Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.

U2’s “Joshua Tree”

Album cover for U2's "Joshua Tree"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s amazing fifth album “The Joshua Tree” from 1987. My parents bought a copy of this CD soon after it came out. That means I undoubtedly heard and listened to it many times when I was ten years old.

My opinion on some albums have come and gone as I’ve progressed through different stages of my life. I always loved “The Joshua Tree” no matter what my tastes were at the time. It’s a great album for listening. For a musician and songwriter, it provides rich and exciting possibilities for sound within the context of a rock song. They’ve managed to naturally find a brilliantly glowing spot between the genre’s of post-punk, pop, and rock here; I still think of this as their most perfect album.

The Edge’s Use of Delay Effects

A musician, especially a guitarist, would find it impossible to talk about this album without mentioning The Edge’s use of delay. Les Paul’s guitar in “How High the Moon” features one of the earliest uses of delay created using tape. Pink Floyd, especially guitar David Gilmour, made frequent use of delays synched to the tempo of the song. This can be heard on the bass in “One Of These Days” from 1971 or the guitar in “Run Like Hell” from 1979. In most cases, Pink Floyd’s delays were either synched to the 1/8th note or a triplets, that’s 1/3 of a 1/4 note, with several repeats.

There is a great study of The Edge’s use of Delay at amnesta.net. To summarize, The Edge frequently syncs the delay to dotted 1/8 (aka 3/16) or 1/8, and isn’t afraid to have several repeats to create depth of space and rhythmic textures. Without the delay, these are still good guitar riffs, but so much simpler than what we’re hearing on the album. I made great use of 3/16 and 5/16 tempo-synced delays in my electronic music over the past 10 years, directly inspired by The Edge. I love the sound of this album, especially the guitar.

Where the Streets Have No Name

The album opens with atmospheric synth pads fading in, morphing into the sound of an organ playing chords. These tones fold into each other. Then, The Edge’s clean electric guitar with tempo-synched delay creates a fractal-like driving texture. Bass guitar rolls in, filling the bottom layer. Drums begin to beat as the guitar grows in scratchy urgency. The song feels like a stadium, even within the studio. It’s an epic, driving, pulsating sound: full of atmosphere and determination. There’s a sense that this song MUST be performed.

The verses hold on to the tonic chord for several lines, to drop down to a IV, to pull up to vi, to V. From this V, the chorus jumps to a flattened VII, which feels like a modest key change, then to IV, which would be the V if the chorus was in a different key. Then we’re back to the vi. We’re still in the original key. That is the key of D, which coincidentally is the key of Irish bagpipes which play a continual drone. I may making too many assumptions, but U2’s Irish roots may’ve had some subtle influence here.

These first person lyrics describe a desire to escape a vague current situation. There’s a hint of a love falling apart, mixed with disappointment with effects of industrialization. The song makes use of anaphora, which is the repetition of a short phrase at the beginning of each line. When this device is used in speeches, it provides a verbal from of bullet points. It adds an immediate sense of structure to lyrics, giving the listener something to grab unto. In addition to the repetition of “I want to”, three of the four verse stanzas in the song have the titular refrain “Where the streets have no name.” This six word phrase also gets repeated twice at the start of the chorus. Furthermore, each stanza follows an AABB rhyme scheme.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name.

Bullet the Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” has long been one of my most favorite songs. The drums and bass guitar drive along repeating a menacing pattern. The bass repeats the same two bar pattern throughout. This forms the bed of the song. Overdriven guitar noises and feedback fill the background with large reverb, providing a sinister atmosphere. Much of these noises seem to be created by shaking the guitar, scratching the strings, spinning a tremolo bar, trembling a slide without actually playing notes, etc. I absolutely love these noises.

The song pretty much stays in the major tonic chord throughout. The last 1/8 note of each measure, drops to the major seventh to provide movement. During the spoken bridge in the middle of the song, the chord drops to the minor tonic. Here, U2 uses the major third instead of the major seventh at the end of each measure. The bass lines stays the same.

In God’s Country

“In God’s Country” sits near the middle of the album. It sounds fantastic and the lyrics and melody are particularly catchy. However, this song took some years to grow on me. Though the song is unique, I don’t think it stands out enough from the rest of the album. By the time we’ve heard the six songs that precede it, it can sound like a less creative version of more of the same.

The song opens with chords played on a jangly light acoustic guitar; I believe this may have a very tight stereo delay, or a stereo chorus (which is really just a modulated delay). This spreads the guitar across the stereo field. An clean electric guitar, again with delay, lightly picks single muted notes. This somewhat suggests a xylophone. When the bass and drums come in, the guitar becomes overdriven and plays high chords echoing across the stereo field with delay. For this song, there are two delays on the main electric guitar: one synched to 1/8 note, the other to a dotted 1/8 note. Throughout the song, The Edge builds picking patterns into this delay that fill the space with rhythmic intensity. At times, this becomes an overwhelming mix of swirling repeating plucks and soaring sonic leads.

