Billie Eilish’s “You Should See Me in a Crown” Is Microtonality Gone Pop

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The dark is afraid of Billie Eilish.

The 16-year-old electro-pop phenom recently dropped her newest track, “You Should See Me in a Crown,” and it is some absolute Fire on Apple . The track came as a surprise to fans when the LA-born multi-instrumentalist teased an email with the song attached on her Instagram. “Crown” is inspired by a quote from Professor Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock, and was produced by Eilish’s brother, actor and musician Finneas O’Connell.

Here’s the track — hope you make it out alive.

When I first heard this song, I knew I had to do a cover myself. As I began working on a rearranged, reharmonized version of the song, I started to realize all the cool stuff going on in here. “Crown” is a simple song, and simple songs often have the most to teach us about the more complex elements that can make music so utterly exciting. Abnormalities stand out more acutely over a calm sea, as opposed to being drowned out in a monsoon.

“Crown” is built on just two chords, G#m and B.

During the verse, this two-chord progression functions in a pretty traditional manner, as the VI– to I progression is closely outlined by the vocal melody, sung in a triplet pattern. The first stanza outlines the VI– chord with a minor-scale walkup, outlining the root, minor third, and ninth of the chord. It’s almost like an arpeggio sans 5, spelled 1, 2,♭3. Then, over the I chord, Eilish sings a B major-scale walkup to echo the previous phrase, also spelled 1, 2, 3.

Here’s the verse melody written out and isolated in audio below (starting on bar two of the melody).

Okay. That’s all pretty standard stuff as far as pop is concerned, but here’s the real kicker: If you really listen to Eilish’s chorus, the chorus starts sharp. No, not the key, the tuning!

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Making microtonality cool again (…was it ever? Actually, yes.)

The notes of the vocal melody on the lines that end with the rhyming syllables — “crown,” “town,” and “sound” — all fall slightly between well-tempered pitches. This, combined with the breathy, reverberated effect on the vocal tracks creates a perceptible sensation like your heart is dropping into the pit of your stomach. The effects on the vocal bus create a falling effect, while the pitch itself never quite resolves itself down to a concert F#. By the time the second chorus comes around, there’s a vocal harmony an octave above the main melody, and that octave harmony is languidly delivered in microtonal intervals slightly flatter than the main melody, creating a push-and-pull of tonal centers between the two voices.

And because the line is descending, our musical ear interprets this as flatness, even though we actually have a loose, possibly sharp tone trying to shift downwards, rattling above and destabilizing everything in its wake. When you first hear it, your ear will tell you the note is tuned a few cents below concert pitch — this is an auditory illusion.

Something else interesting happens in the chorus melody. In bar three, the vocal melody, joined by the accompanying synth, slides from G# to B, which here functions more like a blues riff than dynamic harmony. In fact, the wobble bass underlining the entire section stays on G# throughout, giving the G# to B movement more depth and creating a simple static harmony.

This is dangerous. I live for danger, Eilish lives for danger, music needs more danger. This could not represent the tone and identity of the composition, nor its composer, any better. It’s as if the sense of dominance asserted by her lyric is illuminated by the fluttering elevation of tones grappling slightly above pitch, hopelessly scrambling in fear. She wears the crown here, she’s the power center, the tones are off.

Microtonality is also present in other American musical forms, such as the blues. Relying on the voice and the guitar — two very fluid melodic instruments which occupy a similar frequency range, as well as the ability to slide between pitches — blues music is often defined by its prevalence of tone-bending, whether real or perceived (in the case of the piano). Here’s a clip from Soundfly’s free course, A Conversation with the Blues, in which we discuss the recontextualization of “dissonance” and bent tones into fluidity, using Thelonious Monk as an example.

Choices like Eilish’s help to humanize music that’s heavily electronic, and as I mentioned earlier, stand out considerably when the pop foundation they’re standing on is crisply produced, tuned, and quantized. There is something very unsettling about a tonal center that hangs out somewhere in between familiar cycles.

