Analysis of Nirvana Songs Part 3

For today’s entry I’m going to continue to examine how the minor triad and minor seventh chord play a key thematic role in Kurt Cobain’s songs.

We’ll start with the melody from “High School” from the band’s debut album Bleach. Here’s the melody verse (notes on top representing the notes of the melody):

G                                                    E             D

“Wouldn’t you believe it, it’s just my luck” x 4

And the chorus:

B                                 (A G)     B

“No recess! No recess!      No recess!”

Here again we have a minor seventh arpeggio, this time E minor seventh, and descending starting from G (the 3rd of the chord):

G – E – D – B

This incidentally is the same melodic pattern found in the verse melody of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, in which the contour of the melody is altered to hide the pattern by the ascending major sixth interval from G to E.

However in “High School”, the final note of the pattern (B) doesn’t occur until the chorus, and it is sung up an octave (up a major sixth from D to B). This has a cathartic effect, as listeners of the song will be aware of.

This is an interesting concept, and it relates to the technique of creating tension and delaying its resolution. In this case, we have a simple melodic pattern, a descending minor seventh arpeggio, but the final note is withheld until the chorus of the song, after the first three notes of the pattern have been repeated four times.

The human mind is very good at subconsciously picking up patterns, and the technique of setting up a pattern, which we may not even recognize yet because it is incomplete, and then completing it, is an effective way of gaining a listener’s attention. Whether or not the listener is consciously aware of the pattern (which in 99% of cases he or she is unaware) is far less important than the fact that a pattern is present and presented in an interesting or innovative way.

 Just pause and think for a moment how many different ways you could take a simple melodic pattern, like a minor seventh arpeggio or anything else, and rearrange, stretch, split apart and juxtapose it to create a song. The possibilities are virtually limitless!

Cobain seemed to have a natural affinity for the minor triad, and it’s counterpart the minor seventh chord. In classical music, among 19th century or ‘romantic’ composers and theorists in particular, the major triad is often considered to be the chord of ‘nature’, since it naturally occurs in the overtone series (any vibrating string or air column vibrates in a complex pattern that produces the same combination of notes in a major triad, even though we can only consciously hear a single note, called the fundamental). It can also be said to represent the divine, since God is who is attributed with creating nature, and thus a state of perfection or completion.

The minor triad is said by others to be the chord of ‘man’ (or humans in general to use non-gender specific language), and can be interpreted as representing human mortality, moral imperfection, and conflict, as humans often find ourselves in conflict with both nature and our own inner drives.

I believe Cobain also liked to heighten the sense of conflict or ambivalence in his music by superimposing melodic arpeggios of minor chords different from the tonic (or root note) in his melodies and chord progressions. One of his favorite methods is outlining the iv or subdominant chord in a song’s chord progression.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an obvious example, “Come As You Are” from the same album is another one. Look at these simple two chord patterns from different sections of the song:

||: E- | G : ||

||: A- | C :  ||
“and I swear that I don’t have a gun”

The song is in E natural minor, and again we have a minor seventh arpeggio of the subdominant or iv chord, A minor, being outlined:

E G A C or A C E G

In this case the pattern ascends starting from the E or fifth of the A minor seventh chord.

Another song in E minor, “About A Girl” from Bleach also features an outlined A minor seventh arpeggio in the chord progression:


||:  E- G : ||


||: C#5 G#5 | F#5 : || E- | A- C ||

Note that the verse immediately follows the chorus, so A- C is followed by E- G, which of course outlines an A minor seventh arpeggio in root position (A C E G).

The interesting thing about Cobain’s music is he often avoids moving from the subdominant chord or region (e.g. IV or ii) to the dominant or V chord region.

I – IV – V is the natural overarching harmonic progression in common practice (i.e. ‘classical’) music, and many genres of popular music (including pop, country, and many jazz standard). He tends to move directly to the IV back to the I chord or tonic. It seems that he intentionally avoids writing music with that sound, and instead favors more bluesy.

