"Thunder" stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for over 1 year, but that's not where the story begins.
It was a long road to the top.
In an interview, writer and producer Dan Reynolds said that the song was the bane of his existence for about 3 months because he didn't think it was complete. Not only that, but the song itself is about Dan's struggles with years of rejection, failure, and confusion - specifically from his middle and high school years.
One day, after months of struggle, he woke up at 3 AM with an idea for the end of the song (2:41 to 2:52).
It took the song to another level.
The song went on to hit #4 in Billboard's US Hot 40, stayed on the Hot 100 list for over one year, and was featured in numerous commercials with major brands like Jeep.
The Takeaway? Great art is often born out of suffering. Great art often takes time. Be patient and keep showing up to create.
Now that you've heard the context, let's dive into what makes this song so great.
"Thunder, feel the thunder (*stomp stomp stomp*) / Lightning and the thunder." Modern mixing techniques are sprinkled throughout this song: The trap drum samples, pitched vocal chop sounds, the heavy use of distortion, and more.
- The song starts with a verse but still manages to introduce the chorus within the first 25 seconds. Lead with your best content to hook people but save at least one more special moment or sound for later to delight listeners.
You can see for yourself below, but this chord progression is a very simple pop chord progression. It feels happy, energetic, and the minor chord in the middle of that 4-6-1 progression feels very emotional. Simple doesn't mean boring!
- Intro: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7
- Verse: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7
- Post-Verse: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7
- Pre-Chorus: 4M(2) - 5M - 6m7 - 1M(2)
- Chorus: 4M(2) - 5M - 6m7 - 1M(2)
- Bridge: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7 - N.C.
- The melody of this song is so iconic and catchy. "Thunder, feel the thunder (**Boom Boom Boom**)". I don't really have any more notes than that on this today, haha!
🔊 Sound Design
- 808's - A simple 808 sound, snap, kick, and a vocal chop sound pitched up are the main sounds used in the verses. They use tons of empty space in the verses to draw you in and then add a huge wall of sounds in the chorus to create a confident contrast. It's brilliant.
- Chopped and screwed vocal samples are another main sound throughout the song. When I think of the song, that's the first sound that comes to mind. This effect is fairly overused yet they found a way to creatively employ it to make something new.
- 1:37-2:00 - Vocal guitar solo: The melody playing in this section appears to be a voice + distortion + reverb. It's a simple but effective recipe for creating an electric-guitar-like tone. Since you're using your voice you can also slide between notes. This song was very creative with vocal production as a whole, which I love! If you listen closely you can also hear a slight octave-up delay they put on this vocal effect which is cool!
- 0:46-0:52 - Subtle use of thunder sound effect in the instrumental after chorus 1 and during the outro. It's predictable but done in a way that isn't overstated or cheesy, at least IMO.
- 808's are a driving force for this song in the verses
- CHORUS: Tambourines are the main texture that fills in the mix in the chorus. I almost didn't notice it at first, but these sounds are chopped up, panned around, set to different levels, and they really hold down the entire beat. Brilliant use of a single sound to create a whole wall of sound.
- Vocal chops that are pitched up in the verse are another major sound.
- Acoustic guitar stuck out to me in the chorus.
- Orchestral drums for the iconic "thunder... *stomp stomp stomp*" part. Great way to bring in something more organic/raw sounding into the mix since so many of the other sounds are drum samples and more digital sounding effects.
- The snap sound in the verses is very loud in the mix, but it's also very wide so it doesn't overpower the lead vocals. It sounds good.
- Saturation/Distortion is used HEAVILY to make this mix hit harder and to convey the gritty sound of thunder
- Wide mix
- 2:40-2:51 - Adding some subtle saturation/distortion to his vocals in the outro gives the sound more urgency and emotion, adding to the intensity of the sound even though his vocals are pretty quiet.
- The second chorus has a subtle background vocal far in the background (behind your head on headphones) that does an excellent job of filling out the
- There is a surprising amount of distortion, and even some subtle clipping, in this mix. This isn't all that uncommon today, but it's surprising how well it's pulled off without turning my ears off completely
🔑 Key Takeaways
- Arrangement: I've said it once and will say it again: Get to the chorus within 30 seconds to introduce your listeners to the best part of your song.
- Simplicity: The arrangement, instrumentation, and melody are all very simple. Don't overthink your songwriting and production. If it sounds good, roll with it.
- Chipmunk Voice: There are still creative ways to use vocal pitching effects to make a great pop song. What do you think - is this effect dead yet?
- Layers: Chop up sounds and break them up (like the tambourines in the chorus) to create new textures and fill space in your song.
- Perseverance: Don't give up when you are struggling to finish a song. Be patient and wait until it's ready to share.