Music education always & always looking forward.

The Spoons Are Shifting: Changing Meter in Soundgarden's "Spoonman"

A proggy exercise in meter in an alternative rock classic.

I was a 90s teen, through & through. I was raised on MTV & alternative rock radio. Suffice to say, even without being a proper Soundgarden fan, their music was part of the sonic furniture in my teenage listening rooms.  Hearing of Chris Cornell's untimely death is indeed sad news.  

Looking back, as a lot of music fans are tonight, Soundgarden deserved the fame they achieved.  Chris Cornell's voice was inimitable, and Kim Thayil is an absolute beast of a guitarist.  Even as they pioneered Seattle grunge, take away the Drop D Tuning and Soundgarden could have very well passed as a prog rock band.  They sure did love changing meter and unusual time signatures, and really showed it off on "Spoonman".  (Which is also safe enough to play in front of teenagers!)

Furthermore, in an industry still rife with terrible people, a good look tells us that Chris Cornell did a lot of good for a lot of people, both as a musician and as a person.  He and his wife Vicky set up a foundation with the intent of protecting vulnerable children in 2012, and you can find out more about that here.  

“Spoonman” - Soundgarden

Intro: A pop culture mainstay of the Seattle-based grunge rock sound of the 1990s, Soundgarden released three albums before becoming MTV darlings upon the release of Superunknown in 1994. “Spoonman” was the lead single from this album, released a month before the album's release. The song helped the album to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 album charts. The album was nominated for a Grammy in 1995 for Best Rock Album and won two additional Grammys, including Best Heavy Metal Performance for “Spoonman”. The band released another album in 1996, broke up in 1997 and saw many of its members move onto to solo or other band projects, and reformed in 2012, releasing a brand new album. The band was on a national tour when lead singer Chris Cornell died in Detroit on May 17th, 2015.

Spoiler Alert: The breakdown section of the song flirts with 7/4 time, deviating heavily from common meter in rock songs.

Analysis: The main riff of “Spoonman”, a song about the imagined life of a street musician, was written by accident, or so said Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil. The opening guitar riff of the song covers 14 beats, which can be divided in several ways – as either three bars of 4/4 followed by a measure of 2/4, two bars of 7/4, or alternating measures of 4/4 and 3/4 played twice (it has been published as both the second & third interpretations). The chorus (arriving at :59 in the video recording embedded) is in 4/4 time and uses a different riff, until the chorus section concludes with the opening riff (at 1:09), over which lead singer Chris Cornell sings “save me” repeatedly. Changing meter comes back into play at the second bridge (the first bridge section, featuring guitar, remains in 4/4 with two bars of 2/4 interspersed). The second bridge section starts off as a percussion break featuring only drumset and spoons (at 2:48). One interpretation of the meter at the drum break is that the tempo picks up, almost twice as fast as the tempo throughout the rest of the song, and the meter is a simple 4/4. At 3:04, the tempo changes instantaneously to its original speed, with a bass solo (with spoons!) played in 4/4 time. This time signature continues until the end of the third chorus (3:55), where the 14 beat pattern & original riff return and play out until the end of the song. 

Considerations for Teaching: Despite the reputation of heavy metal or even most grunge music as totally inappropriate for classroom use, the topic of the song is essentially empathy for a street musician. The song contains no inappropriate lyrics or subject matter & is totally suitable for classroom use.

Edited lightly for content & brevity on August, 3rd, 2018.

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