Hear Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Shifted from Minor to Major Key, and Radiohead’s “Creep” Moved from Major to Minor

A few years ago, we shared a ver­sion of R.EM.’s 1991 alter­na­tive hit “Los­ing My Reli­gion” as reworked from a minor to a major key through dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing by Ukran­ian musi­cian Oleg Berg and his daugh­ter Diana. Many peo­ple thought the project a trav­es­ty and railed against its vio­la­tion of R.E.M.’s emo­tion­al intent. But the stronger the reac­tions, the more they seemed to val­i­date Berg’s tac­it argu­ment about the impor­tant dif­fer­ences between major and minor keys. We know that, in gen­er­al, minor keys con­vey sad­ness, dread, or moody inten­si­ty, all famil­iar col­ors in the R.E.M. palate. Major keys, on the oth­er hand—as in the band’s inex­plic­a­bly boun­cy “Shiny Hap­py People”—tend to evoke… shini­ness and hap­pi­ness.

Why is this? Gold­smiths Uni­ver­si­ty Music Psy­chol­o­gy Pro­fes­sor Vicky Williamson has an ambiva­lent expla­na­tion at the NME blog. Her answer: the asso­ci­a­tion seems to be cul­tur­al but also, per­haps, bio­log­i­cal. “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.”

This the­sis may reduce down to a “water is wet” obser­va­tion. A more inter­est­ing way of think­ing of it comes from Aris­to­tle, who “sus­pect­ed that the emo­tion­al impact of music was at least part­ly down to the way it mim­ic­ked our own vocal­iza­tions when we squeal for joy or cry out in anger.”

Do these expres­sions always cor­re­spond to major or minor scales or inter­vals? No. Emo­tions, like col­ors, have sub­tleties of shad­ing, con­trast, and hue. Williamson names some notable excep­tions, like The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over,” a song in a major key that is almost com­i­cal­ly mor­bid and maudlin. These may serve to prove the rule, achiev­ing their unset­tling effect by play­ing with our expec­ta­tions. In gen­er­al, as you will learn from the video above from Min­neso­ta Pub­lic Radio—in which a lum­ber­jack explains the dis­tinc­tions to an ani­mat­ed blue bird—major and minor keys, scales, inter­vals, and chords are “tools com­posers use to give their music a cer­tain mood, atmos­phere, and strength.”

If you were to ask for a song that con­tains these qual­i­ties in abun­dance, you might get in reply Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” which, like Beethoven’s 9th Sym­pho­ny or most clas­si­cal opera, relies on exag­ger­at­ed qui­et-to-loud dynam­ics for its dra­mat­ic effect. But it also uses a minor key as an essen­tial vehi­cle for its anx­i­ety and rage. So impor­tant to the song is this ele­ment, in fact, that when shift­ed into a major key, as Berg has done at the top of the post, it sounds near­ly inco­her­ent. The clar­i­ty with which “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” com­mu­ni­cates angst and con­fu­sion evap­o­rates, espe­cial­ly in the song’s vers­es. The dig­i­tal arti­facts of Berg’s pro­cess­ing become more evi­dent here, per­haps because the change in key is so destruc­tive to the melody.

Can we close­ly cor­re­late this loss of melod­ic integri­ty to the crit­i­cal impor­tance the minor scale plays in this song in par­tic­u­lar? I would assume so, but let’s look at the exam­ple of a sim­i­lar type of moody, qui­et-loud alt-rock song from around the same time peri­od, Radiohead’s “Creep.” Here’s one of those excep­tions, orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in a major key, which may account for the pleas­ant, dream­like qual­i­ty of its vers­es. That qual­i­ty does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly dis­ap­pear when we hear the song ren­dered in a minor key. But the cho­rus, under­neath the dig­i­tal dis­tor­tion, los­es the sense of anguished tri­umph with which Thom Yorke imbued his defi­ant dec­la­ra­tion of creepi­ness.

In the case of the orig­i­nal “Creep,” the G major key seems to push against our expec­ta­tions, and gives a song about self-loathing an unset­tling sweet­ness that is indeed kin­da creepy. (And per­haps helped Prince to turn the song into a gen­uine­ly uplift­ing gospel hymn). What seems clear in the Nir­vana and Radio­head exam­ples is that the choice of key deter­mines in large part not only our emo­tion­al respons­es to a song, but also our respons­es to devi­a­tions from the norm.  But those norms are “most­ly down to learned asso­ci­a­tions,” writes Williamson, “both ancient and mod­ern.”

Per­haps she’s right. Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Music Psy­chol­o­gist Glenn Schel­len­berg has noticed that con­tem­po­rary music has trend­ed more toward minor keys in the past few decades, and that “peo­ple are respond­ing pos­i­tive­ly to music that has these char­ac­ter­is­tics that are asso­ci­at­ed with neg­a­tive emo­tions.” Does this mean we’re get­ting sad­der? Schel­len­berg instead believes it’s because we asso­ciate minor scales with sophis­ti­ca­tion and major scales with “unam­bigu­ous­ly hap­py-sound­ing music” like “The Wheels on the Bus” and oth­er children’s songs. “The emo­tion of unam­bigu­ous hap­pi­ness is less social­ly accept­able than it used to be,” notes NPR. “It’s too Brady Bunch, not enough Mod­ern Fam­i­ly.”

Maybe we’ve grown cyn­i­cal, but the trend allows bril­liant rock com­posers like Radiohead’s John­ny Green­wood to do all sorts of odd, unset­tling things with major and minor mod­u­la­tion. And it made “Shiny Hap­py Peo­ple” stick out like a shock­ing­ly joy­ful sore thumb upon its release in 1991, though at the time the mope of grunge and 90s alt-rock had not yet dom­i­nat­ed the air­waves. Now we rarely hear such earnest, “unam­bigu­ous­ly hap­py-sound­ing” music these days out­side of Sesame Street. Find more of Berg’s major-to-minor and vice ver­sa rework­ings at his Youtube chan­nel.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

R.E.M.’s “Los­ing My Reli­gion” Reworked from Minor to Major Scale

The Bea­t­les’ “Hey Jude” Reworked from Major to Minor Scale; Ella’s “Sum­mer­time” Goes Minor to Major

Pat­ti Smith’s Cov­er of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Strips the Song Down to its Heart

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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