The lyrics in this song also make use of repetition. Each verse consists of two stanzas. With the first verse, the first two lines of each stanzas are very similar. The “Desert sky” of the first stanza is like the “Desert rose” of the second. Likewise the second lines of each stanza are “Dream beneath a desert sky” and “Dreamed I saw a desert rose” respectively. This type of repetition is not repeated for the second verse. However, both verses use an AAAa/AAAB rhyme scheme. The third lines of both stanzas in the first verse do make use of internal repetition, with the word “run” in the first stanza and “in” for the second stanza. This is another technique not reused in the second verse.

Desert sky
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

Desert rose
Dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me

Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.

The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”

The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album cover

I dedicated this week to listening to The Beatles‘ sixth album “Rubber Soul” from 1965. Of course, I’m well aware of the Beatles. My tastes, especially since a teenager, was for their later work from 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper” on. I thought I wasn’t quite so familiar with “Rubber Soul,” but some of my favorites are on this album as well. With so many great songs, it’s difficult to choose only a few songs to focus on.

One of the most noticeable things about “Rubber Soul” on a whole is the hard-panning. During this period, albums often saw both a mono and a stereo release. The mono mix was given more care and attention, often bands like the Beatles were present and involved in the mono mix. The stereo mix was considered by some to be unnecessary, a slight variation of the mono, or worse, a gimmicky trend. 

I’ve seen two main reasons given for the Beatles stereo mixes using hard panning (each track (instrument) is completely in the left, right, or center.) Limitations of the studio equipment provided the first reason. Up until the late-60s, mixing consoles had a three-position switch for panning: Left-Center-Right, or LCR.

Another reason came from concern of playback equipment and what might happen if the stereo record was played on mono equipment. This second reason lead to the Center position being avoided. One “Rubber Soul” everything is either Left or Right. So, if the two channels were summed together as mono, the mix levels would be preserved.  That separation ccan sound nice in a room with wells-spaced speakers; However, it’s a very strange feeling in headphones to have the center be a void and everything is right in one ear or the other.

The album’s second track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is a slower folk-rock song in ¾ time with Indian influence. Not only incorporate influence from music of India, it was also the first rock song to feature an actual sitar rather than just imitating the sound with guitars. George Harrison had a genuine interest in Indian music and culture, which had an influence on much of his work.

Lennon’s lyrics about a less-than-satisfying love affair perhaps don’t reflect any sort of connection to the Indian flavor. Though there is a sense of exotic strangeness to the girl’s house, which can be like being a stranger in a foreign land. Apparently the last verse is about burning her house down, but it’s so vague it’s difficult to say. Though, knowing that Lennon has used the phrase “Norwegian wood” to refer to cheap wood paneling helps a little.

And when I awoke I was alone

This bird had flown

So I lit a fire

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

The intro and verse probably have no real chord progression, but rather stay in the I chord continuously. At the very least a chord progression of I-v7-IV is implied by the melodic riffs. In this way, the accompaniment further imitates drones heard in Indian music. The sitar plays a riff in the left channel, which doubles the melodic portion of finger-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel. The same melody is almost completely followed by the vocal melody.

I have loved the Beatles “Nowhere Man” as long as I can remember, so definitely since I was a young child. It’s one of those songs that can be appreciated at any age. Gershon Kingsley recorded a great instrumental version of the song using Moog synthesizers that I have adored since first hearing it about 15 years ago. I love the sounds Kingsley has designed for the song, but I also really like the melody of this song. Again, the focus of most Beatles songs is the melody and the accompaniment supports that melody. 

The Beatles keep the instrumentation pretty simple on this track. In the left channel, we have drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitar. The acoustic guitar strums through a I-V-IV-I-ii-iv-I-I chord progression for the verses and iii-IV-iii-IV-iii-ii7-ii7-V7 for the chorus. I especially like that sound of the iii-IV-iii-IV part of the chorus. Still, though this is not a common chord progression, the acoustic guitar strumming pattern definitely is. The bass guitar, as I’ve noticed in several Beatles songs, plays the most interesting part of the accompaniment. McCartney gives the music a groovy counterpoint to the vocals. 

The electric guitar in the left channel mostly plays small melodic riffs during the short pause between verses. Another electric guitar in the right channel plays a solo after the first chorus. Backing vocals are also in the right channel, going ‘ahhhh, ahhhh, la la la’ during the choruses and doubling the lead vocal during verses.

I recognized during the week that one of my favorite tracks “I’m Looking Through You” sounds the most like a Monkees song, and I do love the Monkees. The bit after the chorus gets my attention. Right after they sing “I’m looking through, you’re not the same!” The organ and electric guitar pick up in energy getting a little louder and driving. The organ hits two chords along with the guitar and then guitar continues with a pattern of rapid notes. This interaction adds great energy to the song.

The percussion for the song consists mostly of Ringo tapping his fingers on a box of matches. There’s a few instances of tambourine, which seem to have perhaps been played in the background and picked up by another microphone. During the post-chorus sections, Ringo also plays a minimal but effective pattern on the drum kit. 

“Rubber Soul” deserves more praise among Beatles albums. I liked this album far more than “Revolver.” But, I also like “Abbey Road” more than “Sgt. Pepper“. Anyway, this was definitely another great album and one I’m glad I’ve gotten to know better. I’ll continue listening to this one for years, I’m sure.


Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.

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.