New Smell: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Craft of Arranging

My thing is change it up completely or leave it alone.” – Robert Glasper

For whatever reason, arranging is seen as a lesser craft than composing. I’ve never really understood this. Granted, composing entails the creation of entirely new material, while arranging depends on previously existing source material. Aside from this, though, I see far more similarities than differences between them, particularly when arranging is done with the same creative spirit as composition. Both have the potential to bring something new and wonderful into the world of music, and a great arrangement can take even the most well known song and transform it into something radically unique and refreshingly relevant.

Take, for example, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is arguably one of the most influential pieces of music of any genre from the past 25 years. Even people who never listen to rock music know this song, and it has been played and covered so often that you can understand if people have grown tired of it. Despite this, there is still fertile ground for creativity within its seemingly constricting bounds. After examining some of the basic musical elements of the original, I will discuss how three unique arrangements of it have given the song new life. All apologies to Paul Anka fans, but his version will not be discussed here.

 

Nirvana:

Released in 1991 on the band’s critical and commercial breakthrough, Nevermind, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” went on to define the angst and mistrust of a new generation.

Form:

The song follows a fairly conventional verse/chorus structure, though a pre-chorus links the two and a short tag follows the chorus. What is unique here is that, with the exception of the tag sections, the same four chords are repeated throughout sections without variation.

Section: Time:
Intro 0:00
Verse 1 0:25
Pre-chorus 0:50
Chorus 1:06
Tag 1:31
Verse 2 1:39
Pre-chorus 2:04
Chorus 2:20
Tag 2:45
Guitar solo 2:53
Verse 3 3:25
Pre-chorus 3:50
Chorus 4:06
Coda 4:30 (- 5:01)

While the structure is common for a rock song, it is a bit longer than usual because it cycles through the entire form three times with a guitar solo (that is basically just a shorter version of a verse and chorus without words). The chorus’ structure is notable in that it is a 12-measure section. Those 12 measures break down into three four-measure phrases, making it asymmetrical. The coda is just an extension of the final chorus with a new vocal hook added to it.

Melody:

You can find a transcribed lead-sheet of the melody (with chords) here. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Cobain’s melody is his use of syncopation and anticipation, which often results in either the suspension of a chord tone from a previous harmony (“Bb” in measure 17 going into measure 18, for example) or an anticipation of the next one (“F” in measure 2, for example). The contour of the melody also stands out, as there is an unusually diverse balance of stepwise motion, leaps, and stasis for a rock song. Also, Cobain’s use of upper extension chord tones (particularly 9th’s) in his melody is noteworthy, though I will elaborate more on this in the next section.

Harmony:

As I mentioned before, the harmony is incredibly static here, repeating a sequence of chords built on scale degrees one (F, or “i”), four (Bb, or “iv”), three (Ab, or “III”), and six (Db, or “VI”) in the key of F minor. Actually, describing the tonality of this song as F minor is slightly misleading, as this progression is more modal than tonal. The chords in this progression do not have a strong tonal function (particularly iv-III and VI-i). There is also no presence of either a dominant-tonic progression or a leading tone, which are both vital tenets of tonal harmony. Furthermore, Cobain’s guitar is intentionally vague in its harmony (the upper extension harmonies provided in this analysis are only implied by the vocal melody in this recording), as he plays exclusively power chords, which are common chord structures used by guitarists that uses an open fifth and omits the pitch a third above the root. In other words, the “F-C” dyad Cobain plays as the first chord could technically be either F major (A added between) or F minor (Ab added). It is only in the wider context of the song (melody, other chords) that the F minor becomes implied.

All of this makes Cobain’s melodic use of upper extensions even more fascinating. Chord 7th’s and 9th’s are usually understood as extensions of tertial harmonies (root-3rd-5th-7th-9th). However, in this context the 9th’s (“C” in measure 3, “G” in measure 17) can be seen as extensions of the guitar’s 5th. Instead of extending above the roots in thirds, Cobain is extending harmony in fifths (Bb-F-C), which helps create the song’s dark, brooding aesthetic.

Rhythm:

While the vocal melody is fairly syncopated throughout, the instrumental parts alternate between a steady, perpetual stream of beat divisions and a syncopation figure that is in contrast with the voice. The verses feature bassist Krist Novoselic providing constant eighth notes on the roots of the progression, while drummer Dave Grohl keeps a simple backbeat groove. The pre-chorus adds a more active guitar line and a heavier drum part, but the rhythms are just as steady. The chorus, however, utilizes more rhythmic activity from both the guitar and drums. The former switches to a syncopated pattern using sixteenth note subdivisions (the vocal line only ever uses eighth note syncopations), while the latter also adds subdivisions to the bass drum. These rhythmic changes give forward motion to the choruses, and they also serve to differentiate them from other sections in lieu of a contrasting chord progression.

