Music Theory behind Grunge Music
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Revision as of 08:54, 22 June 2017 by Vjmanzo
|Music Theory behind Grunge music||royalty free image|
- 1 Abstract
- 2 Introduction
- 3 Section 1: Background
- 4 Section 2: Elements of Writing a Grunge Song
- 5 Musical analysis of songs
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 External Links
- 8 References
The objective of this milestone is to take all that I have learned from my Grunge in London Capstone to analyze the music through the lens of music theory. I hope to be able to see what grunge music has to offer by way of harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and form, which are some of the elements of all music. For my deliverable, I am taking all that I learned from this analysis of grunge music from a music theory background to create my own guide to what a grunge song would contain in the way of harmony, rhythm, dynamics and form with examples of what I would do.
For this project, I am drawing back on my past experience with music theory and my violin background. This is slightly challenging due to the fact that harmony for a violin is much simpler for a violin than a guitar. In high school, I took several music classes and was in both chorus and band. I hope to gain more knowledge about music theory and help others understand music as well.
This project is meant to introduce those who enjoy music to the music theory or backbone of music that makes it sounds a certain way or gives it a certain emotion. Music is defined by its elements, which allows a certain genre of music sounds different than another. So, I distinguished four important elements of music and did an in-depth analysis of each with a comparison of grunge to popular rock music of that time. From that analysis, I then produced a guide to producing gunge songs from a satirical background with examples of what I would do.
In my research, I found that grunge was more covered as a social and ethical topic with little being covered about the music itself. It was difficult to find much on the elements of music in respect to the grunge genre itself, but I did find some info on it under the umbrella of alternative. I discovered that its sound and style was primarily based off of the music’s harmony with the rhythm, form, and dynamics still very important to its overall sound. But, there was no real pattern to the music. Together in had a unique sound due to the harmonic practices, but what really kept the genre a genre was the music’s attitude and the taboo topics it tried to address. Each artist has its own unique style and sound but they all fell into the same genre. This project needs more research to fully grasp the musical differences between grunge music and the popular rock of the time.
Section 1: Background
Grunge was a style choice, a cultural movement and most importantly a music style that appeared in the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s, which songs had focused on topics of a taboo nature such as alienation, depression, and suicide. The movement focused on using their music to enlighten those around them about the problems that they were suffering from, which resonated very well with the youth who were also facing many of those issues. It was very popular and topped many of the more well-known artists. It had a new an appealing sound that differed from the rock and pop music of day. Grunge music is considered to be a sub-genre of rock with heavy overlap with other rock subgenres such as alternative, metal, and punk .The music contained a dirty and raw sound guitar sound, which gave the genre its name. This music has a significant effect on the culture of the Seattle area where is was started, which is no surprise due to the fact that music has always been a major component of cultural changes in society. There have been many scholarly articles citing its importance and during this time there was a major shift in attitudes towards the world and the people who lived in it, which emphasized the feelings correlated to alienation, depression, and suicide. However one may ask how music, subtracting the lyrics, could evoke such feelings, which in fact brings me to the focus of this capstone; the music theory behind grunge music that gave it its unique sound.
The music theory behind grunge music will explain how this music became so unique, but this calls into question of the definition music. In the most literal idea, one can see music as “vibrations in the air that are observed by us and then interpreted as sounds. These sounds play out over time, meaning that music is, therefore, sound over time” . However, that is way too literal and would infer that all sounds are music like all paintings are works of art. Music is way more sophisticated and can be seen as “multi-dimensional (and a) multimedia phenomenon’’ . Therefore music is grouped into seven different elements, which are rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, tone color, texture, and form to help identify the key differences between grunge music and say rap. These elements added to the sound and identity of the genre, so much so it stood out from the rest of the alternative genre, which grunge was a subgenre of, during that era. Below I have chosen 4 elements I feel distinguished the grunge genre of from that which was popular during the 1990’s and created the special sound to the music that allowed the artists to express their emotions.
