According to legend, goth originated in the Batcave Club in Soho, London, United Kingdom, which existed in the brief period between 1982 and 1985. Hollow-voiced and black-haired, the bands that performed there chanted gloomy lyrics of decay and Thatcherite emptiness over foregrounded bass lines.
Their audiences revelled in this musically expressed misery and dressed in spectacularly Gothic ways. The Batcave Club as well as the artists performing there ― among whom Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, and Alien Sex Fiend ― have become canonised as Goth.
Since Goth’s early years in the Batcave Club, the subculture’s musical style has developed in a great variety of directions. The Batcave Club old school style, which combined post-punk, glam rock, and new wave, evolved into among others darkwave, electronic body music, dark industrial, gothic rock, deathrock, gothic metal, mediaeval gothic, neofolk, pagan folk, apocalyptic folk, gothabilly, cybergoth, aggrotech, and hellektro.
The list is incomplete: there are as many Goth musical substyles as there are goth clothing styles. Like its visual self-fashioning, the scenes musical identity is marked by what Paul Hodkinson has called “consistent distinctiveness.”
The persistent gothness that characterises these varied musical styles tends to be described both in visual and in musical contexts as “dark.”
While black clothing and makeup are evidently an overarching characteristic of Goth, their musical equivalent is harder to pin down: what is musical darkness?
Comparative analyses of a range of Goth substyles show that these styles share a common compositional and productional basis: they each show a preference for minor keys and church modes, descending melodies, foregrounded bass structures, heavy echo and reverb effects, and slow to moderate tempos.
These musical means are consistently used to convey gloomy lyrical themes such as isolation, nostalgia, undeath, and various types of hauntedness. Although these harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements share historically developed connotations of sadness, and as such contribute to a recognisable musical gothness, they are not the key ingredient of the consistent distinctiveness of goth music.
Gloomy lyrics, after all, also occur in every second pop or rock song, and so do minor keys; the church modes are also used in any guitar-dominated genre of popular music; ballads in any genre is marked by slow tempos and descending melodies; the foregrounding of bass structures can also be heard in such varied styles as punk, metal, and electronic dance music; and reverb effects are popular in reggae, dub, and metal also.
The Goth quality of “musical darkness,” therefore, cannot be defined by any one of these compositional choices, nor even by their consistent combination.
There is something else, a part of music that is not harmony or melody or rhythm but that is vital for musical aesthetics, something that is as shady as Goth is.
There is a difference between two utterances of the same minor harmony, the same descending melody, and the same slow rhythm at the same volume: that difference determines whether the one utterance is experienced as Goth while the other one is symphonic, or metal, or indie.
This difference is timbre, a musical quality that is just as ephemeral as the alleged darkness of Goth itself: it is defined ex negativo as the difference between two tones with the same pitch and volume. Certain timbres are able to add a consistent distinctiveness to Goth’s gloomily connoted musical means of expression. It is timbre, the double negative of musical difference itself (that which is indescribable through what it is not), that renders goth music “dark.”
All of the genre’s substyles explore the variegated expressive capacities of timbre, experiment with new tone colours, and juxtapose contrasting shades of sound. Harpsichords and church bells, harps and bodhráns, radio static and analogue crackle add their own flavours to traditional rock sonorities.
Hollow, booming, tormented, and distorted voices test the expressive limits of pop and rock vocal performance. Timbre-defining manners of articulation, such as flageolet, pizzicato, and glissando redefine instrumental performance in popular music.
Musical textures as thick as industrial concrete or as ethereal as elven air provide three-dimensional timbral spaces in which melodies or rhythms roam. Timbrally orientated production techniques such as equalisation, amplification, sequencing, and planning are able to mould existing sounds into unexpected nuances of colour.
The effects of these goth timbres can be further increased or intensified by one of the genre’s favourite timbral manipulators: reverb.
Goth is, in fact, defined first and foremost by its timbre. The most often-heard description of goth music ― that it is dark ― is more accurate than it would seem.
The haziness of the description notwithstanding, when subcultural participants, journalists, and academics refer to this music as dark they do refer to a very specific aspect of its sound.
This particular aspect is timbre, the elusive musical quality of difference that is simultaneously crucial for aesthetic perception and does not allow for any more descriptive precision than that of subjectively coloured adjectives. Because of its aesthetic privileging of timbre, Goth music offers a rare view on this under-theorised musical parameter.
The genre puts timbre on an aural petri dish: an understanding of the darkness of Goth timbre can lead to a better understanding of timbral difference and aesthetics in other kinds of music.