Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ remixed in a major key shows the importance of tonality

20 May 2022, 15:21

Nirvana, but in a major key
Nirvana, but in a major key. Picture: Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

Knowing your music theory is important – as illustrated in this example from a tonality-obsessed music geek.

Here’s the proof that tonality can make or break any song. Or at least, can change it quite a lot.

When we say tonality, we’re talking the key centres of a piece. Think of Beethoven’s love of dark and brooding C minor, or the joy of a Bach concerto in bright and brassy D major.

With a bit of digital audio wizardry, music geeks are able to take recorded tracks, and with alternation to particular notes, essentially swap keys from major to minor – or in this case the reverse.

The early 1990s saw a proliferation of dusky, moody rock anthems – and there is perhaps no any more iconic among the long-fringed grunge brigade than Nirvana’s anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit.

The original is in the key of F minor. But just take a listen to it in a cheery F major.

Read more: Inspiring classical music quotes from rock musicians

You’ll still hear the Fm-B♭m–A♭–D♭ chord progression, but those major chords remove all the angst and change it completely...

“The song makes me feel weirdly like everything’s gonna be okay,” says one YouTube user. That’s the power of a major key.

It even sounds like it could be the uplifting theme to a 90s teen heartthrob movie.

The power of music theory.