Harmony is very important to the creation of music, due to the fact it the way notes are played in relation to each other. This is a very technical and complex element of music that can be fairly hard to understand, so it is important to start at the beginning. There are seven notes in all of the music, not including all of the flats and sharps, A, B, C, D, E, F, G and these are the building blocks on which songs can then be built. The full list of notes which contain all the flats (b) and sharps (#) starting at A is A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A and follows a pattern of 2212221, which gives a scale of A major. The pattern is followed by the bolded letters produces A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, and A as the A Major Scale. From the scale, one can then produce all of the chords that can be made from that key. A chord is several notes played together to that are separated by thirds, which produce notes that complement each other very well. The chords for an A major key would contain AC#E I (major), BDF# ii (minor), C#EG# iii (minor), DF#A IV (major), EG#B V (major), F#AC# vi (minor), G#BD vii0 (diminished). To form these 3 note chords, one takes the scale and starts at the first note in the scale, which in our case is A. Then, skip the next note, B, and chose C# to do this again for the third and last note of the chord. Your final chord will be AC#E, which is a major chord and they you do it for B, C#, etc. for the rest of the chords until you come back to your original note A. The chords are in a pattern of major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, and diminished, which are shown by the capitalized Roman numerals rather than the lower case ones and the 0 at the end means diminished. Another name this goes by is diatonic harmony and all this is the way notes relate with each other in a certain key. All of this can be replicated for all of the other keys in music to get chords. These chords then can be played in succession after one another and produce a chord progression. Some commonly used chord progressions in the key of A are ADE (I – IV- V) and BEA (ii-V-I). These chords and chord progression are what creates the harmony in the song and they are often used in term of how harsh they sound. The harshness of chords is quantified into dissonance and consonance. Dissonance is a very harsh sounding harmony and its chords known for creating tension in a piece. Consonance is a smooth sounding harmony that creates consonant chords, which resolves tension created by the dissonant chords. Chords are very important to music because it truly creates the mood of the music. More dissonant sounding music sounds almost unstable, eerie and sad. A really good example is Mozart’s Quartetto K. 465 "delle dissonanze". One can hear the very dissonant beginning and then throughout the rest of the piece, one can hear how dissonance is resolved by consonance (The Elements Of Music, 2017, p. 3).
In grunge music, harmony played a large part in creating its aesthetic and sound. This music was very powerful and was known to use “power chords” (McDonald, 2000, p.355) as a “set of harmonic practices that rock musicians, particularly those who participate in the domain of guitar-oriented 'alternative' rock, have been using” (McDonald, 2000, p.355) . These musicians were trying to break the mold of rock and alternative music so they tried new practices such as distorting the guitar’s sounds and choosing unique chord combinations. An example of this was the change of the power chords, which are normally fifths or fourths (McDonald, 2000, p.356). However, do to the heavy guitar distortion, created by overloading the signal into the amplifier, it created a more complex sound that allowed more sound to come from the notes played. This distortion allowed chords done in thirds to have a richer and fuller sounds and as a byproduct created a very dissonant sound (Biamonte, 2010, p. 97). Another in interesting part to grunge’s harmony was its use of “third or cross relations” (McDonald, 2000, p.357) that allows songs that were written in the key of A major and as we determined before C# would be the C note used, however in grunge music the C would incongruently change a minor third to C5 or Cb. This is what author Chris McDonald calls “modal subversion” (McDonald, 2000, p.357). It used constantly in these songs and an example of it would be in “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. In this song the key is in F minor and in that scale A is natural but in “Smells like Teen Spirit” the A modulates to Ab (Osborn, 2013, 31) . This a common theme in many grunge songs and gives its unique sounds, aesthetic, and emotion.
