Analysis of Nirvana Songs Part 1

For today’s entry I’m going to do a brief partial analysis of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, written by the late Kurt Cobain.

This song was hugely popular back in the early 90s, and many music critics would argue it helped usher in an entirely new era of popular music, variously labeled as ‘grunge’ or more broadly ‘alternative’ music.

Could it be that Nirvana was just in the right place at the right time, or could there be more to it than that?

Let’s look at the opening chord progression of the song, which is also used in the verses and choruses:

Nirvana Analysis pt1 img1

On the surface this appears to be a sequence of ascending perfect 4ths separated by a minor third:

Nirvana Analysis pt1 img2

In other words this sequence outlines an ascending minor third interval:

Nirvana Analysis pt1 img3

This is a very common chord pattern in Kurt Cobain’s music (About a Girl,  Polly, etc.)

But I think there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

If the all the root notes of the opening chord progression are rearranged, they form a Bb minor seventh chord:

            | Bb  Db  F Ab |

This is interesting because the song is in F natural minor (key signature identical to Ab major), yet it outlines a Bb minor chord, which is the subdominant or iv chord of the key of F minor, rather than the tonic or i chord. With the chord progression starting on F-, it clearly expresses the key of F minor, but it seems to lack a sense of resolution. This may be interpreted as creating a sense of tension or feeling conflicted.

This illustrates one the principles of writing good music: purposefully creating tension and then delaying or avoiding its resolution.

This principle applies to all arts I believe. In film for instance, we all want resolution, namely the hero to save the day and win over the girl, but not until the end of the movie. Thwarted desires and plot twists are what keeps the action going.

Now let’s move on to the melody of the verse, which is underpinned by the same chord progression as the intro and chorus.  Right now we’ll look at only the first four notes:

Nirvana Analysis pt1 img4

What is fascinating about this melody fragment is these notes form an F minor seventh chord. This can be better illustrated be rearranging the notes as follows:

| F Ab C Eb |

This would seem that exciting since we are in the key of F natural minor, and these notes are sung over a F- Ab chord progression, which fits these chord changes.

But remember, that the notes of the chord progression also follow a minor seventh chord, except starting on Bb. So in other words, the root progression and the first four notes of the main melody in the verse are based on the same interval pattern, but in a different order and played a perfect fourth apart.

This is disguised somewhat by the contour of the verse melody, note that the F descends by a +6 to Ab, rather than ascending a -3, which would be simple melodic sequence of an ascending -3 separated by a perfect fourth.

Lets look at the rest of the melody in the verse:

F Eb Db C  |  Db C Bb Ab | (Bb) C Bb Ab G |

With the exception of the bracketed Bb note, this part of the melody consists of a sequence of three stepwise descending patterns outlining a perfect fourth.

This is a similar pattern to the main thematic unit, the minor seventh chord. Note that if you substitute one note in the above pattern you get a minor seventh chord:

F Eb (Db) C | F Eb (Ab) C or F Ab C Eb

I want to move now to the bridge chord progression (which is all ‘power chords’):

||: F5  (E5 F5) Gb5 |  (F5 E5 F5) Bb5 Ab5 :||

Note that I’ve put some of the chords in brackets. It’s the roots of the chords outside the bracket I want to look at:

| F Gb Bb Ab |

If you rearrange these notes you get the following familiar pattern:

| Bb Ab Gb F |

A descending stepwise pattern outlining a descending perfect fourth, the same pattern as the second part of the verse melody. In fact these four notes here coud be thought of as properly beginning the sequence in the verse melody, since the above pattern ends on F, which the pattern in the verse starts on.

Now it may be that I’m just over analyzing this music and finding patterns I want to see in order to confirm assumptions or biases I have about music in general or about Kurt Cobain’s songs.

But if you humor me for just a second, this seems to illustrate another principle of writing great music: Economy of thematic material.

Great songwriters and composers are often kind of lazy, they like to use the same thematic material over and over again in a piece of music, but they often they like to disguise this fact by making slight changes to their themes, e.g. changing the order or the contour of the notes.

If you analyze a fugue by J.S. Bach for instance, he often uses the same two or three melodic themes over and over again, playing them against each other in many different ways. A great example of this is the C minor fugue from book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier (i.e. the ‘CBC’ fugue).

Now I’m certainly not comparing Kurt Cobain to J.S. Bach on the level of musicianship. Bach was a virtuoso on the organ and a highly learned musician, while Cobain was more of a hack on guitar and most of his musical knowledge came from magazines like Guitar Player.

But the idea of taking a musical theme and using it repeatedly, sometimes in bold and innovative ways, is a habit that many great musicians share, Bach and Cobain included.

The thing that I find fascinating is that Cobain’s music is very direct, visceral, and in many ways anti-intellectual, or even anti-virtuoso.

But looking at the way this song is structured, it appears to be very deliberately structured, and quite advanced technically for a lowly ‘grunge’ song.

It could be pure chance how the melodic patterns in this song are used, but it seems unlikely to me that this would be purely unintentional, since Cobain was such a committed musician and his songs are regarded to be of consistently high quality, which is rare among artists (Lennon and McCartney would be another example of this). Most artist write a few great songs, many of moderate quality, and a few really bad ones.

This raises the question of what makes a song popular in general.

Cynics would say its simply whatever is marketed most, whatever our ears are the most bombarded by on radio, TV, in stores, in bars and nightclubs.

There certainly may be some truth in this.

Others, many of whom are musicians, would suggest that it may have to do with something the way the music is structured. Some music simply resonates with more people.

This may be due to chance, perhaps arbitrary quirks of culture, or it may be that some artists have a sort of extra-sensory perception that tells them how to create great music, or at least know something is great when they hear it.

I tend to believe that music is one of the most direct forms of emotional expression and communication, and that it expresses in sound the language of emotion, which is gesture, or signifying motions. Musicians who write consistently good music are able to understand and ‘speak’ in this proto-language as if it were their native tongue.

But that is a subject of discussion for another time!

In summary ,there are two intervals in this song that are of primary thematic importance: the perfect fourth and the minor third; these are the building blocks of the song’s two thematic motifs: the minor seventh arpeggio and four descending stepwise notes outlining a perfect fourth.

The way these themes are used in this song illustrates two points about creative process as it applies to both music and the arts in general: the purposeful use of tension and its delayed or avoided resolution; and the economy thematic material, which is often employed by disguising and rearranging those themes.

Certainly luck is involved whenever a song or piece of music is successful, but it’s probably also because the composer is employing the kind of techniques and principles I’ve described above. Smells Like Teen Spirit was pretty darn successful back in the early 90s after all.

You don’t have total control over whether your music is successful or not, but you may be able to shift the odds in your favor by consistently doing the right things.

Until next time.


One Response to Analysis of Nirvana Songs Part 1

  1. Pingback: Iconic Songwriters – Jordan Griffiths

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