Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ shifted from minor to major key
As a general rule, songs written in a minor key tend to take on sad, gloomy and somewhat moody intensity while songs in written in a major key translate in the other direction.
Professor Vicky Williamson, of Goldsmiths University Music Psychology department, once said that the association of this content balances between cultural and biological backgrounds. “Scientists have shown that the sound spectra—the profile of sound ingredients—that make up happy speech are more similar to happy music than sad music and vice versa,” she once wrote in a blog post for NME. “It seems to be mostly the result of cultural conditioning,” Williamson clarified.
She added: “When we listen to tunes we rely heavily on our memory for the body of music we’ve heard all our life. Constantly touching base with our musical memory back catalogue helps to generate expectations of what might come next in a tune, which is an important source of enjoyment in musical listening. The downside of this over reliance on memory is that our musical reactions are frequently led by stereotypes.”
The subject of stereotypes leads us conveniently on to Nirvana, the heavy grunge style of the band mixed with Cobain’s angst singing style and use of guitar power chords and low-note riffs set them apart from the rest. Take, for example, their hit song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ which switches between quiet-to-loud dynamics to generate a dramatic sense of rage and angst.
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it,” Cobain once said of the song. “We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard,” he added.
While that remains true, it’s the decision to play the song in minor key that led to its driving force as a major cause for the ends result. To prove this theory, Oleg Berg switched the song from minor key to major key and the difference is astounding.
The track, once anxious and angry, becomes lighter and, in some cases, slightly more ‘jolly’. While we’re not saying it’s an improvement, the result remains interesting.