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In music, the rhythm of a song is the time in which a song is played. This can be seen when a person is tapping one’s foot to the beat. The rhythm of the song is very important in creating the emotions of the song due to the fact that it determines how fast the piece is going to be. Encompassed in rhythm are sub-topics of duration, tempo, and meter, which helps the listener and musician to follow the structure of the piece. Rhythm tends to be more the technical part of the song but it carries much importance because without it the song would be a mess of lyrics and instruments without direction. So the duration is the length of time between each note and silence. It is used to bring attention to a certain section of the song because a very long note or silence is jarring to the listener. A silence can bring emphasis to the next note and add a complexity to the tempo of the song. The meter of the song is the repetition of accents and stresses that are arranged into the recognizable beat of the song. In a song, the accented notes tend to be the first note of the measure, however, to create more drama many artists utilize syncopation or the putting of accents on off-beats. The meter is emphasized by the song’s tempo or speed at which the beat is played. It is often known as beats per minute (bpm). The tempo of the song determines the level of excitement and mood of the song. It has been said by Gow that “the time-pattern upon his attention must be the excuse for the common conception of rhythm as the emotional element in music” (Gow, 1915, p. 637) or in layman terms. The pattern of sound, silence, and speed adds significantly to the emotions and feeling drawn from the piece so it is imperative that the artist uses the correct rhythm and tempo for the desired effect. An example of this would be how slow blues music tends to be around the 60 bpm and rock and roll music tends to be about 175 bpm. (Gow, 1915, p. 637- 642)
Grunge music is all about the aesthetic of the music and many times it is difficult to derive the meaning of the lyrics due to the vocal quality or symbolic meaning of the lyrics. So it’s imperative to set the right tone via the rhythm because without that the song could be changed from a very dark and emotional piece to one that sounds happy and light. Therefore, the duration of the notes and silences have to create drama and angst. The meter must accentuate the right beat and word of the lyrics to make them pop. One consistency round most grunge music is its timed meter, which was 4/4 time or four beats per measure. The emphasis on notes tended to be inconsistent though because it was really dependent on the lyrics. Some songs did use accents of off-beats to draw more attention to one part or another. Meter also creates the structure to the song. Without that the song has very similar and boring notes with no structure. The tempo has to give the song the right attitude. So in grunge music artists wanted a tempo to reflect sadness and depression that they often felt, but they but they wanted to be interesting and attention grabbing. So many artist chooses tempos from around 90-120 (bpm) there was no exact range to the tempos. It was really up to the musician’s ear. However, one can tell that the artist chose the right tempo, if the emotions were portrayed foremost in the music. A good example would be to speed up or slow down a grunge song. When that is done, ignoring the higher pitch of Cobain's voice, it is obvious that one will not get the same emphasis on themes of the music leaving the song useless to the artist. The grunge artist needed the aesthetic of angst and pain to drip from the lyrics to get his point across.
The dynamics of a song is the loudness and or softness at which the song is played at. A song can be played very loudly, fortissimo, or very softly, pianissimo, and it would create a different interpretation of the song. Some genres of music tend to produce quieter music while others like to blast their audience with their music. An artist can also have a range of volumes with many choosing sections of their song to be quieter to emphasize the words or the music’s complexity and others sections being softer to portray emotions. Sometimes the artist wants to create a buildup of tension in the song so he or she will use a crescendo, getting louder, or a decrescendo, getting softer to achieve it. Another part of dynamics, which was touched on in rhythm, is accenting a note or “leaning into a note”  and it creates a unique sound. It is important to use dynamics because it keeps the music interesting. A lovely example that many people have probably heard before would be in Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30.
It starts our pianissimo and then crescendos to fortissimo until it is absolutely blaring. These dynamics are meant to grab the attention of the audience and awaken anyone who has fallen asleep during the very quiet part. Dynamics are an important part of the music creation process due to the fact that a combination of these dynamics creates the genre's signature style. Hardcore rock is known to bombard their audience with sound while other genres such as country tend to have a moderate volume.
Dynamics is another really important element in grunge music because it can be used as an emphasis on particular parts of the song. The song could go from a verse of quiet reflection to a chorus of raging anger. This element is interlinked with all of the other elements to create the song the way that artist meant to portray it. Many of the grunge artists use dynamics to emphasize the themes of the song. So while many songs of the grunge genre do tend to vacillate between very loud and quiet, not every song does. It all depends on the themes and emotions of the songs. An example of the differences would be comparing the dynamics of Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden and Glycerine by Bush. They are both classified under the genre of grunge music, but they have totally different dynamics. In Black Hole Sun, the first verse starts out pretty quiet to emphasize the almost euphoric nature of words and the invisibility the singer feels. Then in the chorus, there is a large increase in volume which tries to capture the anger and pain of his invisibility. However, in Glycerine, the verse starts out pretty quiet and has a mournful tone and it crescendos ever so slightly into the chorus which is still mournful plus a bit remorseful also. The dynamics are used in grunge as an emphasis on certain feelings and emotions and though some do have a pattern of a quite verse and loud chorus some use other dynamics to get their point across.
