry music will probably sounds angry, and what's angry now might not be as angry in a few years.

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The best definition of "Heavy" I can think of is a three-word description Mike Portnoy (ex drummer of Dream Theater) once gave, "Balls and Chunk". Heavy riffs usually have a lot of muted E string picking in them. It's what gives it that "Chunk-Chunk" sound. It can be clearly heard as the opening notes in the first bar of "Outshined" by Soundgarden:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNh-iw7gsuI

Or starting around the 40 second mark of Metallica's cover of Breadfan by Budgie :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYgYZQNSzW8

That "chugging" on a muted E (or whatever the low string is tuned to) is usually what gives a song a "heavy" sound.

Of course, to other people (hey! music is subjective so everyone's definition is a little different...) the word "heavy" can be used to denote a very catchy riff that moves one to bob (or bang) their head in time to the music.

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Heavy - to me as a listener and producer of music - usually has something to do with two main factors: audio density and low end. Audio density might come in the form of number of multi-tracked instruments (usually distorted guitars). Low end usually comes from bass guitar or low-accents in the guitars as well.

So if I want something to sound heavy, I am not going to reach for my nylon string guitar - unless of course I am running it through a fuzz box. :-)

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