Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s 1959 album “Kind of Blue” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. Though not my first time hearing the album, this week definitely served as an introduction. As the songs are all instrumentals, I have no lyrics to discuss. Yet, the music itself speaks in a different language than I’m accustomed.

This is instrumental jazz instead of the rock and pop that I usually listen to. Furthermore, it presents to me the unfamiliar concept of modal jazz. I avoid giving an explanation here for fear that I get it wrong. The article on Wikipedia gives a basic description. Modal jazz is challenging to me, because I’m accustomed to tonal music. In tonal music, the foundation of a song consists of chord progressions that travel from and return to the tonic chord. As I understand it, modal jazz utilizes modal changes instead of chord progressions. Hack Music Theory has a short video explaining Modes. With modal jazz, Miles Davis gave freedom to the melody by releasing it from constraints of chord progressions. I hope I’m getting this right.

Still, my familiarity with tonal music contributes to “All Blues” being the song I most enjoy. While the songs goes through mode changes, within each the song follows a 12 bar blues chord progression. “All Blue” probably fails to be a true example of modal jazz for this reason. The track is in 6/8 time with the emphasis on the first and fourth eight note. Secondary emphasis on the third and sixth give the rhythm a little hop. A gentle rumbling piano opens the track to be joined by horns. This gives an atmosphere of the train yard in twilight or early morning. The rhythmic hi-hat tapping emphasizes this feeling.

That brings me to how fascinating I find the percussion on this album. It’s almost completely based on the hi-hat. The cymbals are played with great expression to convey rhythm. In rock and pop, the hats are most often used to keep time while the kick and snare convey rhythm. The percussion on “Kind of Blue” gives the hats great importance. The drummer plays the other drums much less often than I’m used to. The snare provides occasional emphasis, to add some flavor or to occasionally signify a change. A brush slides across the surface, the rim is tapped, or light trills provide texture. This greater variety of sounds from the snare really gets my interest.

The opening track “So What” also grabbed my interest. The piano plays “buh-boop” followed by the bass “duh doodoo doodoo doodoo doo doo” introducing the foundation of the song. There’s 16 bars in one mode, then 8 in another, returning to 8 of the first mode. Once this is introduces, a splash of cymbal tells kicks off the real journey. Horns take turns soloing improvisational melodic lines over the rhythm section. As mentioned earlier, the cymbals provide the sense of rhythm. The bass gives a foundation for that rhythm. On the piano, chords are played but they are not the drive of the song. They more provide interesting emphasis and offsets to the rhythm. Sometimes, to my ear, the chords sound strangely wrong, but oddly appropriate. This cool music sounds alien to me. I don’t understand the language, but I can feel it.

I definitely need more than a week with this album to full appreciate it. Its cool smoky night-time feel really gets me. I’m looking forward to more from Miles Davis as well as some of the other musicians on this album. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley played the saxophones and Bill Evans played the piano. I already know some of Coltrane’s work. I understand that Bill Evans was a major part of this album’s compositions.  Also Jimmy Cobb played the drums here. I feel that I can learn a lot from his use of drums for my own programming of drum machines. I can learn a lot from this album, especially in the way instruments are being used and interact with each other.  The concept of modal jazz presents a challenge to me which gives me a desire to further understand it.

Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”

Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album coverThis past week, I’ve been listening to the Sex Pistols’ 1977 debut (and only) album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Admittedly, that statement isn’t very punk rock and seems antithetical to the idea of the Sex Pistols. I’m not very punk rock either. Still, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) spoke of the importance for musicians to know their craft and the work of others. I do that every week.

The album opens with the sound of troops marching as “Holiday in the Sun” begins. The dirty distorted guitars buzz in, providing a fantastic start to an album. Here comes the first line “Cheap holiday in other people’s misery” during the intro riffs. It hints at the tone of the album and introduces the listener to singer Johnny Rotten’s vocal style. His voice confidently delivers an attitude at turns sardonic, accusatory, witty, disgusted and angry. That single opening line expresses all of that really well before the actual lyrics even start. Most of the lyrics attack an institution of some kind, whether it’s the royal family, classicism, social norms, government, or even the music industry. This album gives voice to the disaffected frothing with disillusionment.

Twenty years ago, I thought it was sounded universal and fresh, now it definitely sounds 1970s and British. It’s the sound of youth, but it’s the youth of today’s youth’s grandparents. I imagine to a younger generation it might even have all the quaintness that “Rock Around the Clock” had to me at their age. Still, the Sex Pistols music is so infused with rebellion that it still carries some sense of danger, however outmoded.

