Using Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a test song, let’s look at the song structure, instrumentation, and chords – take it apart as briefly as we can and build a new song.
First, the structure is simple – (Intro) – Verse – Prechorus – Chorus – Break. Repeat this three times with a solo thrown in over a chorus before the third verse.
It’s deceptively simple – the whole song, besides the break, has the same four chords (F – Bb – Ab – Db), but they’re played differently in each section. The intro is a chorus that starts with solo guitar. The drums pound their way in and bring us to a chorus-like intensity. This is followed by the verse which is bass and simple drums with two notes played on guitar at the beginning of each phrase. The prechorus is the same as the verse with the two notes repeated in quarter notes throughout – the words change to “hello hello hello how low” and there is a build up to the explosive chorus. In the chorus, the drums increase intensity and complexity again, the guitar plays loud, distorted power chords, and the voice becomes more gravelly and sings up the octave. Then the break brings us back to the next verse with a rising and falling line in the bass (F – Gb – C – Bb – Ab). The guitar plays F – Gb – F – Bb – Ab in power chords.
The melody is the stickiest part, and many artists don’t bother putting it in the blueprint aside from perhaps basic shape and feel. For instance, in Smells Like Teen Spirit Kurt sings a melody that starts in a comfortable range in the verse, steps down in the prechorus, and ends with the highest parts in the chorus. This is actually not that unusual.
The shape of the melody in the verse is as follows: three steps up and a jump down (load up on guns) – back up to the highest note from which we take three steps down (bri-ing your friends) – up one step followed by three more steps down (it’s fun to lose) – finally two more steps up, followed by three steps down (and to-o pretend). This repeats. The verse has two jumps – from the third to the fourth note and from the fourth to the fifth. Interestingly, the third and fifth notes are the same note, and it’s as if that fourth note didn’t belong. However, it’s the fourth note that makes that melody interesting and memorable!
What we have just done is create a blueprint. In an extended blueprint you would look at all the shapes of all the melodies too, but this part is already too long! Now you take the blueprint and build a new song, using all the elements, changing up the chords and maybe instruments – for instance, start with bass instead of guitar, play the chords in reverse order and turn the melody upside down, change the rhythm up a little. But follow the guidelines in the blueprint and you might have a hit!
I’ll be posting a video example of the working of this song soon!