Magoosh English Class: The Life and Death of Grunge Music

Welcome to part 2 of our series of free English classes series about Music in America: Rock Music! In this lesson, we’re going to learn about a sub-genre of rock made famous in the early 1990s called Grunge.


  • Explore the history of Seattle’s grunge music scene
  • Learn about one of the most famous subgenres of rock music
  • Learn basic English terms used around musical topics
  • Explore a basic grammar topic advanced learners must memorize

Difficulty Level:



Approximately 15 minutes

Grunge Music in America

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

The term grunge is American slang for dirty or repugnant, and that’s what this sub-genre of rock music embodied in the late 1980s to early 1990s. This style originated in the Pacific Northwest around Seattle and the surrounding cities and, for a brief time, was the most popular music in America.

The origins of grunge rock began around 1984. Future Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic said he heard dirge-like songs with slow and heavy riffs being played by former punk bands at local shows. Many punk bands had slowed their rhythms down to create more of a metal rock sound. In fact, some bands completely flipped their playing style by playing punk rock songs backwards. This meant that players were descending the neck of the guitar, which made the songs sound more ominous and dark.

Ultimately, grunge music is a fusion of punk rock and heavy metal. It uses the electric guitar with a guitar pedal to create distortion sounds played loudly on a powerful amplifier. Bands combined this with an electric bass guitar and a smaller drum kit than those used by the metal bands of the 80s.

Concerts and shows were loud and high-energy performances where people would scream and wildly jump around along with the performers. Grunge musicians ditched the costumes and flamboyant hair styles of the 80s in favor of everyday clothing and had unkempt hairstyles. They considered it trendy to spend less on clothing.

In the early 1990s, many of the Seattle grunge bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains signed with major record labels. And in doing so, their style and sounds broke into mainstream American culture. But it came with a price.

Many grunge musicians never sought fame and fortune and were heavily involved in drugs and alcohol. This combination proved deadly for some famous grunge musicians like Curt Kobain, Mike Starr, Layne Staley, Andrew Wood, and Stefanie Sargent.

The 1994 death of Kurt Cobain proved to be the beginning of the end of grunge rock. Many imitation bands had copied the sounds of popular grunge bands. By the mid-1990s, it was all over, and grunge rock was replaced with commercialized pop rock. But, for a time, grunge rock was on the top of the world, and it’s made a lasting impression on the history of rock music in America.

Here’s a video summing up the essence of 90s grunge music:

Word Focus

  • Repugnant – (adjective) – Something considered objectionable, distasteful, or even offensive.
    • I can’t believe we had to listen to that speech. The things said were absolutely repugnant.
  • Embodied – (verb) – To give a bodily form or make concrete. Personify. Make something material.
    • Kurt Cobain embodied the attitudes and styles that were prevalent within grunge culture.
  • Dirge – (noun) – Songs full of grief and sorrow.
    • Dirge hymns are typically played at a funeral.
  • Riff – (noun) – A pattern, melody, or repeated chord progression that creates the basis or accompaniment of a song.
    • Wow, did you hear that riff? It sounds like a new take of something I heard on one of my dad’s old records from the 50s.
  • Metal Rock – (noun) – Subgenre of rock music developed in the late 60s/early 70s that utilizes loud sounds, guitar solos, and distortion.
    • The bands Black Sabbath and Deep Purple were a couple of the pioneers of metal rock.
  • Neck of the Guitar – (noun) – The neck of a guitar is located on the upper part of the body of the guitar. It contains the base of the fingerboard where players place their fingers atop the strings to create different notes and pitches.
  • Guitar Pedal/Distortion – (noun) – Distortion is a way to alter audio signal processing from an electric guitar with the use of a distortion guitar pedal. The sounds from the amplifier will sound fuzzy and gritty, like growling..
    • He bought a new guitar pedal last week so the band could really hit that distortion sound.
  • Amplifier – (noun) – Also known as an amp. A device that converts the sound of an instrument into a larger electrical signal that can be sourced into a loudspeaker.
    • I just got a new amp last week for my guitar, and now everything sounds much smoother.
  • Drum Kit – (noun) – Any collection of drums and cymbals set up on a stand and intended to be played by a single player.
    • Did you see the size of his drum kit? He must’ve had over 10 different drums
  • Unkempt – (adjective) – Disheveled or disorderly looking. Not combed.
    • I went over to her apartment and figured he was working a lot because the place was very unkempt.

Grammar Center: Dependent Prepositions

Look at this sentence from the passage:

Grunge musicians ditched the costumes and flamboyant hair styles of the 80s and dressed in everyday style clothes and had unkempt hairstyles.

Notice the combination of dressed and in is used to describe the clothes commonly worn by grunge musicians. It isn’t dressed on or dressed up or dressed down or any other combination of verb and preposition. This is known as dependent prepositions.

There’s a lengthy list of expressions that include verbs, nouns, and adjectives that always combine with a particular preposition. Dependent prepositions do not, however, combine with adverbs.

The problem for many ESL speakers is that these phrases don’t always translate well into other languages. In fact, sometimes there is no explanation for the combination except to say, “That’s just how we say it.” As an advanced speaker, it’s important to know the common list of these combinations.

But don’t worry! You can review the short list below or take a look at this longer list of dependent prepositions.

Top Dependent Prepositions to Know


  • Apply for
  • Pay for
  • Wait for


  • Believe in
  • Get in
  • Excel in


  • Refer to
  • Face up to
  • Consent to


1. Based on the passage above, which of the following statements is true?

a. The death of Kurt Cobain signaled the downfall of grunge music.

b. Grunge musicians put on low energy performances with loud music.

c. Punk rock and glamor rock were the two biggest influences on grunge music.

d. Grunge music started in Seattle and didn’t go beyond the region.


2. Which of the following statements best summarizes the central idea of the passage?

a. Grunge music arrived and was gone before anyone knew it.

b. Grunge music began the trend of using guitar pedals for distortion sounds.

c. Grunge style had a lasting impression on American culture.

d. Grunge music began in the 1980s and transitioned into large, mainstream success, but it faded quickly into Rock history.


3. Based on your understanding of the word unkempt, which of the following is not something that could be considered unkempt?

a. A room

b. A yard

c. A cup

d. A desk


4. Which of the following words is the best synonym for the word repugnant?

a. Unfriendly

b. Inconsistent

c. Alien

d. Disgusting


5. Of the following expressions which is not the correct use of a dependent preposition?

a. Deal to

b. Hide from

c. Object to

d. Vote for


6. Dependent prepositions do not combine with:

a. Verbs

b. Adverbs

c. Adjectives

d. Nouns

Show Correct Answers:
  1. A
  2. D
  3. C
  4. D
  5. A
  6. B
Jake Pool

Jake Pool

Jake Pool worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade and left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. In his time at Magoosh, he's worked with hundreds of students and has created content that's informed—and hopefully inspired!—ESL students all across the globe. Jake records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension as he also works as a voice-over artist who has been featured in commercials and on audiobooks. You can read his posts on the Magoosh blog and see his other work on his portfolio page at You can follow him on LinkedIn!
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