Timbre/sound:

In addition to changes in rhythm, sections are distinguished through contrasts in timbres and sounds. This primarily occurs in the switch from a clean guitar sound in the verses to a heavily overdriven sound in the choruses. However, this switch is matched by the increased intensity in both the drums and voice. While Cobain’s vocal timbre is always at least slightly grainy, this distortion becomes amplified during the chorus. This “Light & Shade” approach was popularized back in the 1970’s by Led Zeppelin, but the exaggerated gap in timbral shifts here helped to define the 90’s grunge movement.

 

Patti Smith: 

Of the three arrangements I will discuss, this is the closest to the original. Although Patti Smith is known for her heavier music, this version, which appeared on her 2007 cover album Twelve, features a strong bluegrass vibe, and it is mainly distinguished from the original by its changes in timbre and sound.

Form:

The structure of Patti Smith’s version is very similar to Nirvana’s. This arrangement is in a slower tempo, so the same sections take up more time here. Nearly all of the original sections appear here in the same order:

Section: Time:
Intro 0:00*
Verse 1 0:53
Pre-chorus 1:13
Chorus 1:22
Verse 2 2:01
Pre-chorus 2:20
Chorus 2:29
Verse 3 3:07
Pre-chorus 3:27
Instrumental vamp 3:35
Pre-chorus 3:53
Chorus (extended) 4:10
Coda 4:55 (- 5:29)

* – bass enters at 0:09 with roots of the ostinato progression

The two sections that do not appear here are the tags and the guitar solo; however, the latter is essentially replaced by an extended instrumental vamp that features the collective group of instrumentalists jamming out together. Although the forms are very similar, there are a couple significant yet subtle differences. Both intros use the chord progression of the rest of the song. However, the original uses the version of the progression that appears in the chorus (same guitar/drum rhythms and timbre), while Smith’s version begins with just bass and is a preemptive extension of the verse with its use of the two-note guitar motif. Other changes include an abbreviated pre-chorus (only the final one is the same length as the original) and a final chorus that is extended by repeating lyrics from the chorus (rather than Cobain’s use of a new vocal hook that served as its coda).

Melody:

The main differences in melody pertain to Smith’s use of rhythm and timbre, but I will discuss those in their respective sections. Melodically, the two versions are virtually identical.

Harmony:

Because there is no tag in Smith’s arrangement, the chord progression stays the same throughout. However, there are a couple significant changes made to the original progression. The roots remain the same, but Nirvana’s open power chords have become complete tertian chords. Of the four chords, three of them (F minor [i], Ab Major [III], and Db Major [VI]) retain their expected quality from the F minor tonality. The Bb chord, on the other hand, is major [IV] instead of the expected minor [iv], which is an example of modal borrowing. This chord change is particularly interesting because the sixth degree of the scale is used both in its raised form here (D) and its lowered form (Db) in the Db Major chord.

Rhythm:

Rhythm is used in this arrangement as both a means of distinction between sections of the form as well as the arrangement as a whole and the original version. While Nirvana’s featured a timbral change at the chorus to separate that section from the verse and pre-chorus, Smith’s arrangement merely changes the speed of rhythms in the instrumental parts. They shift from a steady, division-heavy figure in the verse (not unlike in the original) to figures featuring more subdivisions that are interwoven in a more polyphonic texture.

Regarding the vocal parts, Smith’s melodic use of rhythm is a bit more squared off than Cobain’s. She avoids much of the syncopation that Cobain used in lieu of starting and finishing phrases on downbeats. The chorus represents the clearest example of this, where emphasized syllables fall on beat one here instead of the anticipation of beat one.

Timbre/sound:

This is the area in which the most significant changes from the original occur. The instrumentation is wildly different, as Smith’s arrangement features bluegrass instruments like banjos, mandolin, violin, and acoustic guitar and bass in place of electric. The acoustic bass is what begins this version, which is a much more mellow entry than Cobain’s distorted guitar. There are also no drums here, and the arrangement’s rhythmic drive is left solely to the accompanying instruments.

Even the voices have greatly different timbres. Both Smith and Cobain sing in the same range, but Smith’s low-range female voice is a stark shift from Cobain’s high-range male voice. Smith also uses far less distortion in her singing, which fits the more relaxed vibe of this version.

The Bad Plus:

Appearing on 2003’s These Are the Vistas, this arrangement transforms the original into a jazz trio setting that strikes a unique balance being staying true to conventions from both a jazz combo tradition and Nirvana’s original.

