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From the periphery to the mainstream

Nirvana's meteoric rise

It seems pretty hard to believe now, but prior to 1991, you would have to be either a part of a niche group of alternative music fans, or a well-informed professional in the music industry, to have heard of the group Nirvana. Nirvana were "alternative" before alternative became somewhat ironically a mainstream genre. Their debut album Bleach had been produced by themselves, and despite costing only $600 to produce, it went on to sell over 30,000 copies. Sensing an opportunity, the record label Geffen Records signed them up and the group were primed for a breakthrough album with the backing of the label behind them.

But few would have realised the enormity of the success that would unfold. Over the autumn that year, the group that was unheard of within the mainstream pop music market would announce it had arrived and go on to become an important rock band. The wave was triggered by the release of the single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The opening four chords - F, B-flat, A-flat and D-flat - repeated throughout the song, went on to become an iconic riff for guitarists and remains popular to this day. Yet it is hard to believe that what would go on to arguably become Nirvana's signature song was released quietly without much publicity, to build up an audience and pave the path for the expected hit of the Nevermind album, "Come As You Are".

Teen Spirit outgrew its expectations and brought Nirvana fully to the public eye in the space of a few short months. Its success was even unexpeced to the lead singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain, who had been hesitant about its initial release. Cobain had written the song in the same style of the 1986 band, The Pixies, whose music features hard, loud sections contrasted with soft, quiet ones. In a way this itself is reminiscent of the Baroque orchestras, for whom the alternation of loud and soft sections was a norm. Cobain was perhaps conscious of being viewed as a follower of existing styles when the band was trying to establish and define itself as alternative group. But whatever his reservations about the song, it ended up catapulting him from the periphery of the mainstream music scene right into its heart.

The guitar chords in rock music are called power chords because this is the effect they have - they convey rhythm and drive with a raw sound. Within the mainstream classical music world, power chords are also known as open chords. The interval of a perfect fifth within the two notes leaves it open as to whether it is a major or a minor chord. If you are trying to recreate rock music on the piano, in a cover version of the original, leave out the third note of the chord to preserve the slightly harsh sound. Including the third note of the chord is too specific for the purpose and softens the hard rock image.

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