What Are Cleans in Metal Music?

by Patria
Bruce Dickinson

Metal music, a genre characterized by its intensity and powerful sound, has continuously evolved since its inception in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the fascinating aspects of this genre is its versatility and the diverse vocal techniques employed by metal vocalists. Among these techniques, “cleans” play a pivotal role. In this comprehensive article, we will delve into what cleans are in metal music, their significance, the techniques involved, and their impact on the genre.

I. Understanding Cleans in Metal Music

Definition of Cleans

In metal music, “cleans” refer to clean vocals, which are singing techniques that do not involve distortion or growling. Unlike harsh vocals, such as screams, growls, and gutturals, clean vocals are characterized by their melodic and clear quality. Clean singing often contrasts with the aggressive instrumental backdrop typical of metal music, providing a dynamic and emotional range to the songs.

Historical Context

Clean vocals have been a part of metal music since the genre’s early days. Pioneers like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin incorporated clean singing into their music, blending it with heavy riffs and powerful drumming. As metal evolved, clean vocals remained an essential element, particularly in subgenres like power metal, progressive metal, and symphonic metal.

Evolution of Clean Vocals in Metal

Over the decades, the use of clean vocals in metal has expanded and diversified. In the 1980s, bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest showcased the potential of clean singing with high-pitched, operatic styles. The 1990s saw the rise of grunge and alternative metal, where clean vocals were often juxtaposed with heavier, distorted elements. In modern metal, clean vocals are ubiquitous, appearing in genres ranging from metalcore to melodic death metal.

II. Techniques and Styles of Clean Vocals

1. Vocal Techniques

Clean singing in metal requires a range of vocal techniques to achieve the desired clarity and emotional expression. Some of the key techniques include:

Breath Control: Proper breath control is essential for sustaining notes and maintaining vocal power without strain.

Pitch Accuracy: Clean singing demands precise pitch control to ensure melodic accuracy and harmony.

Dynamics: The ability to modulate volume and intensity adds depth and emotional resonance to the performance.

Vibrato: A slight oscillation in pitch, vibrato adds a rich, expressive quality to sustained notes.

2. Styles of Clean Singing

Clean vocals in metal can vary widely depending on the subgenre and the individual vocalist’s style. Some common styles include:

Operatic: Characterized by powerful, classically trained vocals, often found in power metal and symphonic metal.

Melodic: Smooth, tuneful singing that emphasizes melody, prevalent in genres like melodic death metal and metalcore.

Aggressive: Clean vocals delivered with a raw, intense edge, frequently used in alternative and nu-metal.

Atmospheric: Ethereal, haunting vocals that create an atmospheric, often gothic soundscape, common in doom metal and black metal.

III.Significance of Cleans in Metal Music

Emotional Range

Clean vocals provide a significant emotional range that enhances the storytelling and thematic depth of metal music. While harsh vocals convey aggression, anger, and despair, clean singing can express vulnerability, hope, and introspection. This contrast allows for a richer, more nuanced musical experience.

Dynamic Contrast

The juxtaposition of clean and harsh vocals creates dynamic contrast, a hallmark of many metal subgenres. This contrast can amplify the intensity of the music, making heavy sections feel more impactful and melodic sections more poignant. Bands like Opeth and Killswitch Engage are renowned for their skillful use of this dynamic interplay.


Clean vocals can make metal music more accessible to a broader audience. For listeners who may find harsh vocals off-putting, clean singing provides a gateway into the genre. Bands that effectively balance clean and harsh vocals, such as Avenged Sevenfold and Trivium, often enjoy a wider fan base.

IV. Examples of Notable Clean Vocalists in Metal

Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden)

Bruce Dickinson is widely regarded as one of the greatest metal vocalists of all time. His operatic style and impressive vocal range have defined Iron Maiden’s sound, contributing to the band’s enduring popularity. Songs like “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “The Trooper” showcase his powerful clean singing.

James LaBrie (Dream Theater)

As the lead vocalist of progressive metal band Dream Theater, James LaBrie is known for his versatile and dynamic clean vocals. His ability to convey complex emotions and technical precision has been a cornerstone of the band’s success. Tracks like “Pull Me Under” and “The Spirit Carries On” highlight his vocal prowess.

Floor Jansen (Nightwish)

Floor Jansen’s operatic and versatile clean vocals have been a defining feature of symphonic metal band Nightwish. Her powerful, emotive singing has elevated the band’s epic compositions, as heard in songs like “Ghost Love Score” and “Élan.”

M. Shadows (Avenged Sevenfold)

M. Shadows blends clean and harsh vocals with remarkable skill, contributing to Avenged Sevenfold’s distinctive sound. His clean singing ranges from melodic and haunting to powerful and aggressive, as demonstrated in tracks like “Seize the Day” and “Nightmare.”

V. The Impact of Cleans on Metal Subgenres

Power Metal

Power metal heavily relies on clean vocals, often characterized by high-pitched, operatic singing. Bands like Helloween, Blind Guardian, and DragonForce epitomize this style, with their anthemic, uplifting songs driven by powerful clean vocals.


Metalcore bands frequently use a mix of clean and harsh vocals, creating a dynamic contrast that defines the genre. Clean vocals in metalcore are typically melodic and emotionally charged, providing a counterpoint to the aggressive instrumentation. Bands like Killswitch Engage and Bullet for My Valentine exemplify this approach.

Progressive Metal

Progressive metal often features complex compositions and diverse vocal styles. Clean singing is a key element, allowing vocalists to explore a wide range of emotions and technical intricacies. Bands like Dream Theater and Opeth showcase the versatility and sophistication of clean vocals in their music.

Symphonic Metal

Symphonic metal combines the grandeur of orchestral music with the intensity of metal. Clean vocals, often operatic and soaring, are integral to this genre, enhancing the epic and theatrical atmosphere. Nightwish and Epica are prime examples of bands that excel in this fusion.

VI. Challenges and Criticisms

Vocal Strain and Technique

One of the challenges of clean singing in metal is maintaining vocal health. The demands of clean vocals, especially in live performances, can lead to vocal strain if not executed with proper technique. Vocalists must prioritize training and care to sustain their performance quality over time.

Genre Purism

Some purists within the metal community may criticize the use of clean vocals, arguing that they dilute the genre’s intensity and rawness. However, the diversity of vocal styles is one of metal’s strengths, allowing for innovation and broader artistic expression.

Balancing Clean and Harsh Vocals

Effectively balancing clean and harsh vocals can be challenging for bands. Ensuring that both styles complement each other and serve the song’s emotional and thematic goals requires careful arrangement and production.

See Also: How Did Led Zeppelin Influence Heavy Metal Music?


Clean vocals are a vital and dynamic component of metal music, offering emotional depth, dynamic contrast, and broader accessibility. From the operatic heights of power metal to the melodic intricacies of progressive metal, clean singing continues to shape and enrich the genre. As metal music evolves, the role of clean vocals remains essential, providing a versatile and expressive tool for vocalists and a captivating experience for listeners. Whether soaring through anthemic choruses or adding a haunting touch to atmospheric passages, clean vocals exemplify the power and beauty of metal music.

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