Form:

All of the original’s sections, including the tag, are present here and played in the same sequence. The biggest shift occurs in the arrangement’s global structure, which resembles more of a typical head-solo-head jazz combo form.

Section: Time:
Intro 0:00
Verse 0:37
Pre-chorus 0:55
Chorus 1:13
Tag 1:40
Solo 1:50
Verse 3:38
Pre-chorus 3:56
Chorus 4:14
Coda 4:40 (- 5:58)

There are only two cycles of the verse/pre-chorus/chorus grouping, and together these sections are treated like the “head” of a standard combo arrangement. Granted, combo heads aren’t typically this long, and the presence of three independent sections is odd, but it shares the same function of bookending an extended solo section. The solo section begins and ends with a brief bass solo, but the bulk of it consists of an improvised piano solo over the song’s four chord vamp.

Speaking of vamps, the original’s brief tag is used as the basis for an extended vamp in the first part of the arrangement’s coda. Whereas the original continues the material from the chorus, this version closes by building energy around that brief, contrasting section. The coda also ends with a sudden modulation down half a step and a brief fragment of the verse’s melody in the new key.

Melody:

Much like Smith’s arrangement, The Bad Plus’ takes few substantial liberties with the melody itself, keeping it mostly true to the original. The biggest difference is that this version of the melody sounds an octave higher, which can be attributed to the increased range capacity of the piano as compared to the human voice as well as a presumably conscious decision to have a wider gap between the melody and the bass line.

Harmony:

This arrangement uses all diatonic tertial harmonies in F minor, so the Bb Major from Smith’s arrangement switches to Bb minor here. However, greater liberties are taken throughout the arrangement, most notably by adding several upper extension harmonies during the chorus and using free, often nonfunctional harmonies in the pre-chorus. Implementing these examples of dissonance helps to foster the original’s sense of aggression in the absence of more distorted sounds.

Rhythm:

The Bad Plus use a lot of the syncopation that Cobain used in his melody, which translates seamlessly into the jazz realm. The most notable change is that divisions in this arrangement are swung rather than straight. This lends a more chilled vibe to the arrangement, though as I discussed in the previous section and will discuss in the next, there is still plenty of raw energy to be found here.

Timbre/sound:

Similar to Nirvana’s original, this arrangement uses only three instrumental sounds (though it omits the voice altogether). Unlike the original, all three instruments – piano, bass, and drums – are all acoustic (as they are in Smith’s version). The biggest difference between the use of these acoustic instruments compared to the ones from Smith’s recording is range of timbres from each instrument. Especially during the chorus and tag sections, The Bad Plus get as close as they can to distorted sounds from their instruments, often banging on both the piano and cymbals.

Also unique to this arrangement is the use of reverb. This is most notable in the way the drums are recorded, as there is ample ring in the cymbals as well as an unusually deep snare drum. The piano also emulates this by strumming the strings inside the piano, which creates a washy yet percussive echo effect.

 

The Robert Glasper Experiment:

The final track from 2012’s Black Radio, this arrangement is a mellow fusion of R&B, hip-hop, and jazz.

Form:

Even though this arrangement takes a number of substantial liberties with the original, the forms of both are fairly similar.

Section: Time:
Intro 0:00**
Verse 1 0:44
Pre-chorus 1:03
Chorus 1:20
Vamp (brief) 1:38
Verse 2 1:56
Pre-chorus 2:14
Chorus 2:32
Vamp (brief) 3:01
Verse 3 3:17
Pre-chorus 3:35
Chorus 3:53
Vamp 4:47
Coda 5:06 (- 7:24)

** – piano enters at 0:26 with the ostinato progression

Similar to Smith’s version, the tag is omitted altogether, and there is also an extended instrumental vamp in lieu of a solo section (plus a brief, harmonically free instrumental vamp where a tag would have been in the original). This only occurs after the final chorus, which then gives way to a unique coda section. The coda is a slowed-down reimagining of this arrangement’s version of the chorus (more on that later) played over a sultry R&B groove.

Also unique to this arrangement’s treatment of form is the way in which the global form gradually builds in intensity, culminating in the driving groove that kicks off the third chorus. The first cycle of the song’s three main section features virtually no change in intensity or orchestration, but each subsequent repetition builds progressively from what came before. This can also be seen in the construction of the three chorus sections: the first is shorter than the original (8 measures), the second is the same length as the original (12 measures), while the final chorus extends and overlaps with the proceeding vamp (24 measures). All of this is in contrast to the original’s jaunty switches between calm and chaotic.

Melody:

The most significant change to the melody is once again a timbral shift, as the vocalist here sings through a vocoder that manipulates his sound. The melody itself is left mostly in tact, though.

