When we talk about the features of a particular genre of pop music, the first aspect people tend to focus on is the sound – like the heavily distorted, scooped-mid guitars of metal, or the 808 kicks in hip-hop. They might then turn to groove, or the melodic hooks of notable songs, and then move on to visual aspects of the genre. But I think that this misses a trick – the emotional heft and over-all feel of almost all music is defined by the harmonic progressions it uses, and the tension and relationships they establish between themselves. To quote Frank Zappa: “One of the most exciting things that ever happened in the world of ‘white-person music’ was when the Beach Boys used the progression V-ii on “Little Deuce Coupe.”

In this post, I want to put forward a theory I’ve been mulling – what makes Grunge fundamentally different from most other rock music is its ambivalent attitude to tonality – that is, the establishment of a home chord, and the structuring of a song around departures and returns to this chord. Admittedly, you also find this lack of rootedness in extreme metal – but the effect there is one of deliberate disorientation in the name of heaviness, rather than ambivalence (that’s another blog post…).

Now, you might answer that any cerebral analysis of Grunge is pointless – the musicians involved weren’t noted for their counterpoint, and what we hear is the result of untutored plunking around. To that I say this: that plunking around, like the Beatles, produced some great songs, and I hope to show that there is some unity that defies pure chance.

Note – the note and chord names I give assume standard or drop-d turning – many Grunge bands tuned down between one and three semitones.

Foundations of Rock

So, why is this tonal ambivalence so important? Simply, because in conventional rock music, it’s all about the tonic, the home chord (hereafter I) – hammering it home, leaving it for a bit to build some tension, and then crashing back to it just in time for the lead singer to rock you/his baby/the world. Like the blues it grew out of, the first step away from the tonic is usually the fourth degree of the scale, the sub-dominant (IV). Some songs, like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, never get further than that – which rather strikes me as the musical equivalent of leaving home, and then getting scared at the post-box at the end of your road and turning back, but hey – irony.

To go further, rock music uses this I-IV relationship to create a circle of fourths – as opposed to the circle of fifths that dominates Tin Pan Alley and pop songs. So, continuing on, we get I-IV-♭VII-♭III-♭VI – or, in the key of E (what else…), E-A-D-G-C. These chords by themselves will get you through a lot of songs – “Hey Joe” is simply a descending circle of fourths, “Communication Breakdown” is I-IV-♭VII-IV with a bluesy IV-V at the end of the chorus. Leaving out a few chords gives us the ♭VI-♭VII-I beloved of cheesy rock build-ups the world over – see The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, which takes this one trick plus possibly the goofiest riff ever written a turns it in to entire song.

Simplifying ever further, we end up with the ♭VII-I movement, which is one of the strongest indications of tonality in rock; see The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”.

Even when these building blocks are handled with more dexterity, such as in the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR”, the result is the same – it’s all about having a solid tonic to jump off and crash back in to.

Eight Thousand Miles from Home

Turning now to Grunge, Exhibit A is “Rooster” by Alice in Chains. The verse is built around the alternating chords of F♯7add11 and A9 which is (as you might expect from my first example…) a textbook case of tonal ambiguity. The chords have no real hierarchy – they don’t share a scale that could define their relationship, and the alternation defeats and sense of antecedent and precedent or tension and release. Most interestingly, the drone notes that they share on the open top strings of the guitar, E and B, hint at a home key (E) that only ever features in passing – which is fitting, given that the song concerns a marine’s experience away from home in Vietnam. The melody line, admittedly, favours an F♯ tonality, often landing on that note at the end of a phrase over the A chord – but it’s far from emphatic, meandering over multiple suspensions (often using both A♯ and A♮ in close conjunction).

When we get to the chorus (“Here they come to snuff the rooster…”), two new chords are introduced, B5 and D5, and we finally get the sense that we’re heading somewhere, and the F♯5 takes on the feeling of a pedal that’s about to be part of the modulation as well. However, after all this building, we crash back to the ambiguity of the verse. And at the end of the song, the melody and harmony land on a consonant A – but we know this isn’t home.

Lost in Space

Soundgardens’s “Black Hole Sun” play’s a similar game; apart from a very brief ♭VII-I that comes out of nowhere at the end of the guitar solo and the outro, we never quite know where we are. Rather than complete ambivalence, we’re given perpetually moving goalposts (with an extended chord sequence that defeats our expectation of a 4-bar repeating sequence) – the play of the melody against the chords gives plenty of inertia, but every time we turn a corner, perspective shifts and we find ourselves no closer to home.

We could admit that the home key is G – this gives us the ♭VII-I previously mentioned, and the resonant E♭sus4-D7(no 3rd) that opens the chorus feels like that’s where it’ll propel us – but then we only have a G as a passing chord on our way to B♭ – more twists and turns!

What both this and “Rooster” have in common is that, in terms of arrangement and dynamics, they use fairly standard rock tension-and-release mechanisms – but these mechanisms are used to take us, tonally, anywhere but where we expect to go.

Smells Like Ambivalence

Conversely, there are plenty of Grunge songs with a strong sense of a home key – but the contrast with traditional rock here is how the song treats this home. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, almost genre-defining on its own, is a case in point – the I-V drone over the verse leaves us in no doubt that we’re in F. Furthermore, vast majority of the song repeats the sequence F5-B♭5-A♭5-D♭5 – wholly conventional circle-of-fourths territory.

But what’s critical is the sense of ambivalence – there’s no tension and release, except in the dynamics between verse and chorus. We do get something a bit more pungent – the F5-G♭5 after the chorus. This suggests some movement – maybe a ♭VI-♭VII-I movement up to a new tonic B♭ – but what we get is a mocking “Yay” from Kurt, and a fall back to the well-established four chord sequence.

We’re not going out to rock the world – we’re stuck in crappy small town we grew up in and nothing feels like home any more.

Faking It

In the wake of the Seattle grunge boom, record company rosters sank low in the water with a deluge of grunge-ish bands. Whilst this provided an opening for many entirely decent guitar bands, many of the most highly-promoted offerings where rightly criticised as bandwagon-jumping sound-alikes. Heck, even Metallica cut their hair and produced “Load”, which had more than a whiff of lumberjack shirt about it! But how do you spot a phony? These pretenders looked and sounded like the real thing.

Here, I think, is the counter-example that quite neatly demonstrates harmonic ambivalence’s importance to grunge: Sponge were amongst the most visible of the bands subjected to this backlash, and their radio-friendly “Plowed” is Exhibit Z.

The charge sheet is a long one – the verse chords are a circle-of-fourths in E, but the song’s really in G major, so we read them as a circle-of-fifths, with only the added C9 (IV9) providing the faintest whiff of rock-ness. And much of the song’s inertia just end up deflated by the C9-G relaxation at the end of each verse phrase. The D-C movement in the pre-chorus might provide a bit of rock energy, but again we already know we’re in G, so we read it as a V-IV – pure pop!

To give the lads some credit, in the chorus we do then take a detour through E and C before returning to G, and then pass through it to give our much-beloved C9 (the raisins in the blandest curry ever) the status of the “end of chorus home”. However, one small shift in tonality does not a summer make – it does provide interest, and the chorus’ hammering it home is consonant with the non-specific ennui of the lyrics, but it’s not enough. We already know we’re in a standard tension-and-release pop song.

Now, I rather like “Rotting Piñata” (the album from which the song is taken), and many of the other songs on the album are rather less white-bread. But I think everyone who heard “Plowed” knew they weren’t getting the real thing – and that wasn’t down to production, instrumentation, lyrics, or the band’s haircuts – it was the harmonic structure. All of the right chords, not necessarily in the right order.