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In music, the element of form is a combination of the repetition, contrast, and continuity that creates a song’s uniqueness. The form is very dependent on the other elements of music because it is the way the music is arranged. There is a mixture of musical ideas that are carefully arranged to create the meaning behind the music, which is illustrated when the chorus, speaking both lyrically and instrumentally, is repeated. To differentiate the diversions in music, letters such as A, B, C, are used. This is used determine the slight variation in musical patterns. Repetition is often utilized in form to set the theme of the song. This is seen when the chorus is repeated or the verse lyrics change and music stays the same. Repetition in music is known to create continuity and is usually done with a catchy chorus. Contrarily when there is a change or contrast in music, it is often used to note a shift in mood. The form includes a myriad of types including strophic, binary, verse/chorus song, and ternary forms. These types of forms are derived from the repetition, contrast, and continuity referred to previously. The strophic form is when the same music is repeated over and over for several verses of music. This is the most basic form, which lacks contrast and is all repetition. The message the song is trying to portray is usually very elementary. In the binary form, there are two parts. It uses contrast to highlight the question answer music phrasing between the similar phrasing contrasting section. A combination between the binary and strophic forms is the Verse/ Chorus Song form. It alternates between the storytelling verses, which contain different lyrics each verse, and the recurring chorus. . It creates the feeling of familiarity and allows for many ideas and feelings to be told and then reiterated in the chorus, which is very important in grunge music. The last form being covered is the ternary from. It is a three-part form that has a repletion of the first verse, with different lyrics, which then processes to the chorus and returns back to the theme of the first verse. The form is very diverse in music and can evoke different emotions. So one can see how important it is to grunge music because of its ability to highlight the different parts of the song through repetition, contrast, and continuity.
Grunge music is primarily about emotions and social issues that plagued many of the youth during that time, so it is very important to have the music bring attention to these issues through the phrasing of the chorus and verses. Songs In the 1990’s many rock songs followed a verse-chorus form, which Brad Osborn likes to call the “verse-chorus paradigm” (Osborn, 2013, p. 23).  or in less layman terms a verse-chorus pattern. Osborn then quotes John Covach who says “In a verse-chorus [form]...the focus of the song is squarely on the chorus...[T]he verses serve primarily to prepare the return of the chorus’’ (Osborn, 2013, p. 23) and this makes the song sound like it’s using the chorus as the main bringer of emotion to the song. Many grunge songs, due to the fact that they are part of the rock genre, did use this form. It allowed many of the emotions of the first verse to be realized and then an overall feeling of dissatisfaction to be released about these feelings. This can especially be seen in “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana, which starts with verse 1
I've been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks
I've been drawn into your magnetar pit trap trap
. The music plays on the use of the verse-chorus form to highlight the emotions of feeling trapped and helpless, which are then built on during the chorus
I've got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice
I've got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice
I've got a new complaint
. The chorus is emphasizing the trapped feeling the singer is feeling, which he compares to debt. He feels that he is ever in debt and trapped. The next verse, which is musically a mirror of the first verse, but the lyrics speak of the great helpless he feels. This form allows great emphasis on the chorus and it also climaxes at the end when the last chorus is repeated. However, not every grunge song contained this form. In Glycerine by Bush, the song has a much different form, but still allows the emotions of sorrow and regret be portrayed to the audience.
