How Nirvana Writes A Chord Progression | Artists Series S2E2

How Nirvana Writes A Chord Progression | Artists Series S2E2

this episode of the artists series is brought to you by Skillshare when we talk about chords we usually talk about three part harmony and up but that doesn't mean that anything less than that automatically sounds dull so if you've ever wondered what you can do with a simple power chord use your answers what's up everyone freedom offend a snare for holistic songwriting welcome to season two of the artists series where we look at the biggest icons in rock history and what we can learn from them as always let's start with a brief overview on Nirvana's image and the big question what do you think of when you think nor vana once we understand what the band feels like to us we can look at the specific things Nirvana does to trigger these emotions so pause this video now take a couple of seconds to think of three or four key words then come back to me okay you didn't do that anyways lazy well here's the words I came up with number one Seattle if ever there was a city that embodies the character of a band this is it as America's number one most literate city Seattle is known for its progressive lefty ISM and everything that comes with that protons Pro feminism Pro same-sex marriage Pro legalization of marijuana all themes we see in Nirvana as well number two grunge Nirvana reigned in a decade of rock music with a focus on emotions imperfection and slack Erdem a counter movement to the hyper-stylized glam and hard rock bands of the 80's which were more about having a good time and if you were waiting for me to use the word counterculture ISM in this video I will not disappoint number three counterculture ism as with any band that owes its existence to the punk movement of the 1970s Nirvana symbolized the opposite of the perfectly groomed happy-go-lucky that kind of envy people at times who who are blissfully happy and a lot of those people aren't bothered with the complications of knowledge and everything else that life has to offer you know I know a lot of people who are simpletons you know they're very simple that they can enjoy their lives and be totally happy and secure with you know just watching sports on television and being a beer every once in a while you know and I've always felt too complicated so I couldn't envy those people now this reminded me pretentious alert of a quote by Albert Einstein who said that the most important question to face Humanity is is the universe a friendly place because depending on how we answer this question we will use the resources we are given in very different ways in the case of a country this may mean investing its resources in infrastructure and education as opposed to military in music it may mean using our resources chords melodies and such to create something intrinsically beautiful versus something intrinsically broken this is not merely a question of whether we write happy or sad songs it's a question of what our goal is what our message is a lot of Nirvana songs taken out of context sound pretty happy but when you dig a little deeper it is clear that Cobain's view of the world is one of anger and fear and so ultimately these songs come off as sarcastic and snide you know Kurt was a cynical bastard he could be vicious critic I mean I love him but boy to a degree Nirvana is about exposing the shallowness of this simple to music like the intro to territorial pissing 'he's this is poking fun at the 60s hippie anthem let's get together in an interview Nirvana bassist Novoselic says maybe some baby boomers will hear that and wonder what happened to those ideals Nirvana sound is one of rebellion against perfection against the American Dream the music is loud noisy and the timing is wonky the message is we don't want to be part of your perfect little world that doesn't exist anyways so let's take a look at how all of that manifests in the writing of the band and maybe we can connect a couple of these observations asmath almost all Nirvana songs in bloom uses power chords only and won a lot of music theorists sometimes snarl at the idea of using such a simple chord it's not even a chord it's an interval for Nirvana the simplicity opens up a wide range of possibilities for example in bloom starts with this chord progression these chords come from b-flat major with the exception of the a flat 5 but when we get to the verse we've shifted to Phrygian this key change is easily done because we never heard the thirds of the chords in the first place and so the B flat 5 can serve as a pivot chord between these two scales if all these courts were proper triads the key change would have been much more obvious and so the power chords here actually help to smooth out the transition another great thing about power chords is that they give you more freedom in your melody writing first of all you pretty much cannot run into problems with avoid notes and second this [Applause] okay if you didn't catch that here's what happened as we discussed this is the underlying chord progression if we stick to the B flat Phrygian scale these chords should be minor major minor major major but if we look at the melody which by the way moves dramatically cross-referenced the Radiohead video where I explain what effect that has you can see that Cobain hits the major third on the E flat turning what's supposed to be a minor chord into a major chord he does something similar in rape me where through his melody he turns an E flat power chord which should be a minor chord into a major chord thereby changing its gender and yes it would be really amazing if he did that purposefully as some kind of statement on gender fluidity or sexuality but unfortunately that theory doesn't quite hold up considering Kurt Cobain never learned how to read music but it is a cool alternative fact can