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G Major/ E Minor "Polly"

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Hi all,

A couple of weeks back I decided get a better understanding of music theory. I've really been enjoying it so far. I'm sure this will be the first of many questions. I find the best way to learn is take a concept and then apply it to a song. So when I played "Polly" (Nirvana), I saw the chords played throughout are in G Major/ E Minor, with the exception of B_Flat.

1. Is there any difference to the scale being E Minor or G Major? When I checked online the song was said to be in E Minor.
2. Where does the B_Flat fit in? Is this just a mode switch within the key, an actual key change, or neither?

Thanks for the help.

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Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 4921

The first thing to realize is that songwriters often don't refer to theory when they write. That means what you see on the surface wasn't deliberately created by using a scale; they did what sounded good to them.

The second thing to realize is that in spite of this, there's almost always theory underneath. Theory follows use - if someone truly breaks new ground in writing, and people like the result, theory is revised to include the new material. That didn't happen here. So let's pick apart the tune.

1. Yes, there's a difference between G and E minor, even if they use exactly the same notes. A "key" or a scale tells you two things: first, what the starting point is (that's the "tonic" or "root" of the scale) and second, what the pattern of notes is above it. So first we find the root of the scale they used.

The tonic for Polly is E, because that's the point that feels like you've arrived home - end the progression on one of the Es and it sounds complete... end it anywhere else, it doesn't sound quite as final.

Ok, so the tonic is figured out. What's getting you a bit confused is the chords - I looked up a couple of tabs online, and some show major and minor chords... but I listed to it (on Nevermind) and it sounds like they're playing power chords. Those lack a fifth, so they don't really sound major or minor. So the next step is to look at what they're playing, and what the notes actually are:

E5 = E, B
G5 = G, D
D5 = D, A
C5 = C, G
Bb5 = Bb, F

The next step is to line up the notes used, starting from E. I'm going to ignore the Bb for the moment; the rest of the chords make:

E- G - A - B - C - D

Comparing that to the E major scale, it's the notes 1-b3-4-5-b6-b7. That's an E natural minor scale without the 2nd note (F#).

Now that Bb comes in... and right there it sounds kind of bluesy, doesn't it? The E blues scale is E-G-A-Bb-B-D, which has the Bb! And if you're going to use all power chords, the Bb5 has an F note - so using a "full" D major chord would create more of a clash.

As it is, including that F in the Bb5 means the song uses an eight note scale, which won't fit into a strict major/minor analysis unless the song changes keys (which this doesn't). They're simply drawing on their musical experiences - in this case harmonizing a natural minor scale and using a touch of the blues scale - and if the result works, you've got a song.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL

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Joined: 10 years ago
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Topic starter  

Thanks for the detailed response. I really do appreciate it. That really cleared things up for me.

Is there any way for me to buy your book on music theory for guitarists? I have not been able to find a place to purchase it.

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Helgi Briem
hbriem AT gmail DOT com

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I'd say its in Em with Bb being a secondary dominant. which is a note pulled out of another key and changes the key of the song for that chord.