Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album cover This week I have been revisiting Michael Jackson‘s 1982 album “Thriller“. I’ve been listening for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician from this great album. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was a huge part of my childhood.

I was six years old when the famous 14 minute”Michael Jackson’s Thriller” video first aired on MTV. This was a major event. MTV even announced the times of each broadcast of the full video. My neighbor friends and I would get together to watch, and dance with, the video as often as possible. I still have the vinyl record of the album that my family had then. I still love this album; while it has definitely had its influence on me, I found it difficult to listen objectively to an album I’ve known so well for so long.

Drum machines and synthesizers feature prominently throughout the album, but real guitars, bass, drums, and even some brass are heard on several songs. The rhythm of most songs emphasizes the fourth beat, especially of every second measure; the rhythms are usually built on 2 or 4 bar patterns with the last quarter not of each accented. This emphasis is created by adding a handclap to the snare, adding an echo to the snare, and/or by stopping the bass or other instrument on that fourth beat. Otherwise, there’s usually the standard kick on the first and third beat and snare on the second and fourth. Syncopation is created by guitars and other instruments. These rhythms work well with Jackson’s dances.

The groove of “Billie Jean” stands as one of the greatest in pop music. The song opens with an extremely basic kick and snare. The use of a subtle reverb with an 8th note delay gives that opening sequence a distinctive feel. Synth maracas on the syncopated 8th notes encourage movement. And then enters the bouncing synth bassline, which plays on nearly every 8th note. A soft synth plays staccato chords on the first and just before the third beat, adding a little hop and a touch of the sinister.

The slow pop “Human Nature” remains one of my favorite tracks. Steve Porcaro of Toto wrote the music; Having just learn this, I do notice some stylistic similarities between “Human Nature” and Toto’s “Africa“. Michael Jackson’s song, though, has much more of a quiet storm feel. The tempo is extremely slow at about 46 BPM. The relaxed vocals and gentle groove of the song provide an fairly flowing feel to the music.

I enjoy the additional of quiet backing vocals that are easily missed without headphones. At the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’“, Michael can be heard in the left channel singing along “bada bada bump” with the funky electric guitar line. In the same track, some sped-up vocals repeat the line “You’re a vegetable.” These subtle additions add some character and depth to the sound.

Of course the title track, “Thriller“, grabs the listener’s attention and imagination. The tempo travels at a standard 120 BPM. This common tempo makes people want to move and is particularly easy to dance to. The key is an unusual C#m, and actually plays with a lot of 7th chords, without sending particularly jazzy. Except for the choruses, most of the song stretches out I7-IV7 chord progressions. The repetitive and simple bassline and drums keep that a sense of urgent drive throughout the song. There’s synthesized hand percussion and pluck sounds that add interest to the otherwise basic drums.

At about 4:15, when most pop songs would’ve ended, the famous Vincent Price section starts. In fact, the song builds up to what normally would’ve been a conclusion, but the drums keep going and the song is reduced to a very simple but menacing bassline pulsing twice on the first beat. An synth pipe organ hauntingly moans in the back. Michael provides various scat singing underneath Vincent Price’s spoken word. It’s really an excellent effect.

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