Recording of Student’s Lyrics Set to Music

In my last entry I posted the melody we composed collaboratively at the second workshop for the music theatre students at Thousand Islands Secondary School, based on the lyrics to William Blake’s “The Tyger”. This poem was presented as an example of lyrics featuring a consistent meter and which would be ideal for setting to music in a short period of time, which we were able to do in a matter of minutes.

In the first workshop I played for the first time a piano arrangement of lyrics written by one of the students, which I had worked on during the weekend before. I had promised to do a live demonstration of setting lyrics to music in the class, but the meter of these lyrics was a little too irregular to work out the timing of the words “live” in class. I liked the lyrics a lot so I took the time to set them to music on my own.

For today, I made a quick ‘scratch vocal’ recording of the song, which is posted below with the lyrics.

This helps illustrates the process of setting lyrics to music for a client. Once I’m given a copy of the lyrics, I compose the melody first, then add the chords. I then meet with the client to perform the music and get his/her feedback. Once the music has been approved or after changes have been implemented, I record what is called a ‘scratch vocal’ track, which is just a bare bones recording of the vocals and accompaniment on piano or guitar. When I was working at Parks Alberta, the interpreters (the employees who would write and perform the musicals I wrote the music for) would have to be ready to perform their musical productions within 2-3 weeks after the music was first heard, so this recording would help them learn the words early on. It is also helpful to record the song early on to work out the timing of the vocal melody.

So here’s the song:

“HOW A SECRET SPREADS” (lyrics by Noah)


I told Sarah And Rebecca

And Sarah’s kept it so I know

But Rebecca, (she’s a gossip)

And soon enough she let your secret go.

She told the barber,

And the baker,

And that surly old hat-maker

And his friend from across the pond

He told the chemist

And the medic

And the man who lives above Jeannette

The one whose face is unnaturally oblong

– Mary! I told you not to tell anyone!

Are those the only people who know?

Mary – Umm

He told his plumber

Then his sister

And the burly man that kissed her

And the girl that never wears the same hat twice

She told her dentist

And her handyman

But no one really quite as grand

As the girl that told it to the bishop’s wife

  Since the lyrics are a work in progress, the next stage would be to adapt the final version for piano and vocals. Then a draft of a recorded version (featuring whatever other instruments were decided upon) would be prepared for the client to hear. The key of the song may be adjusted at this point to suit the singer, then the final instrumental version would be produced. Once it was completed, a ‘guide vocal’ version would be prepared for the singer to learn the song. In this case, with luck the song will be featured as a part of  a musical that the class will perform, which would be a lot of fun I imagine.

Until next time,


William Blake’s “The Tyger” Dance Remix!

I’m happy to announce I did a couple workshops last week for the music theatre students at Thousand Islands Secondary School here in Brockville. I brought in my iMac and piano keyboard to show the students how I go about creating music. Using music commissioned by Parks Alberta as examples, we learned how to set lyrics to music, adapt a piano arrangement for orchestra, and how to produce a brief musical idea into a dance music track. The students were awesome, and I had a blast teaching and performing my music.

During the second workshop we applied what we learned about setting lyrics to music and wrote an original melody for William Blake’s “The Tyger” as a class.

This weekend I was working on setting lyrics to music for a client, and after I finished, as promised, I took the original melody to William Blake’s “The Tyger” we composed last week and did a quick instrumental dance remix.

Here’s the melody we came up with for piano:

And here’s the dance remix I did this evening:

If you want to follow along with the words, here’s the lyrics of the song written and illustrated by William Blake himself (click on image to enlarge):

"The Tyger" by William Blake (poem)

I was planning on posting an mp3 of a piano arrangement I did for a student’s original lyrics but the recording wasn’t up to snuff according to my ears so I’ll have to redo it and post it another time.

Thanks again to Sam Crosby and Shawn for their support, encouragement, and assistance! And thanks to the students for being eager and willing participants. I’m happy to answer any questions about the workshop and I can be reached by email at brynecarruthers(at)

Have a good evening.


Nevermore! – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” Set to Song

I love setting words to music.

This Saturday morning I felt the urge to take a stab at Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. I had an inkling of how the melody might go, but I wanted to do a bit of research before I got started.

I had memorized the first few stanzas of the poem back in grade 8 after seeing an adaptation of it on The Simpsons for their Halloween special. At the time I had little idea what the poem was about, and hadn’t thought much about it since, so like a good musicologist,  I read the entry on Wikipedia (lulz).

