Monday, September 3, 2012

What Makes Music Sound Gothic?

Before I present this topic I'd like to make a certain distinction. If you look at the title of this entry you'll notice that I used the word Gothic as opposed to Goth. Blogs and forums written by and for Goths are ripe with discussion about music and very adequately cover the topic of what's Goth and what's not; this, even though there's not necessarily much agreement on the subject.. That's not where I want to go with this entry however. Instead, I want to discuss some of the actual mechanics--the styles of musicianship and musical tricks that lend to the dark, melancholy and despairing sound that we love so much. Keep in mind that the same principles apply regardless of whether the music type is classical or neo-classical, dark ambient, Goth rock, dark wave, electronic or metal  Sure, each genre mentioned here has qualities that make it unique and recognizable, but there are certain things composers/musicians can do to lend a darker ambiance to their creations.


Of course, a song's lyrics speak for themselves; both literally and figuratively. There is little doubt that the words in a musical piece lend to its overall mood. Take, for example, an album created by the Alan Parsons Project in 1976 called Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The collection was a musical retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's horror stories and poetry. Although I cannot speak to most of the songs in that particular collection, I am familiar with the track entitled The Raven; but while that song quotes Poe to a certain extent and even incorporates a segment of choral-like vocals, I wouldn't call that particular song Gothic. So, what in my mind, prevents that well done song from sounding truly Gothic? It contains too many major chords and not enough minors.

Minor Chords 

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a chord as "three or more musical notes sounded simultaneously." While various types of chords exist it's the majors and minors that are the most common. For reasons I'll never be able to explain or completely understand, major chords sound upbeat while minors offer a much more melancholy flavor. It goes to reason then that a composer of Gothic music would use lots of minor chords. These will work with or without the accompaniment of compatible lyrics.

The Tri-tone 

Believe it or not, in Europe during the eighteenth century the use of certain musical intervals (the distance between notes) were prohibited from classical music. The tri-tone, which is nothing more than two notes spaced three whole tones apart, was considered as belonging to the Devil when expressed musically during that time period. Tri-tones are dissonant in nature and must be resolved by more harmonious chords and melodies. Although it might seem silly to ban certain musical notes, tri-tones really do sound somewhat evil and are well suited for Gothic music when used skillfully. The tri-tone has been used successfully by classical composers such as Giuseppe Tartine, Nicolo Paginini and Richard Wagner as well as a host of metal bands including Black Sabbath. 


The skillful use of choirs and Gregorian harmonies lends a wonderfully Gothic feel to any piece of music. One of the things that first impressed me about The Sisters of Mercy was the incorporation of choral sounds into songs such as This Corrosion. Any of you who either attended, watched or listened to Within Temptation's Black Symphony which was performed at the Ahoy in Rotterdam, know how much Gothic atmosphere was created by the talents of both the Pa'dam Choir and the Dutch Metropole Orchestra with its use of the tri-tone; especially during the overture.  


If you're in a band and don't have access to a choir you can always create somewhat similar harmonies with your keyboards. While there is noting like a Grande Piano in the performance of classical music, the keyboards are an amazingly versatile instrument capable of creating a wide variety of musical sounds. With their ability to sustain notes and chords indefinitely, the keys can add an amazingly atmospheric and eerie background to any musical piece. 

As always, I'm using this blog entry to express my opinion as to what makes music sound Gothic. If a group mixes the above-mentioned ingredients skillfully, it's music ought to sound pretty damn good--and dark. Below I'm including a couple of videos that are representative of what I've been discussing here. 

This first song, Mephistorium, is performed by a Gothic-doom band from Serbia called Tales of Dark. This hauntingly beautiful piece is loaded with tri-tones, minor chords, vocal and keyboard harmonies as well as a well done beauty and the beast effect. How will I identify the tri-tones, you might ask? Trust me, you'll know them when you hear them. 

Next we see the Vampire Lestat (played by Stuart Townsend) performing the song Slept So Long with his band in Death Valley in a scene from the film, Queen of the Damned. Listen closely to the dark-sounding tones as the band performs. Incidentally, that particular soundtrack was created by Jonathon Davis, formerly of the nu metal group Korn. The vocals were performed by Jay Gordan.    


Top photo source: Gothic Pictures Gallery.
Artist unknown




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  3. Insomniac's Attic, Thank you so much for the kind compliment. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.

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