we hear that Cobain wasn't musically educated there are several things that might give us a clue like his singing technique or the occasional non-functional harmony and then there is how he deals with odd chords in the melody last month we looked at Radiohead and you can hear Thom Yorke's interest in jazz by the way he writes his melodies over complex chord progressions there's a lot of jumps to odd notes which shows that he actually hears the chords in his head in other words he knows what he's doing these jumps create a sense of exploration of other worldliness now whether he knows what the court is called is another question but compare this to Cobain he approaches his odd notes by half-step chromatically which sounds a lot edgier this happens a number of times on nevermind I'm so happy cuz today my friends [Applause] visit me haven't seen then the cliff [Applause] [Applause] and here's another interesting thing when I listen to the court progression of smells like teen spirit the b-flat power chord sounds like it should be a major chord to me which is weird considering that the court from the scale should be a b-flat minor and Cobain even sings the D flat several times of the melody so this song is clearly an F minor but for some reason it has a Dorian feel to it whether four sounds like it should be a major chord here I'll play the full triads for you you decide which you think sounds better and that's another reason why I think power chords are underrated their vagueness lets us fill in the gaps ourselves so essentially this is an early form of 2+2 where the song involves us turns us into co-writers the same can be said for the vague lyrics which do to several statements by the band we're usually finished last minute and don't mean anything but there is something so evocative about these words a mulatto an albino a mosquito my libido that we bring our own meaning to them everyone had several friends in school who loved to discuss what the different Nirvana songs meant to them and from what I can tell the internet is still doing that in the comment sections of the music videos let's look at a few more examples where power chords allow for some interesting moves starting with the lithium the chord progression here starts in D major but switches to D minor halfway through this is acknowledged in the melody by the C sharp and F respectively in drain U which is set in a major kabane shows us both genders of the f-sharp chord first minor and major what effect does this type of melody writing have on you for me it almost feels like a philosophical statement you go through life and do it your way you figure it out as you go there's a sense of not knowing who you are of missing clear harmonic boundaries life throws a lot of weird chords at you and you adapt now speaking of weird chords there is a certain move Cobain likes to make a nevermind that keeps coming back over and over again moving up a minor third often to a chord outside the key and if that seems strange to you considering Cobain wasn't able to read music it's not on guitar it's a matter of moving up three frets it's likely that Cobain discovered that he liked the sound of this and consequently used it in almost all of the songs on nevermind [Applause] haven't seen them Eclair and there's a number of songs where the same harmonic movement happens less noticeably sometimes backwards as on in bloom and sometimes on less stressed moments of the chord progression as in breed lithium and on a plane now in some cases you might be able to argue that this functions as a back to resolution or a mediant but that's not the effect this has on me first of all it doesn't sound functional so calling it a back to resolution doesn't really make sense and it also doesn't have the sense of wonder of a mediant instead it just feels tense it's adding a dark weirdness to the chord progression which to me sounds like these chords actually stem from a diminished scale similar to the opening riff of just by Radiohead if you're interested in more Nirvana's chord progressions I've put together a PDF outlining their formula and listing all the possible chord progressions that stem from this formula if you're on the oldest six on running mailing lists you'll already have this in your inbox if not you can download it right here and know the irony of making a formula out of Cobain's nihilistic approach to harmony does not escape me but even nihilism as its form does if you enjoyed this video please like share subscribe and let me know in the comments which Rock artist you'd like me to do next on this season I can already tell you that we're gonna talk about Muse next month but what comes after is entirely up to you also while you here why not subscribe to the new holistic songwriting live channel where every Monday at 9:00 a.m. PST I take an hour of my time to answer your questions hope to see you on the live chat take care and stay cafe leash we'll wait before you go let me tell you something about our awesome sponsors Skillshare Skillshare is a huge online learning community with more than 17,000 classes the cool thing about them is that with a Premium Membership you have access to all of that there's a ton of courses on songwriting music production singing rapping and various instruments but if you're so inclined you can also learn about Photoshop using a kitchen knife properly or this whatever that is the prices for all of this are very fair to the first 500 people to use the link in the description get a two month premium membership for $0.99 if you want your flyers a website to look better if you want to finally figure out how to overcome your stage fright or how to be more productive you can learn that on Skillshare there's even courses on learning how to learn so if you want to be the smartest guy in the room go click the link in the description for listening