Apparently it is about a young classics scholar pining over his deceased girlfriend. One interpretation states he has been reading occult texts on black magic (‘many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’) in a vain attempt to bring her back to life and goes mad in the process (i.e. seeing a talking bird that wasn’t a parrot).


“Off your meds again Homer?”

This seemed a subject ripe for song to me!

With all the references to the occult and witchcraft, the key had to be Eb minor, which is the colour of midnight blue and evokes a sense of deeply melancholic longing. Think the first few measures of Coleman Hawkin’s solo on  “Body and Soul” (0:09 in the video below) or the main theme to Thelonius Monk’s masterpiece “Round Midnight” (0:32 respectively).

Once the mood was set, I then banged out a melody and piano arrangement of the first two stanzas (keyboard style, closed position of course, as my students would know), and recorded a quick  version for voice and piano  (below, with lyrics for your convenience and edification):

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
            Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore —
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
            Nameless here for evermore.

piano with voice:

©2013 Bryne Carruthers

piano only:

©2013 Bryne Carruthers

This is all I have time to do right now, but it would be fun to adapt the whole poem to music and then possibly arrange for orchestra. I’ve also got a couple William Blake poems (including “The Tyger”) that I melodicized a while back that could use a piano arrangement and might be worth sharing. So much music, so little time, alack and alas!


Night night folks

Until next time,


I Stole That Tune Fair and Square! – Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” Quick and Dirty Dance Remix


“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” — Igor Stravinsky

It’s no secret: musicians have been pilfering each others musical ideas since times immemorial.

The most notorious example of outright musical intellectual property theft in the 20th century arguably occurred on Led Zeppelin’s first few albums, where they covered numerous songs by blues artists, folk musicians, and others… without crediting them. After a series of court battles the songs were thankfully credited to the original artists. They are still one of my favourite bands ever, they just started out more like a cover band.

Jimmy page1

“Willie Dixon? Never heard of ’em”

But its not just rock musicians who plunder other musicians’ tunes.

The “Ode to Joy” theme from Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony #9, 4th Movement, sounds astonishingly similar to a melody by Mozart from “Misericordias Domini” (listen to the strings at 1:00):

It doesn’t stop there: Mozart ‘borrowed’ the following theme (C -D – F – E) featured in his Jupiter symphony from J.S. Bach’s E Major fugue from Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier, who borrowed it from J.K.F. Fischer’s E Major fugue in Ariadne Musica (a collection of preludes and fugues for organ in various keys that largely inspired Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier). I remember reading in a book one of my professors lent me that Fischer got that theme from somewhere else, possibly Frescobaldi. Heavens knows who he may have lifted it from.

Beethoven Bust

He stole it fair and square

To be fair to Beethoven and Mozart, in cases such as these where a musical theme may have been consciously borrowed from another composer’s work, it may be more accurate to interpret this as a gesture of tribute to the original composer. That’s what I keep telling myself anyways.

Back to Stravinsky, who’s most widely known work is probably the “Rite of Spring” (based on melodies derived from Russian folk songs no less, but I digress) which was featured in Disney’s Fantasia in the segment depicting the Earth’s prehistory including the extinction of the dinosaurs. Familiarize yourself with the opening melody if you will:

I have a theory that in many instances where a song is a hit, it is because the songwriter either consciously or unconsciously (I’ll give him/her the benefit of the doubt here) took another well known tune and rearranged it in some manner.

For instance, I’ve long believed that the first few measures of the keyboard melody from “No Quarter” by Led Zeppelin is based on the opening theme from Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”. Listen and decide for yourself:

I also have a hunch that the theme from the Halo video game series is also based on the initial theme in “The Rite of Spring”. Listen closely to the second phrase:

massa chief

“Sorry Igor”

In the spirit of taking Stravinsky’s above quoted musical advice a little too literally, I thought it might be fun to attempt a dance remix using Stravinsky’s theme. Here’s a quick and dirty excerpt I cooked up one morning:

(©2013 Bryne Carruthers and Igor Stravinsky)

It uses a variation of the aeolian progression bVI-bVII-i that seems to be quite popular among dance hits in recent years (think Ke$a’s “Tik Tok” or LMFAO’s “Party Tonight” for the reverse progression) which is of course why I stole.. I mean used it here.