Notice how those phrase-ending syllables in the chorus — “crown,” “town,” and “sound” — all dip down from a G♯, but don’t quite make it all the way down to F♯, in the vocals and in the accompanying synth bends. This is another mischievous tonal choice that adds a sense of danger. If you want to try this at home yourself, you can use a guitar to isolate the effect. Using a digital tuner set to standard A440, pre-bend the 7th fret on the B string (F♯) up to G♯, pluck and release the bend until the tuner reads F♯ +20 Hz, and hold it there. Now play along with the song… How cool is that?!

You could also achieve this using a MIDI controller in your DAW, or on a synth that has pitch-bending parameters. Simply play the G# and modulate downward. If you really want to nerd out, instrument-builders David Morton and Sam Underwood have designed this handy sheet of frequencies broken down by quarter tones up through all the octaves of our audible frequency range.

In a musical landscape where we are so accustomed to hearing things that are absolutely spot on, minor variance like this is glaring. So when it’s used as a musical device, it’s devastatingly effective to create what almost functions like a “vocal bass drop” transitioning into the hook. #Incorrectmusic if I’ve ever heard it.

Back to the song — let’s break down the beat

After the first chorus, we have a standard verse repetition. However, the structure takes a detour before the second chorus with a broken down double verse. A bare-bones 808 kick and a moody, enveloped synthesizer lay the foundation for some savage conversational lyricism (a prospective Netflix and chill, perhaps?):

“You say, come over baby. I think you’re pretty. I’m okay, I’m not your baby, if you think I’m pretty… You should see me in a crown.”

A synth takes the place of Eilish’s original vocal melody as she expands on it, creating fluidity between the sections and maintaining some momentum as the second half of the verse settles down dynamically. Although the chord changes are the same, the synthesizer is using different chord inversions in its arpeggiation patterns, some beginning on the 5th and descending from 5 to 3 to 1; others reordering the triad to 1 to 5 to 3.

The rhythm in the chorus evokes that contemporarily overused Roland TR-808 trap beat pattern, but with one interesting variation. This beat features a rapid, relentless 32nd note hi-hat pattern (over a half-time metronome), a move more closely associated with punk and IDM than electro-pop, I’d say. While most trap grooves feature staggered hi-hat groupings usually incorporating asymmetrical patterns and fast triplets, “Crown” goes right between the eyes with this straightforward musical choice.

Here’s a typical trap hi-hat pattern.

Now here’s Eilish’s in “Crown.”

During the chorus’ back half, she reuses that sword-scraping sound effect that opens the song to punctuate each upbeat. It’s gothic sound design for sure, but it’s also an arrangement trick to keep the beat moving forward with subtle timbral and dynamic shifts riding the basic pulse of the song (something I wrote about which appears in Ennio Morricone’s film music as well). 

The loneliness of the long-distance vocal

I want to end this analysis with a nod to the song’s stark single vocal take (in most parts, although she harmonizes with herself in some moments). These days, it’s not unusual to hear, like, 20 tracks of vocals in Top 40 music — doubled vocals, harmonies panned left, right, up, down, bussed, parallel-compressed, vocoded, etc. That’s why it feels so haunting to cut a standalone vocal track in the lead.

This also elevates the power of the harmonies that do enter sparingly throughout the piece in intervals of thirds, with the upper voice occasionally resolving to the octave above. Two-part harmony has been used functionally in popular music for decades, but seems to be more disparate in modern pop, which tends to opt either for a single streamlined top line, or massive stacks of vocals. Anyway, it works really well, given Billie Eilish’s dreamy lower-register singing.

And because I can’t cover anything without reharmonizing it…

In my version of this song, I did some fairly liberal reharmonizations to the chord progression. In the tradition of using popular songs as a foundation for jazz exploration and improvisation, let’s end with a quick look at the chords I chose.

|| G#m9(11) , Dm7/C | G7sus4add6(♭9) , G#m7(9) | E7 , C#m7 | Fm7(13) , F#m7♭5(9) ||

If you decide to play around with some reharmonized versions of this track, definitely share them in the comments. I’d love to take a listen!

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Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability

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