The distinguishing riff of “Holiday in the Sun” follows the Andalusian cadence; This is a descending I5-VII5-VI5-V5 progression; Of course, the V (G5 in this case) provides a perfect return back to the I (C5) so it sounds great to our ears. It’s always been one of my favorites. This solid progression can provide a sense of menace as it does here. The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” provides a much less menacing example. A verses repeat a V chord, dropping down to IV for rhythmic emphasis, and the choruses are I-II. This sounds a lot of like  I-IV-V, giving the song a solid rock n roll feel.

The track “Pretty Vacant” has always been one of my favorites. The song opens with the guitar playing a distinctive broken A-chord. Undoubtedly, the opening riff provide some inspiration to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. A I5-VII5-IV5-I5-VII5-V5 chord progression supports the verses. The choruses follow another descending riff: IV5-IIIb5-I. I notice here playing the chords within the key is not necessarily a conscious concern. As with Nirvana, the Pistols like wrote songs by finding movements of power-chords along the frets that sound good.  Basically, for rock n roll, sometimes you gotta get your head out of the books and your fingers on the guitar.

The closing track “EMI” has also been one of my favorites since I first heard it. Johnny’s catchy vocal delivery instantly makes the song lovable. Plus, who doesn’t love a good middle-finger to the record company track? Well, okay, it could be pretty lame and come across as cry-baby whining that the average listener can’t relate to. I appreciate the audaciousness involved in blatantly naming the company. They lyrics involve too some admonitions regarding pop culture and the music industry for everybody’s ears. That and the song gets strength from its fantastic mixture of anger and fun. One can get a lot of musical miles out strong vocals, a chorused (or is it double-tracked?) overdriven guitar, bass, and drums.

The final song of the Sex Pistols final concert (not counting reunions) was an emotional expression of disappointment and disgust. For an encore they performed a cover of The Stooges’ song.  Appropriately, this song was “No Fun.”  I’ve never heard the original, but I’ve always liked the Pistol’s covers of it. I won’t go into the background stories of the Winterland concert, but suffice it to say Johnny had had enough; He was facing that realization and the last few minutes of that performance were the result.  The Pistols weren’t built to last, but they produced a powerful album during their short existence.

Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”

Pink Floyd Dark Side coverI spent a week listening to Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I do this each week with a different album with some recognition as one of the greats. My father enjoyed Pink Floyd so I grew up hearing this album quite a bit. I know all these songs very well. So there wasn’t a lot of discovery happening; this week reminded me what I love about the album.

Experts on such things recommend that songwriters have interesting vocals start during the first 20 seconds. The thinking went that somebody reviewing demos would hit eject if it didn’t get their attention in that time. In today’s world of internet streaming, recommendations include having an attention-getting hook within 7 seconds.

In sharp contrast to that advice, this album opens with 36 seconds of nothing but a faded-in heartbeat. Indeed, the first 7 seconds only provide near silence. Then a variety of sound effects rise into a maddening crescendo, broken by a slow groove with bass, flanged guitar, echoey slide guitar, and electric piano. Sometimes the electric piano and slide guitar meld into each other, losing their identity. It’s eerily dreamy.

I like that the songs of the album flow into each, but each is distinct. With “Dark Side of the Moon,” Pink Floyd crafted a collection of individual songs conceived as whole. This idea of an album had a huge influence on me. Before Trip Gunn, I designed whole albums. I built a structure of songs supporting an overall concept. My albums incorporated a Floydian style of having one song lead into the next. I decided with Trip Gunn that I would focus on writing good songs rather than always trying to make big albums. Not that one is better than the other, I just felt I needed to change the way I was thinking.

One of my favorite songs “Time” has not one, but two intros. That’s not why I like it, but I find it interesting. The track starts with the end of an explosion (from the previous track) and several clock alarm chimes going off at once. The second intro is a long section of long-held bass notes on guitar, rototom rolls, and electric piano. The rototoms, which were a new instrument at the time, add interest to a section that I would otherwise find too long.

After two and a half minutes pass, the actual songs kicks in with vocals and a funky rock accompaniment. A lot is said about Floyd in terms of space and psychedelic rock, but they had a particularly funky side too. The back-and-forth play between instruments in songs like this is particularly interesting. I love making use of this in some of my own songs and would like to do it more often.

Of course, “Eclipse” as well as the track “Brain Damage” that leads directly into it. The song has a gospel feel, thanks largely to the organ and backing female vocals. But also the repeating I-IV7-I-IV7-I-II-V-V7-I chord progression give it a spiritually uplifting feel. Added to this is that the track builds into intensity until reaching the concluding lines “Everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” And the song is over, fade out heartbeat.

Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”

Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" album coverI’ve been getting to know Van Morrison’s 1968 album “Astral Weeks” for my “To My Ear” project. Each week I listen to an album generally recognized for being great. The goal is to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician; The process also introduces me to some great music. I disliked this album with the first few listens and was really dreading giving it a full seven days. I heard little more than monotonous ramblings over musicians trying to find a song. Gradually, parts of it grew on me. Not only did I experience usual side-effect of familiarity, but my brain had to learn how to process it. I still don’t really like most of the album, but I came to like a few tracks.

The fourth track “Cypress Avenue” closes side one of the record. The music follows something a blues progression played with in a relaxed chamber folk style. The accompaniment consists of upright bass, acoustic guitar, harpsichord, violins, and flute. The violin and flute seem to be languidly improvising throughout the song. Their apparent lack of purpose beyond atmospheric accompaniment give the song a directionless quality shared with the rest of the album. The feeling of sameness makes the already long seven minutes feel like forever. Still, this song has a stronger sense of rhythm than most them. The blues structure helps the lyrics feel less like poetic ramblings.

Those lyrics carry a sense of nostalgia and longing. Their conscious of the distance between the present and the past within the locale. This is a topic that resonates with me strongly and one that I often visit in my own songs already.

The next track, “Like Young Lovers Do, opens the second side. Like, well, the rest of the album, the song flows along in a monotonous way. In this case it’s forgiven because it’s less then four minutes long. The use of strings and horns provides a sense of movement, especially at the close of each chorus. In fact, these instruments make the chorus feel like the chorus. It’s overall a nice little song. Though, honestly, it may largely benefit from sounding different than the rest of the album.

The next track Madame George consisting stood out as my favorite all week. It was the first to catch my attention. Even after listening to the whole album multiple times, none of them had the same grand sense of purpose and heart as “Madame George.” The lyrics provide enough narrative to draw the listener in, but enough ample room for questions and interpretation. “Madame George” is a seriously good song, even when not considering how boring the rest of the album can be.

Before I get into discussing this one track, let me say that I feel like I’m missing something by not appreciating the rest of the album. Maybe spending more time with it would help. However, my goal here is to improve my songwriting. I feel that a good song gets better with repeat listening; I’m not so sure that it should take more than a week of repeated listening to appreciate a song. I spent a full week with this album and only one song truly grabbed me.

The chords of “Madame George” repeat a standard I-IV-V progression throughout. The bass provides rhythmic movement. The percussion remains silent until the very end of the song a little high-hat picks up the pace of the outro. I’ve learned this option from a few other albums I’ve listened to: have the bass serve the rhythmic purpose usually the responsibility of percussion. Chords strummed on a quiet acoustic guitar add rhythmic texture to the accompaniment. In this case it bounces across the song emphasizing the chord changes.

Over this surprisingly engaging music, Morrison sings well-written nostalgic lyrics about a final meeting (or is it George) and departure. Van Morrison leaves a lot open to interpretation. Who or what is Madame Joy and why is the speaker meeting with Madame Joy? Why is she so concerned with the potential arrival of the cops? Why is the speaker leaving on the train and why meet up with Madame Joy before leaving? Even so, it’s more about emotion than details and backstory. Each verse, a heart-captured snapshot of an event. Of this ten minute song, I do feel like the last four minutes are unnecessary. Though this may represent the speaker riding away on the train, it extends the song past the story.

I love all of the lyrics, but the fourth is my favorite today

And then from outside the frosty window raps.
She jumps up and says, “Lord, have mercy I think it’s the cops,”
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below;
And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row,
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below.
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame Joy

I like that the startled reaction of Madame Joy gives a glimpse into her personality and lifestyle. The frosty window gives some indication what time of year it may be. We also learn that Madame Joy lives in Dublin and the speaker is taking the train to Sandy Row, which is in Belfast. The song started “down on Cyprus Avenue”, which is also in Belfast. I used Google Maps to figure this out. I get the feeling that the speaker is on Cyprus Avenue and gets hit with memories of Madame Joy, whom he goes to visit in Dublin. The visit isn’t all wonderful, and then heads back home on the train. So this verse helps put more of the story into perspective.

I also like that Madame Joy’s action of “dropping everything she gots down into the street below” will be echoed by the speakers “throwing pennies at the bridges down below” on the train ride. He pictures the “rain, hail, sleet, and snow” saying “goodbye to Madame Joy” which are all forms of precipitation like tears. While the song ends with several reminders to “dry your eyes for Madame Joy.” It’s a great song the way these things reveal themselves upon repeat listenings.

