How a Musician Listens To Music – An Examination of “Heathens” by twenty one pilots

There’s a short story I vaguely remember reading in high school concerning a young man and a old steamboat captain navigating the Mississippi River. The obvious guess would be that it was a Mark Twain tale, although my meager attempts at Googling the exact title for you proved fruitless.

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Steamboat on the Mississippi River

Nevertheless, the general gist of the story involved the boy beholding the wild wonders of the river for the first time in the company of this seasoned pilot. The boy pointed out various areas of interest, remarking on the beauty and grandeur of the scene. Toward the end of the yarn, the captain explains to the kid what went through his mind while looking at these same wonders. He did not view the river with the same wide-eyed awe of the child. While the kid stood slack-jawed at nature’s visual feast before him, the captain surveyed the various information for actionable intelligence. Where the boy saw “gorgeous white caps atop troubled waves reflecting silver rays of sun,” (Don’t blame Twain for that little bit of poetic diarrhea, remember I couldn’t find the actual text.) the grizzled veteran warned that those ripples were an indication of shallow water which could cause the heavy-laden vessel to run aground.

These types of examples went on-and-on where the knowledgeable captain divined dangers to be avoided and helpful information hidden in plain view within the picturesque natural landscapes.

The story struck me as terribly tragic.

It was easy to imagine that years ago, the experienced pragmatic captain was also the same impressionable young man overwhelmed by the initial magic of the river. Something had inspired him so deeply that he sought to make his living there. The final cost for that fulfilled dream was for the curtain of illusion to be forever pulled back. Any sense of romantic mystery buried within his heart would be completely laid bare. He could never look at the river again the same way as you or I might do so.

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The Mississippi River in the fall

“The deeper your understanding of music, the more magical it will seem.” – Me, a long time ago.

Even as a student, I acknowledged this sullen concept, yet reassured myself, “Don’t worry, Greg. This can not happen to you as a music student. As a matter of fact, the deeper your understanding of music becomes, the more magical it will seem.” Today, I play the part of the weary captain, and I deem that statement as, at best, slightly naive.

For over 25 years I have worked this river of songs. I have produced, written, performed, and taught. I started analyzing music before there was an internet to search, and throughout its infancy when much of the crowd-sourced information was incomplete or incorrect. Decades of prepping songs for students and cover bands have given me a skill set not accessible to the general public or casual armchair musicians.

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Where one might hear a “sick drum beat,” I am probably rummaging through my memories to recall if the percussion sounds come from a sample pack I have worked with in the past. I am listening for the tell-tale signs of midi-programming and quantization. I am identifying the fundamental frequencies of the kick and snare while listening to the balance between the drum and cymbal elements. Unless it is something truly bizarre, I will already know the time signature, tempo and basic beat structure well enough to reproduce it at a later time, should I wish. As a producer, I will hear and identify the levels of compression and time-based effects applied to the track. I could tell you the decade the beat was produced, or at least the decade it was modeled after, if new.

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Is it possible for me to still be emotionally moved by that sick beat?

Certainly, but I can no more ignore those thoughts and insights, than you can look at combinations of letters and not see words. So, it gets…crowded. It is sort of like going to Disney World as an adult. It is still amazing, but you can’t help but realize that it’s really just some kid in the Mickey costume no matter how hard you try to suspend your disbelief.


All right, let’s get to it. The purpose of this is to simply spend about 5-10 minutes listening to a song and then jotting down what jumps out to me about it.

So, my expertise is primarily rock music. Let’s go to today’s Billboard Rock Top 40 chart.

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Looks like “Heathens” by twenty one pilots holds the number 1 spot. I’ve heard of the band, but not any of their songs. This should be fun.

Okay, looks like this is on the soundtrack for the movie Suicide Squad. I’m not a big superhero movie guy. Oh, well. Unimportant.

Disclaimer: these are only my quick thoughts and may be as incomplete and inaccurate as the early internet. 🙂

0:00 INTRO

  • Synth pad fades up with heavy tritone dissonance. Putting out the creepy vibe.
  • Let me grab my guitar… Cool, sounds like a “B” note, with the “F” buried under it.

0:06 VERSE 1 CHORUS 1

EDIT: Assumed this was a verse until getting through more the song.

  • Piano, heavy chamber-like reverb with a long pre-delay. Panned about halfway to the left. Transients seem a bit squashed. Comping pattern is the “rocking” back-and-forth 8th note deal. You hear this everywhere. Time signature is 4/4.
  • Last chord of the progression is non-typical. “Normal” would be for it to be minor, yet it is unmistakably major. Chords are C, Am and E. (bVI – IVm – I) The tonal center seems to fall on the E. If the chord were E minor, it would be easily labeled as an E Aeolian song. The major variant puts the song into the harmonic minor family of modes. This is E Phrygian Dominant. The “G” note of the C Chord would be problematic in a soloing situation, but it would be easily avoided assuming you had half an ear.
  • Melody remains within the E Aeolian structure. It’s almost as if the E chord was made major at a much later time in the writing process. There are disturbing conversational voices panned hard left and right, and a monotone childlike voice droning on the “E” note tightly mirrored to the lead singer.
  • There is a cello-like string pad providing some bass frequency support. The lack of dynamics make me seriously doubt it is a ‘real’ acoustic instrument. Otherwise, it would probably be pushed up more prominently in the mix.
  • “Cricket” sound, “B” note on the 2, “2 &”, 4, and “4 &.” Usually, this same idea is performed with palm-muting a heavily-distorted guitar. This sounds different, however. Perhaps a dirty string sample?
  • Lyrically, rhyming pattern is AABB, with the A’s being perfect rhymes and the B’s being imperfect. Meaning seems fairly straight forward, describing a tough group of people to infiltrate. Knowing the “Suicide Squad” link, this makes sense.

