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Doctoral dissertation on the music of Deep Purple

Doctoral dissertation on the music of Deep Purple (Helsinki University, Finland):
“Theory and Analysis of Classic Heavy Metal Harmony” by Esa Lilja.
The thesis was published 17 October 2009.

The study looks into heavy metal harmony from the point of view of music theory and analysis; the main focal point is the era that has been called “classic” or “traditional.” This era ranges roughly from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, including bands such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden. The study illuminates characteristics – from the elementary to the complex – which may be considered central to the harmonic language of heavy metal in that time period. Meanwhile, the applicability of traditional theories and methods of music analysis are discussed in the context of this music.

The thesis explores melodic and harmonic features of heavy metal, and while doing so, explores various methods of music analysis; their applicability and limitations regarding the study of heavy metal music. The study is built on three general hypotheses according to which 1) acoustic characteristics play a significant role for chord constructing in heavy metal, 2) heavy metal has strong ties and similarities with other Western musical styles, and 3) theories and analytical methods of Western art music may be applied to heavy metal.

It seems evident that in heavy metal some chord structures appear far more frequently than others. It is suggested here that the fundamental reason for this is the use of guitar distortion effect. Subsequently, theories as to how and under what principles heavy metal is constructed need to be put under discussion; analytical models regarding the classification of consonance and dissonance and chord categorization are here revised to meet the common practices of this music.

It is evident that heavy metal is not an isolated style of music; it is seen here as a cultural fusion of various musical styles. Moreover, it is suggested that the theoretical background to the construction of Western music and its analysis can offer invaluable insights to heavy metal. However, the analytical methods need to be reformed to some extent to meet the characteristics of the music. This reformation includes an accommodation of linear and functional theories that has been found rather rarely in music theory and musicology.

26 Comments to “Doctoral dissertation on the music of Deep Purple”:

  1. 1
    Paul Mann says:

    Oh f’f—s sake.

  2. 2
    Roberto says:

    I knew that Darkness singer did a thesis about Ritchie Blackmore…

  3. 3
    Rasmus Heide says:

    Too much vodka?

  4. 4
    Tom says:


  5. 5
    Phil says:

    So much for keeping it simple stupid. I wonder if Ian Gillan realises he’s a member of a heavy metal band.

  6. 6
    Crimson Ghost says:


    Hello, Paul, I’m sure everyone is dying for some elaboration… I know I am.

    Cheers and glad to see you!

  7. 7
    Ian says:


  8. 8
    kraatzy says:

    Oh shit … (sorry!)

    How good is it, to read only “THEORIES” ?

    In fact Rock ´N´ Roll lives with rythm, loudness and fun and not with theories.
    For me, this is too clinical, too dry …



  9. 9
    purplepriest1965 says:

    Elaboration seems pretty fine to me CG.

    You are one those who try so, I ll always say that.

    But you have to admit…..

    Classifying DP as a Heavy Metal band might seem less dangerous than saying the same about Led Zeppelin but still…….

    Hopefully the thesis will explore and define it in that sense everyone who wants to read and know the paper…….ahem……….will understand that there are load of differences between differnt styles of ROCK-


  10. 10
    Rajaseudun Rambo says:

    Hold your horses! No reason to judge the thesis by a short abstract. Are you all perfectly sure there is nothing to learn in the study? At least I am very interested in reading the book.

    But as we can see here even a PhD (to-be) is using concepts quite liberally. I have studied (enjoyed on daily basis) the music of Deep Purple for 40 years soon, and according to my findings and to my best evidence based knowledge Deep Purple never was heavy metal. And I sure hope (and believe … well, I’m positive) they never will be.

  11. 11
    Herb says:

    I’m no researcher, but wouldn’t the fact that genres are theoretical groupings based on OPINION make you wonder…why?

  12. 12
    marcinn says:

    Abstracts being what they are – though, I’d really like to see the part on Deep Purple. Might be very interesting indeed. It’s already been known that The Beatles are in the academic discourse. I’d like to see Purple getting into academia at some point in the future and this I treat as the first attempt. It is always a fruitful way to discuss any field of art, new hypothesis are being created, and it somehow allows the heritage to live on.

    One problem academics tend to have is that they always categorize anything and the elusive/ethereal element escapes them. It may also be said that academics are trying to describe what they really can’t and that’s why the vague futility of language in this abstract. What’s more, dissertations tend to be very ‘cold’, and by the end of reading one you feel ‘dead’ not only about yourself but also about the subject discussed. This has a lot to do with impossibility of transfering personal likings (FEELINGS) into a thesis since the discourse tells you to stick to the topic, not to elaborate too much, and do the ‘cold’ analysis of FACTS with a sober mind. Sometimes you feel academics write not out of their ‘true selves’ but only for academic purposes, to get a degree and to get this simply done. Some write just for the general satisfaction of their supervisors. And, last but not least, if an artist is subjected to academic analysis the analyst always presupposes that the form of artistic expression chosen by the artist is perfect, while I strongly object to that. There’s no such thing as ‘perfect form’ in general. The academia have decided to judge things as ideal. The form is just perfect to the particular artist, not to those who have in mind the delusional image of perfect form as well as not to those who treat it as deprived of perfection.