I wish I’d found the rest of the album so rewarding. I will definitely revisit, but I’m taking a break for a while from Van Morrison.

The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”

The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album coverI’ve devoted the past week to the Beatles‘ 1969 album “Abbey Road” for what I can learn to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. This album has long been my favorite Beatles album, though I must admit I’m not familiar with all of them yet. I’ve been looking forward to this week. It would be a challenge to keep it short, but it’s also been a busy week for me otherwise; I haven’t had a lot of time to write

As with the two Beatles albums I’ve already spent a week with, melody drives these songs. The band plays interesting accompaniment throughout, but it’s usually in support of the vocals. Between vocal lines, some other instrument often follows the melody path tying parts together. These songs provide a lesson in the importance of melody and focal point.

Come Together” starts the album with a classic bassline. This paired with percussion that rolls across hi-hats and toms creates cyclic coming and going groove. The effect is engaging, groovy, somewhat bluesy and even a little sinister. I can almost see the motion created by this rhythm. It’s one of the most rock n roll songs on the album. The verse are in a common rock I-V-IV progression performed in a blues style. Then the chorus hits with a vi#-IV- V that builds in intensity to drop back to the opening tonic bassline groove. I really enjoy the lyrics; I can’t say they mean much. It’s rock n roll injected nonsense.

Here Comes the Sun” bears a bright open optimistic feel appropriate to the lyrics. The song accomplishes this even with several moments of descending glissando on accompanying instruments. My favorite part of the song is probably the middle eight, which begins exactly at the mid-point of the song. I like the combination of use of the Moog synthesizer with very nature sounding handclaps.

I find the lyric to be a bit too cheerful hippie-dippy; Yet, I do appreciate the pastoral quality of lines like “Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here: Here comes the sun.” They sidestep excess elements of human society and modern life to focus on a basic and enduring fact of nature: the change of the seasons.

My favorite part of the album is the medley of songs that make up most of side two: “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.” I’ve always had a thing for songs with multiple sections and side 2 of Abbey Road more than qualifies.

These were apparently unfinished songs written by the Beatles, therefore worked together to form a whole. Somewhat of an exception is “Golden Slumbers”, a song largely based on “Cradle Song” by Thomas Dekker. This poem from the 17th century read:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.
Care is heavy, therefore sleep you,
You are care, and care must keep you ;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

The main difference in the Beatles song is the addition of the lines “Once, there was a way to get back homeward. Once, there was a way to get back home.” which draws out the melancholy latent in the original. This beautiful tune with theatrical qualities leads into the burst of a ending march “Carry That Weight.” “Carry That Weight” repeats the melody of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” This ties the medley together. The lyrics then makes what I believe to an inverse reference to “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On” with “I never give you my pillow, I only send you my invitations.”

David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory”

David Bowie Hunk Dory album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1971 LP “Hunky Dory” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This was Bowie’s fourth album and my second for this “To My Ear” project after “Ziggy Stardust” about a month ago. I’m doing it backwards, I suppose. “Hunky Dory” came out about 7 months before “Ziggy Stardust” and a line of artist progress runs between the them. Sometimes, I feel this album shows Bowie as an actor seeking a role, which he later finds in Ziggy Stardust.

The album opens with “Changes” which immediately hits me with the same sense of theatrical found on “Ziggy Stardust.” I love this about both albums: they as much about music as they are performance. The peculiar first verse hints at the idea of Bowie as the actor in search of something.   In the first verse, the performer reflects and almost confesses. “So I turned myself to face me, but I’ve never caught a glimpse how the others must see the faker.”

Musically, I love the dynamic difference between the verses and choruses of “Changes”. Bowie sings the verses gently over a quiet accompaniment of piano, bass guitar, and strings with no percussion. It’s theatrical with the lights down low. Then drums march along during the chorus which has more of a 50s rock n roll feel with a bit of boogie-woogie.

Life On Mars” is the best track on the album. The chord progression originated from a french song, “Comme d’habitude” which was also rewritten with English lyrics as “My Way” by Paul Anka. As much as I like the Sinatra song, especially the Sid Vicious cover, I believe “Life in Mars” is a superior song.