Many musicians and non-musicians alike no doubt feel that the trend in the past two decades of ‘sampling’ and ‘remixing’ other musician’s songs and recordings has signaled a decline in artistic quality in contemporary music in general. It may indeed be true, but this ongoing process of musical appropriation is almost certainly as old as humanity itself, if not considerably older (in other species), and advances in technology have seemed to not only accelerate this existing process but also make its occurrence much more obvious than it may have appeared before. That’s my theory at any rate.

With that said, I extend my apologies to Igor, but nonetheless, I stole that tune fair and square!

Until next time,


What Avril Lavigne Doesn’t Want You to Know About Her Songs: The Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression Revisited


Avril, we’re onto you.

In today’s entry I’m going to delve into how the ‘Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression’ got its name (see previous entry on subject), and why anyone would want to know about this.

When I was 15, my sister gave me a book of Frank Zappa guitar solos for Christmas. I had only been playing guitar for about a year, and it was a little too advanced for me at the time (it was transcribed in painstaking detail by guitar virtuoso Steve Vai), but it was a cool gift and made a lasting impression, though perhaps not in the way my sister intended.

One of the songs in the book was entitled  “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression”. This tongue-in-cheek title referred to the ubiquitous ii – V chord progression, which Santana employed in two of his most famous hit songs, “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va” (and possibly countless others, I’m not much of a Santana expert).


Carlos sez: “Franz Schubert died penniless and I made millions playing the same two chords over and over “

Years later, when I heard the same chord progression (iv-IV-I-V) in two of Avril Lavigne’s hit songs (“Complicated” and “My Happy Ending”) I decided to name it the ‘Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression” (since to do something that uncreative you’d have to believe it was going to make you a ton of money and hope no one would notice). I had of course heard it previously in countless other alternative rock hits from the 90s, but this title had a nice ring to it. It was also a sort of tribute to Frank Zappa, one of my all-time musical heroes for his ability to write songs about seemingly any subject, no matter how vulgar or absurd (notable tracks include “The Muffin Man” and “Why Does it Hurt When I Pee?”).



I should make the distinction here that when this chord pattern occurs in Avril Lavigne’s songs, it begins on the 6th or submediant scale degree:

||: vi IV | I V : ||

While in many other songs it starts on the tonic chord:

||: I V | vi IV : ||

I suppose I could call this permutation the “With or Without You” or “When I Come Around” progression, since these were probably the biggest hit songs featuring this progression in the 80s and 90s respectively.

“The Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression” however sounds better to my ears, not to mention the fact that you can kind of disguise it by changing the order of the chords, so the title shall remain aptly named.

This progression is one I rarely use when I write music, in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever used it in one of my songs. I tend to rely on variations of the I-IV-V and I-vi-ii-V progressions when I’m writing pop songs, but I also will use variations of the ‘classic rock’ progression (I-bVII-IV) when I’m going for that style (usually when writing something campy).

My goal for this website is to present information that is practical in nature, so as luck would have it, I was working on a melody last night based on the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression, and came up with this:

(©2013 Bryne Carruthers to all you wanna-be swagger-jackers out there)

I didn’t sit down with the intention to write a melody using this progression, I was just playing ‘how I feel’. I like to practice playing the progression to “Pachabel’s Canon” in all 12 keys (this progression is quite enjoyable to play if you’re a keyboardist and music geek like myself) so that may be where this came from (see my previous post on the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression). It helps confirm my inner music-nerd belief that the “Avril Lavigne” progression may ultimately be derived from the descending harmonized major scale that forms the basis of Pachabel’s Canon in D (played below).

So like I said Avril, we are onto you. If I’m starting to use your secret chord progression in my music, it’s probably time to come up with some new @*#$ (cue Zappa’s “Bobby Brown” from Sheik Yerbouti).


Best album ever

Until next time,

Reiki Chant Themes

Today I thought I’d share what I’m up to on my latest recording project.

I have been commissioned to write an album of original music involving setting Reiki chants to music. The music will be used by a Reiki practitioner to play for clients during treatments and to sell as a product.

I chatted with the client on the phone on a Thursday afternoon to determine what her needs were for the project.

There were four short chants to be set to music. Five tracks were needed, four for each chant, and a finale track where all the chants were sung sequentially and repeated 108 times. Each track would be approximately 12 minutes in length, adding up to an hour of music.

I decided that since all the chants would be combined in the finale, I would start by composing a melody based on all the chants as would be presented in the finale.

After I finished talking to the client over the phone, within ten minutes or so I worked out a melody and arranged it for piano. It sounded something like this:

Main Theme excerpt (piano):

I called the client back and played the theme. She seemed quite thrilled with the result.

