Today I was listening to Separate Ways, a great song by Journey in the 80s. The style of this song is so typical of the period. In fact, my first interaction with this song was through a reinterpretation by Andre Matos, rearranged and played a few years ago with a more '00s sound. Yet, the fundamental "80s style" of the song was there, and I correctly guessed it was probably a cover.

I know nothing about music theory, but yet I can perceive the 80s style. What's the technical background behind it (my guess, types of chords, scale, progression)? I don't have the keywords to be more specific, sorry.

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    I think what you refer to 80s sound is a very particular winning formula for that era and for a particular genre. Overdubbed vocals doubled by keyboards and with an Eye of the tiger type of rhythm guitar section. If you go through all the glam-rock ballads of that era you'll find more or less the same pattern. Of course another important indicator is the sampled drum recording and/or completely damped snare drum sounds which only has attack but no ringing and/or overtones.
    – user1306
    Jul 27, 2013 at 23:34
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    Major keys, fast beat, dry drums. Keyboard. Add horn section if you feel really wild. White filters, colours, smiles everywhere, cheesy clothes. You must dance it, you must dance it, YOU MUST DANCE IT! It was not a joke.
    – Whimusical
    Jul 28, 2013 at 11:20
  • @Percusse: so you are saying they just found a melodic phrase that sounded ok and just reworked it. I subscribe to this, but then I don't understand the peculiarity of this phrase in terms of music theory to be so unique. I am quite sure a similar question can be asked about '70s, 60s and many other "music periods". Jul 28, 2013 at 16:32
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    @StefanoBorini: the theory extends beyond the chord progressions and phrases. It also applies to the texture of the songs, in fact probably moreso. This is why you can listen to a Jethro Tull song and know that it is Jethro Tull and not Pink Floyd; the two bands tend to stick with a particular texture, as they tended to use a unique combination of sound effects layered throughout their songs. With the occurrence that you are talking about, that texture was mimicked almost to a tee by multiple performers. This was also found a lot in Motown music, and still in modern pop (think boy bands). Aug 1, 2013 at 16:47
  • I was listening to Faithfully by Journey and was wondering the same thing. There is a sequence of 4 notes that is in this song and a few others (e.g. I Promised Myself by Nick Kamen, and Hold Your Head Up High by Stan Bush). Dec 2, 2019 at 22:56

4 Answers 4


A key signature to That 80's sound are drone chords. Many popular songs had phrases in which the right hand of the synth/keyboard would play different chords over the top of a bass note that would not change or vice versa. Eye of the tiger during the verses would be an example. Separate Ways during the verses would be another example. In pop music the Linn Drum was widely used on many hits including songs by Billy Idol, The Cars, Prince and many others. As far as synthesizers go, The Roland Jupiter 8, Oberheim OBXa, Oberheim OB8, OBerheim OBX and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 were used on many hits as well.


The gated snare sound - putting a bunch of reverb on a snare and then gating it to clip - is very 80s. It's that big snare sound the hair metal bands used. Allegedly discovered on a Phil Collins session with the snare coming back through the headphone send.

Also, as mentioned, the rock and roll rhythm stiffened up either by drum machines or a drummer playing very tight to a click track. The 80s are where machine time - specifically MIDI - takes over pop music and records are made by overdubbing and cleaning up each part for hours and days - allegedly brought to the extreme relatively early by Mutt Lange taking 11 months to record Pyromania.

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    The creation of reverse gated reverb was during a session for Peter Gabriel 3 (Melt) that Phil Collins played on. The album features no cymbals on the drum kit and the gated reverb allowed for big reverb with a cleaner attack and without the long decay. This gives the listener some high end stimulation to compensate the lack of cymbals. The song "Intruder" off that album starts with drums and it is a great example because the effect is pretty noticeable. Jul 28, 2013 at 15:46
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    That's clearly a factor, but the same '80s style is found in the Andre Matos reinterpretation, where very little of the 80s sounds are used. It's the melody which is unmistakely '80s Jul 28, 2013 at 16:30

Unfortunately you all have a terribly simplistic view. The 80's wasn't definable in the 80's. We didn't feel different then to now. It's only when the decade is "old" and seemingly far away do people start to compartmentalize it and genericise it, you are also talking about a teeeensy weeensy piece of that decades music (rather dull music too I feel) Technology IS what was Most important at that time to Most people. Natural music had existed hundreds of years, particularly around the 1981 to 1983 era. Modern and being new and very modern was the order of the day.

