Essential Question

What are the musical and cultural roots of Heavy Metal?


In the late 1960s, the British industrial city Birmingham was a blue-collar factory town with limited options for young people. In the early 1970s, the economic growth that Britain had seen after World War II began to slow, and unemployment started to rise. This period of economic decline continued into the late 70s and early 80s, marked by inflation, labor strikes, and general economic decline.

Black Sabbath, arguably the first Heavy Metal band, sprang from Birmingham and gave voice to this experience of desolation. As Andrew L. Cope writes in Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music, “One cannot dismiss simply as coincidence that the dark, angry and serious forms of music evident in the early work of Black Sabbath seem to correlate to the . . . dead end, working-class factory life of the industrial Midlands.”

As have many other forms of Rock and Roll, Heavy Metal reflected the mood of disenfranchised youth on the margins of society. Metal in Britain grew out of the same conditions as Punk; speaking in a simlarly anti-establishment voice, both could be considered a form of protest music. But over time, Heavy Metal evolved into a musical movement that embraced escapism and fantasy in a way that Punk did not.

Musically, Heavy Metal has deep roots in the Hard Rock of the 1960s, and by extension in the Blues, as filtered through the work of early Rock musicians such as Link Wray and The Kinks, as well as later bands such as Led Zeppelin and Cream. (It could be said that the factory life influenced the musical sound of Heavy Metal as well as its general tone: Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s thick, grungy sound was the result of a factory accident in which a machine sliced off the tips of two fingers on his right hand. To compensate for his injured fingers, Iommi loosened the strings, resulting in a darker sound.)

While taking cues from Hard Rock, Metal took its musical ideas into new territory, where an emphasis on volume and distortion came to represent a vision of power that resonated deeply with Metal’s overwhelmingly male fan base. In this lesson, students will investigate the musical and social roots of Heavy Metal, using their findings to write reviews of early Metal performances.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The musical roots of Heavy Metal, including Hard Rock and the Blues
    • The specific influence on Heavy Metal by Hard Rock bands and artists such as the Kinks, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix
    • The historical and social context of Birmingham, England, during the late 1960s and early 1970s
    • Musical vocabulary associated with Heavy Metal music
    • The contributions of early Heavy Metal bands including Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Blue Cheer
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Investigate the musical, social, and historical origins of Heavy Metal music
    • Develop listening skills by comparing and contrasting different musical genres and artists
    • Trace musical expression to the specific historical and social context from which it emerged
    • Common Core: Students will evaluate and analyze texts, photos, videos and music and summarize key details (CCCS Reading 2; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Common Core: Students will work collaboratively with a partner to write a music review that will include citations to supporting evidence from the Viewing Stations studied in class (CCSS Writing 1; CCSS Writing 8; CCSS Speaking and Listening 1)
    • Common Core: Students will use vocabulary strategies to develop an understanding of the term “Heavy Metal” (CCSS Language 4; CCSS Language 5)


Motivational Activity:

  1. Pose the following question to students: What words come to mind when you think of “Heavy Metal”? Write responses on the board. (Possible answers include: dark, loud, distortion, power, electric guitar, drums, long hair, riffs, virtuosity.)


  1. Divide students into pairs. Explain that they will take on the role of music journalists from the early 1970s. Each pair will write a review of an early Heavy Metal performance. They will begin by working to gain a better understanding of early Heavy Metal by visiting a series of stations that offer information about different aspect of Metal’s social and musical roots.
  2. Distribute Handout 1: Questions for Viewing Stations. Students should discuss the questions on the handout with their partners as they visit each station, and write down answers that will serve as notes for their reviews.
  3. Divide pairs so that an equal number begins at each of the four stations. Instruct students that after they have investigated all of the artifacts at the first station, they should move on to any other station where there is space, until they have visited all four stations.
  4. Stations are as follows:
    • Station 1: Videos of Metal’s Early InfluencesHard Rock
    • Station 2: The Working-Class Roots of Heavy Metal
    • Station 3: The Influence of the Blues on Early Heavy Metal
    • Station 4: Images of Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s
  5. After all groups have visited all four stations, reconvene the class as a whole and distribute Handout 2: Writing Your Music Review and Handout 3: Excerpt from Lyrics for “War Pigs.”
  6. Play the clip from the Black Sabbath song “War Pigs” (1970), asking students to think about what they learned at each of the stations as they watch the video. Discuss:
    • Based on the information you have just collected, what musical influences can you identify? Can you apply any of the words from the list of musical definitions on the handout?
    • How do you think the Hard Rock videos you watched at Station 1 are similar to the Black Sabbath video? How are they different?
    • What do you hear in the video that could be described as “heavy”? What could that word mean in terms of the music? The lyrics? Is the subject matter “heavy”?
    • What about the song conveys an anti-establishment feeling?
    • Why might playing this song give the performers a sense of power? Based on what you have seen at the different stations, why might having a sense of power be important to them?
    • What groups of people do you think might be most attracted to this sound? What meaning might they find in a song and a sound like this?
  7. Allow students time to work together to write their music reviews.

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask for volunteers to read their pair’s review.
  2. Ask students to think back to the words they used in the activity at the beginning of the lesson. Would they use the same words now? What additional words might they add? Write student answers on the board.
  3. Discuss: Now that you have seen the influence of Hard Rock and Blues on Heavy Metal, how would you describe what Metal did with those influences? What did Metal do that earlier musical movements did not?

Writing Prompt:

Ask students to react to the following quote from Tom Araya of the Metal band Slayer, using it as a starting point for discussing the origins of Heavy Metal and the sound that resulted:

I consider what we do art, and art can be a reflection of society. We’re picking up the dark reflections.


  1. Ask students to analyze the lyrics to Black Sabbath’s “Wicked World,” exploring the song as a protest against the Vietnam War.
  2. Ask students to research early American Heavy Metal and compare/contrast it to early British Heavy Metal. They may use Iron Butterfly’s 1968 song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Judas Priest’s “Rocka Rolla” (1974) as a starting point.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
  • Language 5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.7 Analyze and discuss complex ideas, such as distortion, color theory, arbitrary color, scale, expressive content, and real versus virtual in works of art.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.3 Analyze the aesthetic value of a specific commercial work of art and defend that analysis from an industry perspective.
    A4.4 Analyze the relationship between the artist, artistic product and audience in both an existing and self-generated project.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B7.4 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the actor and performance artist in the professional setting.