When I was studying harmony in university, before I discovered the significance of the minor subdominant chord in Cobain’s music, I remember attempting to analyze Nirvana songs and not being able to make sense of them. Most music went from I to IV to V, and this just sounded right. Nirvana songs didn’t do that, but they still sounded right.

My theory now is that Cobain, either consciously or unconsciously, was deliberately avoiding writing music that sounded like the pop songs he heard on the radio, and instead opted for a darker sound, perhaps because he thought this better reflected his life experience, or was a more truthful portrayal of human life in general.

In any event, using minor triads as an underlying architectural device, he was able to both create the mood he wanted and give his music a sense of unity and coherence, which is often lacking in songs that don’t rely on the I IV V chord pattern.

When I first discovered this about his music, I was awestruck. This is someone who is often considered to be a musical genius, but no one had really been able to articulate why that may be. I felt I had finally understood why, at least in part.

He may not have been a genius in an academic or scientific sense like Albert Einstein, but like Einstein he looked at his chosen field in a way nobody else did, or so it seems. And for someone who probably couldn’t read a note of music, the deliberate technical devices he employs are all the more remarkable, especially considering his music sounds almost deliberately uncontrived.

I will most likely analyze more of Nirvana’s music in the future, since there are other patterns he employs, but I think this will conclude this series. You get the idea of how a number of Nirvana’s most well known songs are constructed, and you can continue to analyze them and others on your own, if you are able.

I hope you enjoyed reading this series, it was a great pleasure for me to be able to share some of the things I had learned while studying this music years ago.

Until next time,


5 Responses to Analysis of Nirvana Songs Part 3

  1. Michael says:

    Hey Bryne, thanks for your insight! It is great reading about these different ways of approaching a song and Kurt Cobain is a genius. Look forward to reading more about it!

    • brynecarruthers says:

      Thanks Mike! Cobain was indeed a genius, glad you enjoyed my nerdy ramblings on some of his better known songs.

  2. Fred says:

    Awesome post! As Nirvana has been my favorite band of all times since I was 11 years old in 91′ I find this so freaking interesting. On top of that it was because of Nirvana I started to play/make music myself in the first place actually, not long after the release of Nevermind. I don’t have an education in music so I don’t exactly understand everything but after a few Google searches I can understand some more of it anyways. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me that I’m not educated in music, in fact it has never been my goal to get educated in music, it probably has to do with some teenage punk rock mentality when it comes to music I guess and when I was younger and from the scene I’m from it wasn’t really “cool” to be educated in music so over the years it hasn’t been of interest. But it has started to interest me more and more over the last couple of years, I think it has to do with the understanding of just because you know things theoretically it doesn’t mean that you always have to apply them in the music you’re making. I think that was one of the fears I had when I was younger, like I tought I’d be trapped if I learned something and the freedom to play how the heck I wanted was going to be affected by education. Rebellious teenager you know, haha.

    Sorry for rambling on about myself. However, it’s really interesting to see that there is actually more patterns and stuff like that in Nirvanas music too than I thought at first. To non-educated me it have always felt like they played their music with almost no rhyme or reason, not following the “rules” so to speak but yet could make it sound so beautiful. In my opinion Kurt was a genius when it comes to making melodies over just a few simple chords. It has hooks and it gets stuck in your brain very easily. Less is more is a really powerful weapon sometimes. That and of course the voice of his is the two main strengths of Nirvanas music in my opinion. Of course I’ve seen a few patterns in Nirvanas music over the years but not like this. So this post is highly appreciated as I could never do this kind of analysis myself. So thank you for this! I really hope for more nirvana posts in the future!

    / Fred (English is not my native language but I hope it’s understandable anyways.)

  3. ryan says:

    All three of these Nirvana analysis pieces are stellar, Bryne. You’e articulated something that I’ve been trying to demystify for years. Please do another Nirvana analysis. I’m curious to see what other patterns you’ve picked up on. Thanks!

  4. Alexis says:

    I can´t figure out how he could compose such songs without knowing anything about theory. Just punching chords and see what happen? Even if he was taking parts of existing songs and learning the basic chords, I can´t realize how he followed the patterns.

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