Harmony:

The most crucial change in this arrangement comes in its use of harmony, as the original is entirely reharmonized. The verses, pre-choruses, and first chorus are all built off the same four chord progression, but Glasper’s is different from all other versions. The progression has shifted from [i – iv – III – VI] to [i – VI – III – v]. Using chord names, the new progression is D minor / Bb Major / F Major / A minor (in addition to the reharm, the key has changed from F minor to D minor, which is, of course, the saddest of all keys). The “i”, “III”, and “VI” chords are still here, though their order has changed. The biggest difference comes with the addition of the minor “v” chord (A minor). Because this chord is minor and uses the lowered seventh scale degree (“C”) as opposed to the raised seventh (“C#”), it is not any more of a functional tonal progression than the original version, but the root movement of five-to-one at least gives a more conventional tonal implication.

There is one additional reharmonization that occurs at the second chorus, which is even more unique because this is the only version that introduces a contrasting progression within the form of the arrangement. This new progression has twice as many chords and takes up twice the time as the original progression, and to the best of my ear, this new progression is as follows

Am/E – Dm/F // Am – BbM9 // Am/C – Dm7 // Am/D – EbM7   [// = measure line]

In Roman Numerals, the progression would look like this (with inversion symbols):

v 6/4– i 6 // v – VIM9 // v 6 – i7 // v (/D) – NM7 (IE, bIIM7)

This is another modal progression that has virtually no tonal function, but it creates a vividly unique pastiche over which the melody can soar. Because that melody is so similar to the original, Glasper can be freer with his harmonic interpretation while still having it sound like the original.

Rhythm:

Although they are not as pronounced as the harmonic changes, the rhythmic modifications employed here are significant. The perpetually driving rhythms of the original have been replaced with more spacious rhythms in the piano, which occur in both verse and chorus sections. The short-long pattern of the piano’s rhythm shares a masked connection to the original, as it emulates the rhythm of the two-note riff played by the guitar throughout the verse.

Another disguised homage occurs in the use of the bass drum. The groove throughout this arrangement is vastly different from the original, but the subdivided bass drum from the original’s chorus is woven into the tapestry of this version’s groove throughout, particularly in the first verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. Both of these rhythmic transformations demonstrate how this arrangement identifies important elements of the original and becomes adventurous with how they are presented.

Timbre/sound:

Glasper uses a similar instrumentation to The Bad Plus, but he uses electric bass and piano (and possibly drums, as well) and adds in additional layers at times. The way these sounds are used is also unique. For example, the bass does not enter in this arrangement until after the first chorus, and the piano plays soloistically behind the voice throughout. I already mentioned the use of vocoder, but this arrangement is also distinct in its use of a female voice during the coda.

 

*****

When asked about his treatment of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Glasper gave the following response:

We put a more urban twist on it. I’ve loved that song since I was in junior high school. It’s a really pretty melody, Kurt Cobain is a great songwriter. I’d heard people cover it in the same style and I always thought: “Why do it?” My thing is change it up completely or leave it alone. There’s no guitar, just Rhodes. I threw some changes in, some different chord progressions on the chorus… There’s versions of us doing it on YouTube and people love it. We kept enough of the song but changed it just enough where everyone likes it.

That last statement is vitally important to how I treat an arranging project of mine. My process for arranging is to get to know the original composition so well that I can parse through its different musical elements and identify what aspects are most vital to understanding and appreciating the music. I then try to find a unique way to maintain those most crucial elements while getting as creative and adventurous with others, often to the point that the song is not immediately recognizable. By doing so, I feel that I can create something that is fresh and unique yet still something that evolved organically and consciously from its source.

To varying degrees, that is what these three arrangements have done. Each version presents a unique balance of how both concrete and abstract elements of the original are incorporated. For example, the unique contour of the melody is a very concrete aspect of the original that remained mostly unchanged in each arrangement, which would seem to indicate that its presence is vital for a comprehensive understanding of the song. The chord progression, on the other hand, was another concrete aspect that invited a more liberal approach. Perhaps the extreme stasis of this from the original made it a more fertile area for expansion and development. Timbre and sound were also areas in which obvious changes were made, with each version’s being distinct from each other.

These adaptation choices can be seen on more abstract levels, as well. While the main sections of the form were present in each arrangement, their construction and function on a global sense was always slightly different. Glasper’s development of the two-note rhythmic motif from the original was also a more abstract expropriation of a very succinct and identifiable aspect of the original.

Arranging can easily be a mindless task that is secondary in weight and artistic merit to composition. However, when handled with the appropriate artistic vigor, it can be a fascinating way to shine a unique perspective on even the most identifiable pieces of music.


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