This is the first post, which ‘officially’ discusses my research in the new project ‘Norm-related sonic knowledge in Heavy Metal culture’. We started on 1 February and are currently working on the project website, which will go online in a few days. There, blog posts from the project will be featured in a special section and appear in the newsfeed too.

In this first post, I want to address a topic which is crucial in our research: the heuristics of what I called ‘norm-related sonic knowledge’. The main question here is how we plan to map this realm of knowledge.  This sphere is constituted by law-related phenomema in metal culture, metal practices, metal music and metal networks. We need a good heuristical strategy to map the field.

Here, the result of a fruitful conversation I had recently with my colleague Christian Hiebaum (a legal philosopher and legal sociologist at the University of Graz) is key. In our discussion, Christian raised the point that, philosophically and analytically, all the terms involved (e.g. justice, law, legal system, crime, moral, ethics, law-breaking, rule-breaking etc.) form something like a ‘family’ or a ‘Sprachspiel’ of terms.

Taking up the thoughts of analytical philosophers like Donald Davidson1 and Ludwig Wittgenstein2, it is quite easy to recognize that all the categories of norm-related sonic knowledge form a ‘pool’ or a ‘family’ of notions and meanings. Heuristically, the crucial point is how the meaning of each individual term is constituted within this family.

Herein, each of the terms – in its individual meaning – depends on the other ones. Let us think of some examples. To be understood and fulfill its function in culture,  the notion ‘law’ relies on its links to related notions like ‘justice’, ‘ruling’, ‘order’ ‘legality’ or ‘law-breaking’. The notion ‘breaking the law’ needs a presupposed and in the metal scene shared understanding of terms like ‘law’, ‘morality’ or ‘crime’.

If we take Judas Priest’s classic ‘Breaking The Law’ once more as a paradigmatic example, this approach makes us look at the lyrics in a new way:

There I was completely wasted, out of work and down
All inside it’s so frustrating as I drift from town to town
Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die
So I might as well begin to put some action in my life

Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law

So much for the golden future I can’t even start
I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart
You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue
If you did you’d find yourselves doing the same thing too

Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law…3

In red and bold, I marked the notions that are relevant for these heuristics. Analytically and philosophically, it might be very risky, even problematic to integrate not only individual notions (e.g. ‘law’ or ‘anger’) but entire word groups or clauses (e.g. ‘breaking the law’, ‘every promise broken’, ‘out of work’) into such a family of terms. This needs more and accurate thinking.

Yet what we gain from this is heuristically highly useful. We see very clearly that the categories of norm-related sonic knowledge in the lyrics (e.g. ‘law’, ‘breaking the law’) – in the constitution of their meanings – are closely linked to key aspects of metal culture like anger, frustration, or freedom. And further, these notions are linked to the sounds and music of heavy metal.4 A word cloud would arrange the lyrics in this way:

In a nutshell, these heuristics should make us able to identify the semantic and analytical links between the different categories of norm-related sonic knowledge. Moreover and equally important, they make visible the linkages to the mental, sonic, visual, and emotional ‘moods’ and dynamics of metal culture.

  1. See D. Davidson, The Essential Davidson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006; D. Davidson, Truth, Language, and History: Philosophical Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005; D. Davidson, Truth and Predication. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2005. 

  2. See C. Bezzel: Wittgenstein zur Einführung. Junius, Hamburg 2000, L. Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt: WBG, 2001. 

  3. Lyrics to Judas Priest, ‘Breaking The Law’, on British Steel, 1980. 

  4. R. Walser, Running with the Devil. Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014.