The lyrics tell the story of “the girl with the mousy hair” who is to meet her friend at the movies to escape her unhappy mundane life at home. However, her friend doesn’t show up and “the film is a saddening bore”. What isn’t much different than her own dull life is something she’s already seen in countless other movies. The titular line “Is there life on Mars?” is a cry for something more than Earth has to offer. Bowie performs the song over cinematic accompaniment that opens with beautifully played piano, that dances like a snow-globe ballerina. I love that the song begins with a single note that rings for a full second. Strings play majestically with the first chorus. It’s overall a beautiful song that demonstrates fully the principal of elevating the mundane.

One of my other favorite tracks is “The Bewlay Brothers” because of it’s sense of memory, love, and loss. The fairly basic accompaniment mostly consists of piano, acoustic guitars, and watery electric guitar. The lyrics begin with the word “and” relaying the story in third-person perspective, “And so the story goes they wore the clothes; They said the things to make it seem improbable: Whale of a lie like they hope it was.” Then with later verses, Bowie switches to first-person perspective. It does not seem that the characters change, only the perspective.

The endearing song feels like it tells the overall story of two brothers lives together. Lines of the song share emotionally-charged snapshots of moments in their lives.  The general feeling is that those times are in the past and they cannot return. The repeated final line calls out to leave current circumstances and live like they used to: “Just for the day, Please come away.”

Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”

Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" album coverI spent the past week listening to Fleetwood Mac‘s 1977 album “Rumours” which is considered by many to be one of the greatest ever. Before I get into that, let’s go back to my childhood again. This album came out two weeks before my birth. Radio played the singles with heavy rotation during my first few years. My family bought a CD player in 1985 and we soon acquired this album on CD. I grew up hearing this album, but I haven’t listened to it much on my own until this week. What did I learn from this album to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician?

One of the best-selling albums of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” stands as a quintessential example of mid-late 1970s soft rock. This album is well-crafted and immaculately produced to a fault. I find the sound so likeable and easy to enjoy that it becomes unbearably pleasant. I hesitate to say there’s not enough risks taken, because much of the music is very inventive. It even feels odd to complain that the album is too good. It feels so awfully like it aims to please, which is often at the cost of sincerity.

However, these are not lyrically happy or pleasant songs. Feelings of heartache, listlessness, lost love, emptiness, and pain run throughout the album. This comes as no surprise considering the atmosphere they wrote and recorded the songs in; Two of the band members were going through a divorce (from each other), two other band members were in the process of breaking up, and another was divorcing his wife. We can hear the band members speaking to each other about these situations through the songs. The strong songwriting, musically and lyrically, shines through the pleasant soft rock feel making the album worthwhile.

My favorite track on the album is “Dreams“, which was written and sung by Stevie Nicks. At 12 years old, I recorded a song with a chorus of “Once you’ve been and once you go”;  Only years later did I realize that they mimicked Stevie’s “what you had and what you lost”. In addition to her songwriting, Stevie’s amazing voice makes this song stand out. I think they would’ve done better if she sang lead on more tracks.

The song is in Am at a moderate tempo of about 115 BPM. Interestingly, most of the song plays through a VI7-VII (F-G) chord progression. They touch the tonic Am chord only briefly during the guitar solo. I like that this keeps the song feeling like it never really resolves, but when it almost does it feel particularly sad because it does so with a minor chord.

Christine McVie track “Songbird” feels like Joni Mitchell lite, but I like it. Part of the attraction may be that it is a break from the soft rock. I don’t think much of the lyrics, though I like the titular line “And the songbirds keep singing, like they know the score.” The accompaniment follows a I-IV chord progression, with some ii and vii during the second half of the verses.

Second Hand News” does a great job of opening the album. Full of the breezy production of “Rumours”, but also with a good driving rhythm.  It feels like rolling down the windows and driving in the country on a nice summer day.  In contrast, the first two lines fittingly introduce the album: “I know there’s nothing to say; Someone has taken my place.” It’s strange to think how the words are directed at Stevie Nicks, but she’s singing backing vocals.  The verses about the breakup end with some uncouth lines “Won’t you lay me down in tall grass and let me do my stuff.” Lindsey delivers the lines enjoyable making the listener want to sing along. Then go into the catchy, but decidedly meaningless, chorus of “bow bow bow buh bow bam bow”.

Slate ran an article a few years ago with the subtitle of “Why is Fleetwood Mac the least influential great band ever?”  I don’t know their answer, but I agree with the question. While these songs are all well written, well performed, and immaculately produced, they fail to inspire me as a songwriting musician.  The whole album is good, but it doesn’t excite me.*

* Update (May 22, 2018). I may have to retract my original statement about not being inspired by this album.  So much of what happens on this album musically and lyrically keeps coming back to me, and I’m finding its influence appearing in some songs I’m writing now.

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.