Beyond Vocal Abuse: The Science Behind Extreme Metal Singers

commons: Lilly Lilly Mreal name: Małgorzata Miłaszewska, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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While it might appear to outsiders that the extreme ends of heavy metal prioritize rage over talent, anyone who has tried to play this stuff will fervently attest to the contrary.

The levels of technical prowess and passion required to competently pull off lightning-fast drums and razor-sharp shredding goes almost without parallel. As for vocals, that’s a whole exercise in masochism and perseverance in and of itself.

While it might seem like a mindlessly rabid expulsion of haphazard grunts, groans and screams, harsh death metal vocals require the mastery of a technique that takes a ton of practice.

In order to do it properly, one needs to learn how to project from the diaphragm while being conscious to add texture from the throat. It’s a delicate balance that often requires years of diligence to understand and execute without threat of severe injury. 

Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands reported in June of 2007 that several patients who had used improper growling techniques were being treated for edema and polyps on the vocal folds.

Explaining the phenomenon in a 2017 interview with Inside Science, Dr. Krzysztof Izdebski of the Pacific Voice and Speech Foundation said: “We call it phonotrauma or vocal abuse. And phonotrauma caused by wrong voice usage is something extremely difficult to deal with and it can last for months and months at a time.”

Using an incredibly high-speed camera, Dr. Izdebski came to understand the physical science of how seasoned extreme metal vocalists are able perform for extended periods without getting hurt, saying:

“So a growl is, is one of the most aggressive sounds that heavy metalers do; it sounds something like ‘Rahhhh!!!’ Okay. So, a growl is produced — and they can do it over and over and over, hour after hour … The images that we recorded clearly show that it’s produced predominately, predominately by structures above the glottis. So, the vocal folds do open and vibrate but actually don’t collide, and the entire sick area above — aryepiglottic folds, arachnoids, epiglottis — everything claps and dances, basically, and creates vibrations and creates acoustic orchestration.”

Of his concluding thoughts, Dr. Izdebski stated: “ [Metal vocalists] produce really very specific tasks and very specific melodies that are then supported by instruments. And it’s not just kind of going on stage and screaming and doing sort of random stuff. They really compose this stuff.”