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Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key is an upbeat pop-punk song

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2018

This bent my brain a little: if you re-tune Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key, it sounds like an upbeat pop-punk song. Like, Kurt Cobain actually sounds happy when he says “oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile” and the pre-chorus — “Hello, hello, hello, how low” — is downright joyous. Although I guess it shouldn’t be super surprising…in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, Cobain admits that the song was meant to be poppy.

I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.

“Teen Spirit” was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or “Louie, Louie.” When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, “That is so ridiculous.” I made the band play it for an hour and a half.

Like me, if you don’t know a whole lot about music, here’s the difference between major and minor chords & scales.

The difference between major and minor chords and scales boils down to a difference of one essential note — the third. The third is what gives major-sounding scales and chords their brighter, cheerier sound, and what gives minor scales and chords their darker, sadder sound.

You can also listen to the song on Soundcloud.

See also this falling shovel sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Update: I heard from a few people that the changes made to the song aren’t as straightforward as shifting from minor to major. See this series of tweets by Jesse Appelman.

This is fun and well-executed, but it’s not just Smells Like Teen Spirit transposed as-is from minor to major. They changed the chord progression (from 1-IV-bIII-bVI to I-V-vi-IV) and altered the melody to better fit the chords…

If they had just switched all the minor stuff to major it would sound, well, pretty hilarious but less like a radio-ready pop song. This is not to take away from the joy of this clever reimagining…

…but it’s not quite as simple and miraculous as “change from minor to major and voila!” It’s more like “write new changes and melody while preserving the rhythmic phrasing and general contours/directionality of the original.” Still great stuff and sorry if I un-blew your mind.

And to appreciate the difference between major and minor keys, this six-minute video of Chilly Gonzalez is highly entertaining and worth your time. (via @karolzyk)

Update: On his YouTube channel, Oleg Berg has reworked dozens of songs from major-to-minor or from minor-to-major, including Don’t Worry, Be Happy in a minor key, Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World in a minor key, and the Game of Thrones theme in a major key. Surprisingly, the comments of the GoT theme are pretty good:

Meet Brienne, the beautiful maid of Tarth. Meet Jon, the legitimate son of Ned Stark. Meet Cersei, the queen of hearts. All these characters meet at the Blue Wedding and vow eternal friendship.

Spring is coming

If the plot ran backwards, this would be the theme.

You know everything, Jon Snow.

(via @volapuk)