Rage is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as extreme or violent anger. It is the result of stimulating a stress response in the body, whether it is a violent outburst or quietly seething anger. In a musical context, both visceral and spontaneous rage can be very difficult for music creators to capture in their work. To provide some ideas on how rage can be incorporated into music, let’s first understand what rage is, then review the techniques that can be employed to recreate it.
Introduction to Rage
When a threat is perceived, it is the body’s natural response to enter fight or flight mode in order to protect itself in a life-threatening situation. It is the “fight” of this stress response that is responsible for the emotion of rage.
Due to our innate desire for social acceptance, humans often perceive threats that trigger the fight or flight response in non-life-threatening situations, like public speaking, as discussed in this article by Mark Shwartz.
Perceived or real social threats such as neglect, betrayal and mistreatment induce a stress response, causing adrenaline to be released and symptoms of anger, including increased energy, heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate, and perspiration. The heightened level of adrenaline is what causes the violent, passive-aggressive, or otherwise frustrated behaviour in people feeling rage.
Music and Rage
The obvious musical genres that are described culturally as being angry are metal, punk, and their various denominations. This stems both from the music itself, as well as the raison d’etre for these genres.
Punk music stems from the political and social dissatisfaction of a generation creating a counter movement that incorporated all that angst into short violent bursts of music. Popular bands of this genres include the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys or The Clash.
Metal, on the other hand, began much more as a musical counter movement and has explored a much wider spectrum of themes and style. Its cultural perception of anger stems much more from the music and aggressive imagery and vocal techniques. Notable bands of this genre are quite varied as there are many denominations but some classics include Iron Maiden, Avenged Sevenfold, Slayer and Megadeth.
Genres that also incorporate anger or rage are rock and blues, and are far more classic examples. Blues explores rage culturally in a much different way, dating all the way back to before the American Civil War and explores the sentiments that arose from racial injustices of the time and often incorporates both emotions of anger and sadness.
Rock and Roll, being derived from blues, explored rage musically in a closely related way. Some examples of artists from these genres include Blues Saraceno, BB King and, a more modern example, the Foo Fighters.
Making it Angry 1: Loud Dynamics
The use of forte dynamics and powerfully accented notes creates a steady stream of loudness throughout a piece. The effects of increased loudness on the listener are not necessarily rage, however, loudness plays an integral part in anger: through intensity. Loud dynamics cause an increase in intensity and power within a composition which in turn stimulates the release of adrenaline in the listener, beginning the fight or flight response.
It is also worth noting that faster tempo, normally ranging between allegro and prestissimo, can also enhance the effects of loud dynamics within the composition.
How to do it: Consistently louder dynamics can be achieved through distortion, which is often used on electric guitars, popularized by the rock genre and further employed in the metal genre. You could also use compression to create continuously loud dynamics or record loud instruments such as the aforementioned electric guitar or a live drum kit. Another important note is the use of stacked samples with live instrumentation, commonly seen with drum kits in metal music, to further bolster the dynamics of the instrument.
Check out the example below:
Powerful dynamics can evoke several different branches of emotion, including excitement and terror. The context of the dynamics matter, as instantaneous jumps between soft and loud volume will more likely produce terror rather than rage, while prolonged loudness is more likely to emulate anger or excitement by continually pumping adrenaline into the listener. To differentiate between excitement and rage, the composition will require another component: harmonic dissonance.
Making it Angry 2: Harmonic Dissonance
Harmonic dissonance is a technique used to create negative emotions like terror, sadness and rage. There are innate and also learned cultural preferences as to why certain intervals and scales appear more dissonant than others.
Here’s an example:
The most widely accepted reasoning for this lies within the acoustic ratio between the wavelength of two different notes. For example, a perfect 5th interval’s wavelengths contain a ratio of 2/3, which is fairly easy for our brains to process while a minor second interval contains a ratio of 16:15, which is far more difficult for our brains to conceptualize. A minor second, or any other interval with closely related notes, also creates an effect called “beating” where the slight amplitude peak overlap between the two notes causes a pulsation in the sound to occur. This phenomenon is often observed when stringed instruments are tuning using another string as a reference. This beating is often not enjoyable to the majority of people. Whether it is an instinctual or cultural response though, is largely unknown.
The displeasure created by dissonance causes the listener to feel destabilized, or with extreme use, distraught and directionless, which can evoke an important aspect of anger: a perceived threat.
Harmonic destabilization can create feelings of innate irritation and confusion which could be perceived, from a musical standpoint, as a threat to the stability of the music. While this effect may seem entirely based in psychoacoustics, humans perceive threats in sound all the time due to our evolutionary roots and instinct towards survivalism in perceiving danger through listening to our environment.
Harmonic dissonance can be employed in varying degrees and may be restricted depending on the musical genre and context where rage is trying to be employed. A powerful method for vocalists to employ harmonic dissonance can be the vocal fry or grit in blues, or its more extreme version of screams and growls in metal music. Not only do these vocal techniques play on an ancient form of communication of danger for humans, the overtones found in this technique can also create the aforementioned “beating” although it is very slight.
For all other instruments, employing minor modes such as Aeolian or Phrygian as well as minor thirds can create a slight amount of dissonance in the composition. More intense chords and modes such as Locrian, the whole tone scale and diminished chords could also be employed to create more destabilization, however, these find their uses more in metal music and some forms of blues, rather than rock and punk.
Another powerful technique is detuning, either through a plugin or through the physical tuning of the instrument. Down tuning is often a technique seen in metal where instruments are tuned to incredibly low keys, which in turn can cause very slight intonation within the overtones further destabilizing the composition.
Despite the importance of dissonance in employing rage into music, this effect needs to be counterbalanced by one other technique: Drive
Making it Angry 3: Forward Drive
Creating rage in music requires a counterbalance in order to maintain the sentiment of anger. This is largely done by creating forward drive and release. Tension and release is a cornerstone of western music theory and involves dissonance returning to the tonic or root of the key to create a sense of resolve. When discussing this compositional technique with rage, the effect is twofold: it allows the listener’s rage to be directed and guided throughout the piece and allows a new release of adrenaline after returning and then departing once again from the tonic. This technique is crucial as harmonic dissonance without any tonic to return to destabilizes the music to the point where it simply becomes noise, turning anger into confusion and complete astonishment rather than a passionate drive for anger. The effect of harmonic dissonance without a resolution can be observed in atonal music which is often viewed as disorienting. Forward momentum is required in music much like a target is required for prolonged rage.
Forward drive is mostly created in rage music through the use of the power chord, which is frequently seen in all culturally described angry genres: metal, rock, punk and blues. Power chords are unique in that they don’t reveal the quality of the chord, i.e whether it is major or minor. The result is a very harmonious chord that places emphasis on melody and driving the music forward.
Check out this example:
Part of the success of the power chord can be viewed in the tension created in the dominant chord of the major scale. The major scale’s dominant chord contains the leading tone of the scale which pushes the chord towards resolving back to the tonic. This is how the V-I Perfect Cadence came into existence and why power chords contain such powerful drive. They monopolize on the relationship between the root and dominant functions of the scale to continually push the music towards resolution.
Expressing Rage Through Music
Rage, although often misunderstood culturally, is very ingrained in music. Artists throughout time have shared their grievances with the world through song and utilized sound as a medium to vent their frustrations. Music can not only convey rage, but it can also allow us to process and work through our own.