It’s all about the emotions being reached. They did not need to use this form to release and tell all of the audience their problems. It can be reached just as well with other songs
Section 2: Elements of Writing a Grunge Song
A Satirical Way of Writing a Grunge Song
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So now that we have a solid understanding of what harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and form are and how they are used in grunge music, we are now ready to write a song that emphasizes the true elements of grunge music. Here we are going to go step by step and identify how to create one of these grunge songs. We will be looking back at both our background and analysis of grunge songs to help us determine the best way to make a number one seller like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. If one is not familiar with a lot of grunge music, I would suggest looking at my page Grunge in London. That page will give you more background and information about the grunge era and includes some of its iconic songs from artists both from America and London. The purpose of this is to create a light-hearted and funny guide that highlights the both the technical aspects of grunge music and its unique sound that was learned in the background. While also pointing out repetitive nature of the themes, its inaudible lyrics, and their creepy videos. This is all made in good fun and is not meant to diminish any of the personal problems that these singers faced. They had very serious problems that some were not able to overcome and many did use music as an outlet to express their emotions. But for our purposes, we are focusing more on the teen angst portion, which contains more insignificant problems like Wi-Fi buffering or not having the latest video game, which is trying to fit in with this current generation of teenagers in a world of technology. From this, we will produce steps to creating a chart-topping, show-stopping, musical genius of a grunge song that has the consideration of the elements of music we analyzed.
Grunge music was very much known for its aesthetic and its ability to connect with the youth of generation x or those born in the 1990’s. It covered many “distasteful” topics such as depression, suicide, and alienation, which many grunge artists experienced and fought a daily battle to overcome. Today, many still listen to grunge music and find it comforting to know that there were others out there going through the same struggles of feeling forgotten, rejected and lost. But for those who feel that grunge music does not fit in with their technology filled life, they may want to create a grunge song that covers a topic they feel creates negative feelings for them. So to get into the proper mindset to write this song, one must dig deep into the recesses of his or her feelings of teen angst to dig out some sort of darker emotions. May I suggest a YouTube video of a pug who can’t roll over, not having enough phone data, or trying to watch the finale of your favorite show but the Wi-Fi keeps buffering the video? Think of something that is basically insignificant to the rest of the world and only really matters to you. A bad selfie would qualify as a good one also but may need to be prefaced that it was posted to social media and your crush may see it. Horrifying I know! Once you have found the feelings you would like to express in your song, start thinking of how you would like to portray those emotions and what you would like the overall sound to be. These feelings will be the base of your song and all of your further decisions will be based on the mood created by these emotions. I have personally dug out from the recesses of my long-buried teen nerdy angst the feeling of anxiety and sorrow when my code wouldn’t compile.
Emotion and Harmony
Your next step is choosing how you would like to portray that to your listeners. I would do this by making it sound like the world will end if the code doesn’t work and that all will be lost. Don’t be afraid to be over dramatic. That’s what attracts people to the music is the drama and emotion. Right? Now that that has been cleared up, the actual song can now be written. One must start with the most crucial part first, the harmony. When done right, the harmony helps to create the emotion of the music. In grunge, musicians experimented with a variety of different techniques and ideas. They wanted to step out of the norm of alternative music. So, they experimented the chords of the music and found that when they distort the note a great deal it produces a much richer sound that reaches higher. Therefore, much of grunge music is written in 3 note chords which stem from a key signature. So, the first part of creating your harmony is deciding what key you would like your song, which you could do by picking you favorite note. I will be arbitrarily picking the key of F major. If you have a favorite key pick that one; it will make it more personal to you. Next, for choosing your chord progressions pick whatever sounds good together. Also, make sure to have at least one modulation of a note in there. It is a grunge classic and a must if you want your song to be grunge. This will create the dissonance you are looking for and will add to any emotion ranging from hatred to anxiety. Wow look at that, after playing with chords for a few hours, you will be able to get some chord progressions that you like. At this stage, you will also have to decide what instruments you would like to use. You honestly can’t go wrong with the grunge classic of guitar, bass guitar and drum set. If you are feeling fancy you could add another instrument to complement your theme and mood.