Fairlight Sampling and linn drumming SLS digital 32 track Recording consoles. Aural exciters both digital And analogue, new out biard effects using sampled wave technology applied to sound, making it dynamic in ways previously unachievable, and yes then new accurate machine timing was modern and all important, why? Because it WAS NEW.

PEOPLE with new slants on old ideas, irony politics rebelliousness, colour vibrancy contemporaneous newness, and PRODUCERS and futurists and people who made and furthered technology in all ares changed the face of music together. Remember Futurist bands and people with futurist ideas (whatever they may be to the individual) were THEE most ahead of the music game at the time, that is an immutable fact not opinion an inconvenient truth!.

Metal bands were behind, it took them until the mid 80s to even realize Properly the revolution that had happened.

Britain and then Europe purveyed the most technologically produced pieces of music around, whether to you taste or not, many using "new world sounds" from samples et al. America was resistant heavily so (although at the forefront of music technology inventions with Australia,) and was rather linda ronstted! Or juice newtoned lol, to us although grown up and smart they were just safe, we had the edge! We saw the future we utilized at the time,its unfair to use the erroneous word of "cheesy" when looking back, most people don't listen too or hear properly regards depth feel.

There's no real such thing as 80s in the way you think you mean it, technology chronologically through the decade made it sound a particular way, technology changes, thus 90s came, etc etc.The 80s was actually the era of sampling tech, synth were mere embellishment in all reality. The mid to very late 70s is the true synth era, well in Britain and Europe any way, ( Synths were all over our telly at that time, 80s very different, you must remember, it took time for ideas and genre to form, there is chronology, tech was the change. The 1st Jan 1980 wasn't suddenly the 80s in every way, 1981 is as different to 1985 as it is to 1989, its different. These days change doesn't happen so much obviously) think cds, They are a long sample, commercially available to the western world in 83, but the Japanese had access to that mid 70s on aeroplanes, cinemas, etc. Our pop charts were filled (by late 1981) with music that used sampling techniques by producers like Martin Rushent and Trevor Horn. They started to take hip hop and commercialize it using guess what? Sampling tech fact! Music is what it is. It's all How you record it that leaves the aural trademark. Think on.

The 80s didn't sound what you would term complete and full "80's" until mid to late 1982. In the UK every thing else before were mere glimpses like human league heaven 17 Phil Collins etc etc. By '84 music evolved so far ahead, that 1980 was (at that time in '84) the equivalent of 30 years ago sound wise! Fact! Today's music is Hardly far removed. It's just duller.

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    While the tone of this answer is very brash and replete with hyperbole, the content appears to me to be correct. While there are many sonic feature associated with "the 80s sound" (the answer enumerates many of them), they do not constitute a theoretical definition of the term in the way the OP appears to expect. Mar 17, 2014 at 5:12

Nobody has read the question correctly. Stefano Borini is interested in the composition of Separate Ways, and how it somehow sticks out as an eighties composition even then shorn of the production techniques typical of the era.

Having listened to Andre Matos' cover, I think it sounds like a well crafted power metal composition. As such one of the elements of power metal as a genre is to retain the bombastic dynamics and composition of '80s power ballads and heavy metal pomp alike. For example, the first verse of the cover of Separate Ways is sung over a pedalling E, which gives way to a memorable, soaring singalong chorus, with a second chorus section featuring a solid 4/4 feel. This is quite an '80s trick; you build up tension in the versus, and then explode into 'stomping' choruses, replete with soaring vocals and tastefully cheesy vocal harmonies. Likewise the guitar solo is tastefully (your opinion may vary) piece of orchestration, with a pompy neo-classical feel.

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