For the next hour I worked out melodies for the four individual chants by taking melody fragments from the main theme, or just something that was similar in mood (I was not totally strict in this process of deriving melodies from the main theme).

I called back several times during the hour and played piano arrangements of each theme. Again she was extremely pleased. These are excerts from the first and fourth themes respectively:

Cho Ku Rei theme excerpt (piano):

Dai Ko Myo theme excerpt (piano):

I’m currently in the process of drafting piano arrangements for each track. I’ve done an initial draft of about 12 minutes for each song. Once i finalize the piano arrangement, I’ll begin adding other instruments, and once the final instrumentation version, I’ll add the vocals.

My process of making music is usually quite systematic since I like to always be certain of what the next step in the process will be, and to be as efficient as possible in a field where the final results are always unknown. I thought it might be interesting to share how making music can work when producing a project for a client.

Until next time,

The ‘Classic Rock’ Progression

In today’s entry I’m going to discuss one of the most common harmonic paradigms of popular music starting in the mid-to-late 1960s, what I call the ‘Classic Rock ‘Progression. Its direct origins are from blues music, specifically the 12-bar blues. Here’s the progression as it occurs in the last 4 bars of the 12 bar blues progression (in the key of C major):

Classic Rock Prog img1

The progression we speak of is in the first three measures here (G F C). Using roman numeral analysis, this is V – IV – I. In the ‘classic rock’ progression, the key center is changed but the intervals are the same. In the 10th-12th measures of the 12 bar blues progression the third chord is the tonic, while in the ‘classic rock’ progression the first chord is the tonic:


This is what is in what is the called mixolydian mode, the fifth mode of the major scale (the bVII chord is called the subtonic using roman numeral analysis).

Since the intervals are the same in both cases, I consider them to be the same progression. Whether you spell it as V – IV – I or I – bVII – IV can often be rather subjective in some cases, because outside of the context of the 12 bar blues, this progression is somewhat ambiguous in terms of its key center.

This is in stark contrast to the I – IV – V progression, which is the basis of common practice (classical) music (and arguably the majority of popular music in the 1st half of the 20th century in its variation the I – vi – ii – V progression) , which clearly delineates the I chord as being the ‘tonic’ or key note of the progression in sonic terms.

Both in a literal and figurative sense, I – IV – V and the V – IV – I are mirror opposites of each other. They are the same intervals in the reverse order. The former seems to move forward while the latter seems to go backward; the first seems to strongly announce a clear hierarchy of key center, while the other is much more tentative and ambiguous.

The mid-to-late 1960s was a period of great social upheaval, so in some sense the ‘classic rock’ progression can be interpreted as musically demarcating this cultural paradigm shift occurring at the time. Values originating in the ‘enlightenment’ era including faith in rationality, the scientific method, and unchecked technological progress were put into question. This period heralded a return to valuing and respecting mother earth, and placed an emphasis on community over individuality, feeling over thinking, and hedonism over stoicism.

Without reading too much more into this paradigm, the ‘classic rock’ progression is in many ways emblematic of the values of this period of sudden social and cultural change.

It again is found in countless songs from the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s, including “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf; “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lyrnyrd Skynyrd; “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival to name just a few.

The ‘classic rock’ progression however significantly outlasted this period in history, and was still common-place in popular music in the 1990s, examples popular from this time include “3 A.M.” by Matchbox 20 (verse of the song) and “December” by Collective Soul.

Anyone who plays guitar would know many if not countless songs using this progression. It is possible the rise of this progression may parallel the rise of the guitar as the main accompaniment instrument in popular music over the piano, starting in the 1960s. It seems to fall naturally under the fingers on guitar, particularly in the form of D – C – G.

I think I’ll conclude the discussion on the ‘classic rock’ progression here, among many musicians it is considered to be a cliché, but it is extremely important to be conscious of, particularly in contrast to the I – IV – V paradigm, which is the basis of classical music and many other genres of popular music. Knowing how to attribute the differences in sound between these progressions create is extremely important in being able to write music in any style you want. If you want to write something bluesy or in the classic rock idiom, the ‘classic rock’ progression is your musical touchstone. It can also be used as a point of departure if chord substitutions or other forms of musical ornamentation are employed. That however is for another entry.

Until next time,


The Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression

In previous entries, I mentioned that there are certain musical patterns that occur over and over again in songs.

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common chord progressions in popular music, what I call the Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression, or the Avril Lavigne progression for short.