After your harmony is all figured out, which will probably take a while, you will need to figure out your rhythm. The rhythm as stated before is really based on the emotion of the song so you’re going to need to play around with the speeds until you feel it has reached the right mood to represent the emotions you are trying to portray. Many grunge pieces have a range from 90-120 (bpm), but feel free to choose one that best suits the song. Dynamics is another important part of the piece do to that fact it determines what sections are loud and what sections are softer. Many times gunge utilized dynamics to create a call and response type of sound in the song. It also had the power to create tension in a song so it may work for your song if that is what you are striving for. One may also put accents on different parts of the song where you want to highlight a lyrics. The last thing you’ll need is the form of the song or how it the song is constructed both lyrically and musically. It is all about the repetition of the song of the chorus and its verses. The classic rock and grunge form of the 1990s was the verse-chorus form that focused its attention to the chorus. This is a really nice form for if you are highlighting your chorus. Though all grunge songs did not use this form, they also achieved their aesthetic by used other forms. So feel free to look into other forms that may make your song more grunge. The last requirement to writing a grunge song is lyrics! All grunge songs contained lyrics that expressed their emotions, so make your lyrics emotional and full of angst. As a bonus, have your singer sing very muffled and with almost unintelligible manner. It seemed really popular with bands such as Nirvana and Radiohead. You can't really hear the lyrics but you still felt a deep emotional connection to them. Any of these steps can be done in any order, so maybe start with the harmony or lyrics and form. It's really up to you. Much of the genre was experimentation held together by angst and great chords. And there you have it! You have created the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Now go out and share your amazing song with the world, brace the world for its awesomeness!
Musical analysis of songs
Taking what has been learned about harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and form and its importance to grunge music now lets look at some songs created in the "grunge" music style. Keep in mind that you're just taking a small slice of examples and that this table isn't all-encompassing. Also note that some of the harmony listed is a general overview of the keys/tonalities explored. Find out more about grunge music and its history here.
|Grunge Music of the Late 1980's - Mid 1990's|
|Musical Elements||Heart Shaped Box||Black Hole Sun||Creep||Glycerine||Man in the Box|
|Artist||Nirvana||Soundgarden||Radiohead||Bush||Alice in Chains|
In this project, I did an analysis of music theory from the point of view of grunge music. Music, in general, is so incredibly versatile with its ability to change one element to change the whole song and its intentions. All of the elements of music are important to delivering the music’s message. So I decided to look at grunge music though four of the elements of music to give an in-depth analysis on how these elements create the grunge sound. I also looked for ways the elements of music tied the whole genre together and gave it its particular sound. Grunge music was a unique genre that popped up as a sub-genera of alternative music, so I wanted to see what made it stand out from the rest. I determined that the genre itself was notable for its emotional connection to the music. The artists took advantage of rhythm, form, dynamics, and harmony to fit their feelings of depression, angst, and anger. Most notable they changed the way chords were heard by distorting the music’s sounds. It created a fuller sound and changed the chord progressions. They were very experimental and passionate about their music and led me to a “pattern” in their music, which was that it had to be full of emotion and it had to have distortion of chords that allowed them to modulate certain notes. I was then able to play off of this pattern to create a satirized guide to creating grunge music. In the future, I would like to see more research done on patterns in grunge music because this music created a generation and still inspires many today.
- STRONG, C. (2016). GRUNGE: music and memory. S.l.: ROUTLEDGE.
- Samama, L., & Clements, D. (2016). What is music? In The Meaning of Music (pp. 27-31). Amsterdam University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.wpi.edu/stable/j.ctt1b9x1ts.5
- The Elements Of Music. 1st ed. West Michigan University. Web. 30 May 2017.
- McDonald, C. (2000). Exploring modal subversions in alternative music. Popular Music, 19(3), 355-363. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.wpi.edu/stable/853641
- Osborn, B. (2013). Subverting the Verse–Chorus paradigm; terminally climactic forms in recent rock music. Music Theory Spectrum, 35(1), 23-47. doi:10.1525/mts.2013.35.1.23
- Gow, G. (1915). Rhythm: The Life of Music. The Musical Quarterly, 1(4), 637-652. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/738071
- The Elements Of Music. 1st ed. West Michigan University. Web. 30 May 2017.
- The Elements Of Music. 1st ed. West Michigan University. Web. 30 May 2017
- Osborn, B. (2013). Subverting the Verse–Chorus Paradigm: Terminally Climactic Forms in Recent Rock Music. Music Theory Spectrum, 35(1), 23-47. doi:10.1525/mts.2013.35.1.23