33 thoughts on “How Nirvana Writes A Chord Progression | Artists Series S2E2

  1. Thanks for the free download bundle. Just wanted to let you know that the Taylor Swift PDF shows mostly blank pages and apparently is missing most of it's content. I tried opening in two common PDF preview desktop programs.

  2. This is the worst case of “crawling up your own ass” i have ever seen. Dude, shut the fuck up and enjoy the music!

  3. Another interesting thing from a playing perspective is how sloppy Kurt was… whether intentional or not intentional.

    Power chords played on the E string were often sus4 as they picked up the G string. Power chords on the A string were often major as they picked up the B string. And power chords on the D string were often maj7 as they picked up the B string half a step too low but the E string as a major. You can actually hear Kurt playing a string of maj7th chords between songs in Unplugged in New York. Finally.. often picking up the open B and E strings which would ring consonant or dissonant or anywhere in between as the chords changed.

    The maj7th chord was quite common in other music of the era with Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chili Peppers using them to create dreamy sounds.

  4. Very cool analysis of Kurt Cobain's songwriting. I've always loved his use of chromatically ascending or descending vocals melodies. One thing that no one ever seems to point out is Kurt's constant use of sus4 chords on guitar. Of course, this wasn't entirely intentional. If you notice how he played his power chords on guitar, he always used his first finger and ring finger only, yet he played more than just the lowest three strings. Take the first chord of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" – it's not exactly an F5, but an Fsus4, his ring finger extended to the 3rd fret of the G string, playing a Bb. In fact, any power chord he played with it's root on the E-string almost always was rendered in the sus4 form. Although the addition of this sus4 note obviously wasn't intentional, Kurt subconsciously realized its inclusion and enjoyed the tension that the note added to his songs. For example, take the chorus of "Come As You Are" – the "memoria" part, F#sus4 to A major (not A5, his power chord unintentionally adds the C#). This part would not have that tension if he simply played F#5 to A5. Although you can argue that this was just a consequence of Kurt's sloppy guitar playing, let's take a look at an even better example: the verse of "Dumb", all barre chords (tuned down 1/2 step) Esus4, Amaj, Gsus4, Cmaj with the sus4 or maj note purposely picked out, not just sloppy guitar playing.

  5. Can you please do Marc Bolan T-Rex? His music totally fascinates me, how he merges so many genres together into an album or even one song. And his guitar work sounds very unique. An album of his I particularly love that's full of musical depth is the expanded re-issue of "Zinc Alloy"

  6. Music comes from the heart not a piece of paper. You can breakdown a song musically but it wasnt written that way. Just like mathematics everything we do , can be broken down to math, but did we do it with math in mind, most of the time no
    It came naturally. A true musician who writes from the heart separates himself from a musically trained musician. You cant reproduce talent.

  7. This is how smart people analyze art. But the artist didn't think that far, they were just tasty and creative. Done deal.

  8. The Radiohead short video dealing with chord sequences was interesting. Would very much like to hear your take on British band Muse.

  9. what’s more impressive: someone who learns all the music theory and puts it to use or
    someone who just instinctively knows it?

  10. I almost met Dave over the weekend. I wanted to ask him about nirvana's writing 🤣🤣

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