    The above problems I had to deal with while writing my thesis in literature this year, and it wasn’t appreciated by my supervisor just because I didn’t label the author. I rather focused on the factors (rather literary, not biographical) that shaped him as a writer and how they influenced his writings. Throughout the dissertation I never used a phrase that would say: ‘He is the author of that particular genre’. Why? Because I wanted to resepect his opinion that labeling as such takes the magic out. I feel the case might be the same here, though I’m not sure since I’m not familiar with a broader picture. Abstracts tend to shed light on the most importants aspects of the dissertations, they don’t pay attention to little details, and I’m sure the little things are as much interesting.

  13. 13
    purplepriest1965 says:

    Very wel said Marcinn

    And very recognisable because I did TRY study ……and kinda felt lost…..

  14. 14
    james jay says:

    i will wait for a response from T. he has a way of explaining that pin points fact from fiction.

  15. 15
    suzanne says:

    some very good points, all…and well written marcinn – academic discourse being what it is – a discourse (with a tendancy to categorise)…happy to see dp discussed in relation to culture/cultural fusion…not all academics follow an emiricist route – there has been a call to recognise subjectivity, beauty, ambiguity… and as marcinn wrote, this may set a path for dialogue. bravo Esa, and good luck! a phd dissertation is certainly a moment of vulnerability…

  16. 16
    suzanne says:

    eeks! tendency…the curse of (mental) spell-checking after the fact…(and yes, a curse of being an ‘academic’ is thinking it matters…as a friend once told me ‘spelling-schmeling’)…

  17. 17
    purplepriest1965 says:

    Yeah, where is T?
    The conscience and moral authorithy on this board….

  18. 18
    suzanne says:

    wait, … should that be schmelling? jk.

  19. 19
    Crimson Ghost says:

    Yes, well put Marcin… they do tend to lose the plot because of separation.

  20. 20
    Thomas says:

    Let’s start by getting things right. Esa Lilja has not written a PhD thesis, he has produced a licentiate thesis. As a musicologist, I am used to prejudiced comments like the above, but am now beyond caring. Read Mr. Lilja’s work, then comment.

  21. 21
    Jaakko Tuohiniemi says:

    To avoid any misunderstandings, I would like to tell that Esa Lilja has written both a licentiate thesis and a PhD thesis. His licentiate thesis “Characteristics of Heavy Metal Chord Structures” (2005) is published electronically, and is freely available from University of Helsinki WWW pages, see . Mr Lilja’s PhD thesis “Theory and Analysis of Classic Heavy Metal Harmony” (2009) is not available in Internet, but is published as a hardbound book by IAML Finland (ISBN 978-952-5363-35-7).

  22. 22
    Rajaseudun Rambo says:

    Well, well. Ok, let’s start by getting things right, Thomas.
    Esa Lilja has written a PhD thesis. It’s also true that he has produced a licentiate thesis. But that was a few years back (2005 if I remember right).

  23. 23
    Gisbert Schürig says:

    Jaakko Tuohiniemi, many thanks for your hint to “Characteristics of Heavy Metal Chord Structures”! Very interesting read.

  24. 24
    Jake L says:

    Hello, I think there has been studies for much more uninteresting doctoral thesis, when we think about describing some remarkable cultural phenomena in society. For example the thesis that describe the model, how people act in a toalet (okey, some might found this very interesting)… Explaining the popularity of rock, hard rock and heavy metal is conributing the future of rock music (hopefully, for those who understand it). There has been many studies trying to understand the success of the Beatles. These explanations are used, when people writing the history and music in the future. However, I think that the music is always coming first, but we can’t help it, that all remarkable music gives us feelings and blow up our mind. The music are pictures of our culture, and I don’t mind, if somebody makes a hard work for describing this cultural phenomena, which I’m deep in. Anyway, I don’t know what harm does these studies make. Furthermore, without these definitions, we would not be able to discuss about this phenomena (for example in the year 2050). I highly encourage this discussion to be continued and more studies to be made.

  25. 25
    Henrik says:

    – I think it´s great to read this!

    Is it possible to get hold of the whole thesis? It will give a much better understanding of the playing.

    And you can bet that Lord/Blackmore are very aware of how to construct Deep Purple´s music. Just check the Machine Head/Classic Album!

    Best regards

  26. 26
    Henrik says:

    Oh, I got hold of the thesis. Very interesting!

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