0:28 VERSE 2 CHORUS 2

  • Bass seems devoid of string noise and imperfections. Probably keyboard-based, seems like a near sine-wave. C note is really low. Goes up to the “A,” even though it would be closer to go down. The bass line curiously traces an E minor arpeggio (mimicking the melody, by the way) on the way down to hitting the root of the E major chord. During the 2nd section, the bass skips the third scale degree all together, descending from the octave, to the fifth, to the root.
  • Cello is now pumping out constant 8th notes on E in the mid-range.
  • Kick drum is hitting on the 1 and “3 &.” Snare is thin, but still acoustic, not much reverb – typical of dance beats, falling on the 2 and 4.
  • Section is repeated, so lyrics and melody remain the same. The creepy factor is jumping out, and it is easy to see why. Word choices like “heathens, sudden moves, and abuse,” coupled with the E major chord which “shouldn’t be” based upon the melody makes things feel uncomfortable. – Obviously, this is by design, and effective.

0:49 CHORUS 1 VERSE 1 (part 1)

  • Drum beat remains the same, although the Hi-Hats become syncopated. The rest of the instrumentation, minus the piano, drops out. The piano plays a single chord at the beginning of each measure.
  • Chord progression has now abandoned the Phrygian Dominant key and has regressed to chords from the more natural E Aeolian scale: C  Em  Am  Em (bVI – Im – IVm – Im)
  • Melody has remained within the E Aeolian framework, now the chord structure has aligned.
  • Lyrics become more interesting and metaphorical. (Verses often are.) Again, word pictures are important. “Loved one day, docked away,” can imprint in many ways on its listeners. “Guns, brains, hand grenades,” trigger primal alarms inside of us which demand attention and reaction.

1:00 VERSE 1 (part 2)

  • Chord changes happen more quickly. (C / Am / | Em / / / | C / Am / | B / / / | / / / / |)
  • We have the 2nd appearance of a harmonic minor key when the B (V) chord hits. This time in the key of E.
  • Rhyming pattern is AAABB. Worth noting is the AAA’s are all the same word. Even the same phrase, “sitting next to you.” I think songwriters often avoid this technique, perhaps considering it ‘lazy.’ I disagree, it is very common for speechwriters to hammer the same phrase over and over again to add emphasis. This is the same idea we see here. The 2nd pair is a clever imperfect rhyme, tying the “eh” sound in “said,” with the “eh” syllable at the end of “forget.”
  • The childlike monotone voice that had been droning on E, finally descends to D# for the B chord. The “E” note was the third in the C major chord, the 5th of the A minor chord, and the root of both E major and E minor. The B triad is the first of the song that does not have an “E” note in it.

1:13 CHORUS 3

  • I quit listening…although I noticed an “Ah” Choir type patch adding to the soundscape that wasn’t there in the previous chorus.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • There was much more going on here than I feared I would find when I formulated this article. The reality is, most popular music is stone cold simple. That’s okay. That doesn’t make it bad or not widely enjoyable. It just means there just isn’t much to analyze and discuss.
  • The biggest songwriting technique I observed was the use of the ‘unexpected’ and ‘out-of-place’ major chord to foster a sense of tension and distrust.
  • Word pictures were highly effective in selling the mood.

The biggest majority of those sentiments came to me during my first play through. Grabbing the chord changes were fairly instantaneous once identifying a starting point. Some of the lyrical interpretation was a little more thought out as the study progressed – but can you see how “crowded” it is in my head when I listen to a song? The reverse to this is when there is nothing musically interesting happening. Now, I hate it because I feel as if there is nothing to glean. Truth is, I hate almost all music. Maybe it’s sad to hear a musician say that, but there it is.

This particular song may not enter my regular playlist, but it is fair to say there is something of musical value here. (I’m certain the band with the number 1 track in America will be so relieved to hear I approve of their efforts.) My point is, it isn’t just smoke, mirrors and pretty boy faces at work. This is quality songwriting.


We, as songwriter and performers, need the energy and enthusiasm of a supportive crowd unencumbered by such mental musical baggage.

I am convinced the story of the steamboat captain wasn’t actually about an old man revealing to a sailing novice the things of which he did not yet know. There probably never even was a young man. I postulate it was simply the captain remembering how the river once spiritually affected him when he was just starting out. That’s the river we need to draw from to keep us from growing cold and cynical as we pursue this craft.

You can go to Disney World and have a great time. But, if you want to have a magically enchanted experience, you had better take a kid or three with you and look at that mouse through their eyes.

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My wife, Lora, and our 3 children at Disney World, 2004

Pre-order your copy of Gregory’s new CD, Almost Alive, on iTunes.

2 thoughts on “How a Musician Listens To Music – An Examination of “Heathens” by twenty one pilots

  1. Shirley Klafter

    Hey I loved reading this analysis. As a music lover who does not have the training and experience you do, I found it so affirming of what I perceived in vague terms! I enjoy Tyler Joseph’s compositions and find that he’s an expert at creating ear-worms that don’t drive me crazy. I wonder if that’s because of his use of chord progressions that take a turn in unexpected ways. In another of his hit songs, “Stressed Out,” he sings, “I wish I found some chords in an order that is new.” I have read elsewhere that he actually does use a chord progression in that tune that does not match with any other pop songs on a 10,000 song data base. (Sorry, I don’t know where that was!)

    I also appreciated where you took this analysis when your sample song did not fit your anticipated outcome! Good work!

    Liked by 1 person

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