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I have long struggled to articulate why I always feel a sense of rhythmic surprise and unease when the verse of Thriller breaks in over the bassline vamp, roughly [0:50 - 1:06] in the song.

If you asked me to transcribe how I hear it in my head, I would write something like:

(pickup)      |Bar 1         |2                              |3       |4
              C♯m7                                                    F♯7
It's close to mid-night, and something evil's lurking in the dark.

No matter how many times I've heard the song, my brain wants to hear "It's close to mid-" as a pickup to bar 1 of the verse, and it expects the i chord (C#m) to land square on the first beat of that bar 1. (and I am not the only one, many chord sites feature some version of the above!).

Of course, what actually happens is this:

(pickup)          |Bar 1         |2                              |3     |4
F♯7                              C♯m7                                     F♯7
    It's close to mid-night, and something evil's lurking in the dark.

The change to the F♯7 actually comes on the pickup measure before Bar 1, and the i chord doesn't appear until bar 2. In other words, the harmonic rhythm isn't aligning with the beginning and end of the melodic phrase, as you would expect.

When the F♯7 comes back around, harmonically I now want to hear that bar as Bar 1 of the next phrase because of the chord change, but my ear is still hearing the melody in that bar as a pickup to the following bar:

|Bar 1              |2            |3                                 |4
 F♯7                              C♯m7                            
          Under the moonlight you see a sight that almost stops your heart

I think what is going on is a tension between the harmonic rhythm and the melodic phrase length. It's like the harmonic and melodic phrases have been displaced by one bar, causing me to perceive the verse as having some kind of uneven phrase length.

I am curious though if someone has a more precise analysis of what is going on here. In any case it is a wonderful effect that still succeeds in subverting my expectations even after who knows how many listens.

  • Can't listen to the song right now, but... if I recall correctly, the melody note on “mid” of midnight is an E, right? I think that's quite relevant for the explanation. – leftaroundabout Sep 14 at 13:40
  • @leftaroundabout You recall correctly. – user45266 Sep 15 at 19:10
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I've always heard "Thriller"'s verse like this:

(intro bass vamp) ... F♯7 chord lands squarely on the first beat of bar one of the cycle, and counting eighth notes, we hear: 1 + 2 + 3 "It's close to...".

Alternatively, it's easy to remember that the bass riff B-C♯-E-F♯-C♯ lines up squarely on the eighth notes:

1 +  2 +  3 + 4 +
B C♯ E F♯ C♯

Thriller

Notice where the beat lands in relation to the lyrics (vocal line in blue) and bass vamp (in bass clef).

And counting from there, the "and" of the first bar is when Jackson's lyrics enter. This is true of every single verse of the song.

You also correctly noticed that each chord takes a full two bars. The F♯7 chord is the first two bars, and the C♯m7 chord is the last two bars of each phrase. Because of this, the lyrics actually aren't in a pickup measure, but are in fact staring half a bar late compared to the chords!

In my opinion, there's nothing specific about the song that was written to subvert the listener's expectations in terms of rhythm. I think that somehow, you've misidentified the beat of the piece, and because of this, you feel the shock of syncopation. This is normal, it happens to everyone every once in a while, so don't worry.

I'd be interested to see where you feel the start of each bar during the chorus. The piece is written in straight 4/4 time, and the downbeat during the chorus lands on the syllable "Thrill-". The chord changes in the song align with the downbeat (except for the synth riff in the chorus, but in general).

  • 1
    You are right: if you analyze the song in terms of 4-bar sections, the bar that I've identified as the pickup is really the first bar of the verse, and both the start of the bass vamp and the start of the chorus supports this analysis. I think the combination of the melody entering on the and-of-three, plus the fact that the harmony changes from i to IV is making my brain want to hear that bar as a pickup. The IV has a cadential function here and I keep wanting to hear it as a kind of turnaround into the verse. But, as you note, thats not what's actually happening. Thanks for your response! – modalmixture Sep 16 at 20:29
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Basically, you 'learned' it the wrong way & every time you hear it again without preparation, you fail to correct it until that key moment.

The word 'midnight' is on the first beat of bar two of the section, not one. Count it right from the top if you have to.

A late thought on this is that it's relatively rare for a 'good' song to 'follow the chords'. They do tend to lead them, any pickup will be to the downbeat of bar one of the section. "That's how the pros do it". Starting the melody in the middle of bar one & then 'running along after the chords' is often considered a rookie mistake.
Thriller, of course, puts paid to that argument, but it could be part of why you're hearing it a bar out.

Different people have different issues with different songs. It's just one of those things.

Personally, Kings of Leon's Sex on Fire, Sparks' This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us & Hendrix's All along the Watchtower have similar 'timing changes'.
If I'm concentrating right from the start I can turn them over. If I'm not, then I'm out of sync until my personal turnaround point.

For me, if it's a beat change rather then being a whole bar out, I stripe the track in a DAW, add a click count, then slide one against the other until it's a) correct & b) gives me a 4-count in. That way, I can quite quickly get my head out of its bad timing habit & learn to recognise it properly.

Another one, came to me late - Arctic Monkeys - When the Sun Goes Down. As it transitions into the 'fast bit' it appears to cycle the new main riff 5 times. If you're concentrating it makes sense as the first is the last turnaround of the old section, then there are 4 with the whole band. If you're not concentrating… there are a surprising 5 to wait through.

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As I already commented, I think the reason you're mislead is melodic rather than rhythmic. Simplified it is this:

X:1
L:1/8
M:C
K:C#m
%%score T1
V:T1           clef=treble
% 1
[V:T1] z5 c cd | e4 c2 z1 c | cb, cb, cb, ce | c4 r4

Crucially, the first note of bar 2 is an E. Now, that is contained in F♯7, but not in F♯ per se. Thus is has a bit of a non-chord-tone character, which may be surprising for a note on the 1 beat. OTOH, ordinary c♯m does contain an E, as well as of course the C♯ that's next, so inferring the harmony from the melody one could easily expect it to switch to c♯m at that point.

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