Grandma Take Me Home: finding tonal centers in a song by Nirvana

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Sliver by Nirvana is a song that caught almost immediately the attention of both my ear and my guts. It’s very minimalist, as are most songs by Nirvana, but the musical strength delivered by such minimalism is unique, as with for many songs by Nirvana. I grabbed my acoustic guitar and began to look for the chords. Here’s what I discovered. Sliver is made of two sections, a verse and a refrain. The progression in the verse is ||: C – F | C – A :||, repeated three times. To be technically accurate, I should specify that the guitar plays C5, F5 and A5, that is to say all chords lack a third. But on the acoustic the major triads sound well to me, and I think that Kurt Cobain might have approved. (I will try to justify my choice in more detail later.) The refrain begins on the A-chord (A5 to be precise) and simply alternates it with C (or C5), giving ||: A – C :||, repeated eight times.

So I had found the chords, and somehow re-harmonized the tune on the spot, by adding the major third to each chord. (My final re-harmonization has been different, as I will show.) The next step was figuring out the melody of the vocal. It was a joy to sing the melody. A characteristic mark of Cobain’s vocal lines is their extreme simplicity and their circularity. In this song, the verse and the refrain move through three pitches each: E, G and A in the verse; E, D, and C in the refrain. I was captured by the effectiveness of such simplicity and began tuning my ear more closely, looking for hints that might reveal the secret behind the magic. It did not take me too long to realize that the beauty of Sliver is due to Cobain’s ingenuity in manipulating the simplest music material in unparalleled ways.

When in 1991 the world discovered the music of Nirvana, it was evident that there had never been anything comparable. The strength of the band’s music was largely due to the fact that Cobain had a special ability to make his minimalist melodies work effectively over a bunch of chords apparently unrelated to each other from a tonal point of view. I am not sure if Cobain knew the music theory behind what he did. But that is not important really, because he certainly had a deep aural awareness of his musical choices. You can hear it in the confidence, the expressiveness of his vocals and guitar playing. Kurt Cobain was one of those rare musicians for whom there are no right or wrong notes. Rather, when I listen to Nirvana I have regularly the impression that Cobain considered each note as having its own significance, given the context, and that he focused his musical craftsmanship on conveying that significance. It is also generally apparent that often he found that the sense was stronger if the rules and practices of traditional harmony (classic-rock harmony included) were violated confidently and with wild rage!

So, what’s happening in Sliver? First, what key is the piece in? A number of possibilities come to mind: (1) the song is in C major throughout; (2) the song is in F major throughout; (3) the verse is in C major and the refrain is in A minor; (4) the verse is in C Mixolydian and the refrain is in both A Aeolian and A Aeolian Dominant. Option 1 is especially supported by C5 falling on strong beats and on stronger beats relative to F5. Option 2 is supported by the fact that Bb, and not B, is included in the bass line. Option 3 considers the chords on beat one of each bar as tonic chords, and follows the easiest option of considering A5 as a simplified tonic chord of the minor relative of C. Option 4 takes into account a mix of reasons: in the verse, the use of C5 on strong beats and of Bb instead of B in the bass line suggest F major in general and specifically C Mixolydian; in the refrain, the A5 on strong beats and over it (on the last beat) C in the melody, a note which can be either a minor third or an augmented ninth depending on the quality of the implied triad (if a triad is really implied), make the possibility of a modal interchange real. This modal interchange (between A Aeolian and A Aeolian Dominant) is actually a consequence of the ambiguity of that C at that point.

Do you think that any of these options is good? Or do you have an alternative interpretation? The last option is, as perhaps you have imagined, my favourite, at the moment. I feel that the home in the verse is C, implying a Mixolydian mode, and that in the refrain a mixed A-mode is implied (made of A Aeolian and A Aeolian Dominant). The tune actually ends on C5. But try to play an A5 after it, and finish on that chord instead. Do you like it? Do you feel at home, or not?

As I was saying, I have found my own way of playing this song. The changes that I have made concern the harmonies in the second bar of the verse and the harmonies in the whole refrain. Actually, I believe that these chords are at the core of Sliver, and so the main intention of the re-harmonization is to emphasize this fact.

For the verse, I have found this kind of harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment:

a section

It repeats three times. The chords are C, F, Cadd9, Asus.

For the refrain, instead, I have chosen this line:

b section

This is repeated eight times. The chords are Asus2, C6-9, Em/A, Cadd9. (I note that the guitar is written one octave above the real sounds. So, for instance, the first C in the verse is a C3, and should be played on the A-string, third fret.)

Just try to play these variations on your polyphonic instrument of choice, preferably under the melody, to hear the pairing. I hope that you like it. You may notice that I have avoided the major third on the A chords. That might come as a surprise, after all I have said about such chord-tone. The fact is that, while I think that an A major triad is a good choice, I also wanted to preserve as much as I could of the original feel of the song, and that A chord has a lot to do with that feeling. So, my ear decided not to alter it too much, and to leave it suspended (no third) instead. Perhaps, my ear would be braver the more I listened and played the song. I have found that the more I digest a tune, the better I can find effective variations on it. And sometimes, I just realize that no variation is really necessary!

I must admit that, after all this listening, thinking and reworking, I was still in doubt about that A5. Is it a ‘shortcut’ for an A minor triad? Or, as I have suggested, is an A major triad implied? It occurred to me at this point that perhaps an acoustic version might help me to resolve the question. So I googled ‘Sliver acoustic’ and immediately found this.

Unfortunately, it is even more evident in this case that all the chords are actually so-called ‘power chords’, that is to say bi-chords made of a root and (perfect) fifth. (Note: the guitar is tuned down a semitone in this latter version.) But what if we had had the opportunity to ask Kurt, “What kind of triad would you play, instead of that A5, if you were compelled to do it?” Do you think that he would have possibly given us any answer different from “I am not compelled to do anything at all with my music”? (Add swear words ad lib.) We will never know, unfortunately. However, as I have said, C in the melody over A5 is either a minor third or an augmented ninth relative to A. The latter would be implied by an A major triad. Try to play an A major triad under the vocals at that point. Don’t you agree that it gives a bluesy sound; that C at the end of A major is a nice tone, a ‘grungy blue note’? After all, who says that blue tones must be a sole prerogative of blues?

Well, I hope I have given you enough ideas to keep your mind and your hands busy. Oh, I almost forgot to say something: I don’t just think that Sliver is a piece of good music. I also think that it is a hilarious song! Pay attention to the lyrics and swear that as a child you never thought or said, “Grandma, take me home, please!” (The electric version gives better the sense of desperation, real or imaginary, of little Kurt, by the expressive transposition of the melody up an octave after the second refrain. And, let me say it – what a voice!)

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2 thoughts on “Grandma Take Me Home: finding tonal centers in a song by Nirvana

  1. This is a fascinating post which demonstrates that Pietro F. Lostia not only has excellent skills in the English Language, he also has an excellent grasp of both practical and theoretical music. Bravo!

  2. Too kind! Thanks.

    I was struck by that song. I had certainly heard it already when it was released, in 1992, but many years have passed and I could not remember of it. It has been fun to dissect a punk-rock song!

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