Analysis of Nirvana Songs Part 2

In my last entry I did a brief, partial melodic/harmonic analysis of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I may write more on the song at a later date, but for this entry I thought I’d talk more about one of the principles I introduced in the last entry: that of thematic economy.

Not only do some artists use the same themes in a song over and over again, many artists use the same themes over and over again in different songs.

If you analyze a lot of music, you end up finding many of the same melodic and harmonic patterns repeatedly. This doesn’t just happen in popular music either, this also happens in jazz and western art music (i.e. ‘classical’).

This may seem surprising  since most people would assume the creative process involves being, well, creative.

Language is similar, we use many of the same words over and over and yet find novel ways to express ourselves.

Being creative is not merely about what patterns or techniques you use, most of the effective ones have been used before, but it’s how you use them.

This is what creates style in music.

Onto our analysis, one harmonic pattern that Kurt Cobain uses in many of his songs is a descending minor triad arpeggio:

nirvana analysis pt2 img1

These are the notes of a D minor triad (D – F – A)  in reverse order starting on A, with each note as the root of a chord.

Two obvious examples of this include “Territorial Pissings” and “Heart Shaped Box”, both of which use this progression for the verse and chorus. The slight variation in these two songs is that in the former, the first interval goes up a minor sixth rather than down a minor third:

nirvana analysis pt2 img2

In “Heart Shaped Box” the pattern is all descending as in the first example but the guitar is tuned down by a half-step so the song is in Db (or C#) minor rather than D minor.

Another less obvious example of this pattern is found in the verse of “In Bloom” from the album Nevermind:

nirvana analysis pt2 img3

The first three notes here are again a descending minor triad apreggio, this case Eb minor (Eb – Gb – Bb) rather than D minor (D – F – A). Unlike the other examples, the third note of the chord (Eb) is approached by ascent, whereas in “Territorial Pissings” the ? is the second note approached by ascent (in this case F).

The last two notes of this progression incidentally has a common melodic device used in jazz that may be called chromatic double neighboring tones. Here the Cb (enharmonically B natural) is the chromatic note directly above the tonic Bb, and A is the leading tone directly below Bb. I guess if it’s good enough for jazz its good enough for Kurt Cobain!

In any event, this is the same chord pattern as in the previous two songs, but with a different melodic contour for the root progression/bass line, and a chromatic neighboring note pattern at the end surrounding the tonic.

But there’s more similarities between two of these songs: “In Bloom” and “Territorial Pissings” not only share the same basic chord pattern, but they also have the same melody, at least in part!

The verse melody in “Territorial Pissings” is a descending A major triad starting.

nirvana analysis pt2 img4 v2

Thematically speaking, this runs in parallel with the descending D minor triad (A – F  – D) that forms the verse chord progression, but whereas the first three notes of the melody are all descending, remember that the bass line ascends from D to F. Also the timing of the melody is different from the bassline.

Again Cobain is using a similar pattern here (a descending triad) but changing the timing and the contour to create what is called counterpoint or independent and interacting melodic lines. The fact that he is combining minor and major triads a fifth apart here creates a sort of bitter-sweet sound.

In the chorus, the melody follows the harmonic rhythm of the underlying chord pattern, but with the opposite melodic contour of the verse melody:

  E – F – F#

(A – F  – D)

In brackets is the bass line/chord progression. Note that the bass line outlines a D minor triad, but the last note of the melody (F#) is the 3rd of a D major chord. This mixing and juxtaposition of major and minor modes is called mixture, and is a commonly used in Kurt Cobain’s music.

An obvious example of mixture from Nevermind  is Lithium:

|| D F#- | B- G | Bb C | A- C ||

Here D major, F# minor, B minor, and G major are all indicative of a D major key signature, whereas Bb major, C major, and A minor are from D natural minor. The song is said to be about someone with bipolar disorder, in this case the major key represents the highs and the minor key the lows.

This illustrates another fundamental principle of creativity: Conflict creates interest.

This is why great artists often use paradoxes, to great effect. I would guess Charles Dickens knew what he was doing when he opened A Tale of Two Cities with:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” etc, etc.

Great songwriters, musicians, and other artists frequently juxtapose conflicting, disparate, or incongruent elements to attract attention. It seems to be part of human nature to pay the most attention to what seems out of place and ignore the ordinary.

But back to Nirvana’s music.

As mentioned previously, “In Bloom” not only shares a chord progression, but also a big chunk of melody with “Territorial Pissings”.

The verse melody of “In Bloom” opens as:

   F  – Db – Bb

(Bb – Gb – Eb – Cb A)

A descending Bb minor triad (chord progression in brackets), again similar to many other Nirvana songs where the melody is based on the same chord pattern found in the chord progression/bass line but a fifth above. Not quite as bold as the verse melody in “Territorial Pissings”. But then look at the second half of the verse melody in “In Bloom”:

   F  –  F#  – Eb

(Bb – Gb – Eb – Cb A)

It’s virtually the same melody as the chorus in “Territorial Pissings”, only a half-step up this time! Two songs from the same album, same chord progression, same melody.

There is a saying that is variously attributed to Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, and others, I really have no idea who came up with it first: Great artists don’t borrow, they steal.

Sometimes apparently they steal from themselves!

To show that Cobain doesn’t just cannibalize his own music creatively speaking, I’ll wrap up by looking at the verse melody to “Heart Shaped Box”:

A (B) C (D) E (D C B) C B A (A)

This outlines an ascending A minor triad (first three non-bracketed notes), which runs pretty closely in parallel to the descending D minor triad in the bass line:

 A – C – E

(A – F – D)

So here Cobain combines two minor triad arpeggios (A minor and D minor respectively) going in opposite directions (i.e. contrary motion), an example of counterpoint or simultaneously occurring independent melodies. But in this case the triad in the melody is disguised by melodic ornamentation including passing non chord tones (e.g. the first two bracketed notes).

The second half of the melody, which occurs when the chord progression repeats, forms a thematic device which is extremely common in classical music, the 3-2-1 melodic pattern, in this case in the minor key:

  C – B  – A

(A – F – D)

This melodic pattern tends to signal resolution, but the major third and the minor seventh of the D chord (F# and C respectively) which are played by the guitar reintroduce a sense of tension by invoking mixture of major and minor keys in addition to the dissonant interval of a tritone between F# and C, which is heightened by the guitar distortion.

In summary, while it may seem uncreative that musicians frequently use the same melodic techniques and thematic devices over and over, paradoxically this is an intimate and inseparable part of the creative process.

The challenge of creating memorable music is not so much in coming up with what’s never been done before, but using what others have already used in innovative ways.

Art is about looking at commonplace things and experiences with fresh eyes.

The creative techniques you use and how you use them form your identity as an artist.

The truth of the matter is, we are all unique individuals, we can never be perfect imitations of anyone else. Even if we attempt to copy someone else’s style wholesale (which I don’t recommend doing, it’s best to study a broad range of great artists), our own individuality will shine through in whatever we create.

So while we can never be 100% original, unless we’re committing outright plagiarism, we can’t be 100% unoriginal either.

Now that’s a comforting thought, isn’t it?

Until next time,


2 Responses to Analysis of Nirvana Songs Part 2

  1. Bliss says:

    Anyway to explain this to the best of your abilities to someone with basically no knowledge of music theory? Im really interested in his melodies and such

    • learn theory man, trust me it becomes much easier once you understand how key signatures work. The walls of music will come down and expose itself to you. You can do that over the weekend easily lol

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