I’ll explain why I call it that in a minute, but here’s what the chord progression looks like:

C | G | A- | F

As a slight variation, it oftens starts on the third chord, but it is essentially the same progression:

A-   | F | C | G

This song was used in literally countless of  ‘alternative’ hits from the 90s. A few examples off the top of my head include “When I Come Around” by Greenday, “Self Esteem” by the Offspring, “Glycerine” and “Machine Head” by Bush X, and “Good” by Better Than Ezra. From the 80s there was of course U2’s ‘With or Without You”.

Surprisingly (or not so much) it still continues to be used in contemporary music today. While I was driving with my friend through the Tim Horton’s drivethrough a couple months ago, three recent songs in a row on the radio had this same progression. Two of them were in the same key!

I call this chord pattern the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression because two of her hit songs in the previous decade featured it (‘Complicated” and the end of the chorus of “My Happy Ending”).  But I could have called it the Lady Gaga progression, because two of her hit songs feature it as well (The choruses of “Poker Face” and “Papparazzi”). I haven’t made an exhaustive list of all the songs this progression is found in, but its in lots.

Why do chord progressions like this keep getting used over and over again, and few people seem to notice?

Well one reason chord progressions are continually reused is, as many jazz musicians learned during the 1940s, you can’t copyright a chord progression. So any chord progression that musicians like (e.g. for the purposes of improvisation) or is commercially successful are bound to be used over and over, forever seemingly, as long as it has a new melody (and lyrics as the case may be).

Back to the “Avril Lavigne” progression, what might its origin be?

If we want to reduce the progression to just I, IV and V chords, the A- or vi chord in the key of see could be seen as a substitution for C, the tonic:

C | G | C | F

So in other words, the G proceeds to A- in the manner of what is called a ‘deceptive’ cadence, where V goes to vi (G to A- respectively) rather than to I (C).  So it may be a rather bland progression with a bit of colour added to it so to speak by the deceptive cadence.

I think there’s something more to it than that however.

One of the most iconic chord progressions in genre of classical music (baroque to be specific) is found in Pachabel’s Canon (shown in C):

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

The underlying musical structure of this is a descending major scale:

C – B – A – G – F – E – D – (D)

The chord progression is essentially harmonization of this descending pattern.

Harmonizing a descending major scale is a very common musical device across many genres, not just classical music.

Take the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, composed by Harold Arlen for The Wizard of Oz, this is probably the most famous example of basing a melody on a descending melodic scale and disguising it by melodic ornamentation in a popular song (I’m not going to do the analysis of that song here but I’m sure if you ‘google’ it you’ll find an apt analysis on some other music nerd’s website).

In any event, my belief is the “Avril Lavigne” progression is an abbreviated version of the progression in Pachabel’s Canon, which is basically a harmonization of a descending major scale. A number of popular songs from the late 60s and early 70s used this progression or close variations of it, including “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harem, “In the Presence of the Lord” by Blind Faith, and “Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes. In the case of these songs the original melodic pattern, the descending major scale, is actually played as the bass line.

Somewhere along the line, musicians just used the first three chords of the Pachabel’s Canon progression, skipped the fourth, and added the fifth chord on the end.

That’s my theory, I’ll leave it to music historians to verify this claim with empirical evidence. Personally I’m more interested in writing music, and no one can deny that the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression is used over and over in popular music, even to this day. I’m not exaggerating this in the least, it is so commonly used that it is almost absurd. If you write music, you need to know this because: A) if you’re trying to do something original you probably want to avoid using it; and B) if you want to write a catchy song, you may want to consider including this progression, only I would suggest trying to disguise it in various ways.

Music that is popular and memorable always features a perfect balance of the novel and the familiar. Remember that great artists, don’t borrow, they steal. In other words, they make it completely their own. So if they ‘lift’ a musical pattern from another successful song, they don’t simply plagiarize it, that’s “borrowing”, which is unoriginal (also illegal if it’s a copyrighted melody). They add their own touch and original flair to it, so often you don’t even know they ‘stole’ anything, let alone who from!

Some people think that analyzing music ruins your creativity. I tend to think that knowing how other music works is necessary in making anything original, otherwise how do you know it hasn’t been done before?

To conclude, the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression is an example of a musical ‘meme’ that, like it or not, and for whatever reason, has been extremely successful at propagating itself, similar to a virus. In my humble opinion, artists should be aware of as many of these memes as possible, if for no other reason than to know whether they are following a trend, or being trend setters.

Until next time,


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,


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,