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“Atlas” by Battles: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On May - 27 - 20099 COMMENTS

Following the success of my compositional analysis of “Single Ladies”, today I’m here to talk to you about a song which is equally unusual but lives in a completely different realm of music and pop culture. Battles is a mostly-instrumental, indie-math-something-or-other rock band comprised of several other influential but fairly obscure bands and Boston scene veterans.* “Atlas,” the first single from their debut and most recent LP, Mirrored, illustrates a number of interesting songwriting techniques that you can use to expand or understand your own writing.

Tempo: 134 BPM
Key Signature: D Lydian (same notes as A major)
Time Signature: 4/4
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Shuffle groove, Modal harmony

What’s most compelling about this song is that it is haunting, but not dark in a depressing way–rather it is hypnotic, like an alien army marching into a battlefield. While there is plenty of interesting stuff going on here production-wise,** this post seeks to explore what gives this song its otherworldly feel from a compositional perspective.

The first thing to note is that the song was written in Lydian mode, a scale which is considered “mostly major” because it is the same scale shape as major except the fourth note is raised by a half step. (To turn D major into D lydian, you would change the G to G#). To  better help you understand what modes are, where they come from, and how they can be used check out Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians. Lydian is one of the least common modes in pop music today but can be the most beautiful. You hear it mostly in film music and 70s rock (see: the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Dancin Days“).


D Lydian is officially established when the vocals come in. The A-section melody (“People won’t be people when they hear this sound…”) outlines a D Lydian scale going down in perfect fifths starting on solfege syllable sol (A). These repetitive intervallic jumps in Lydian mode make for a trance-inducing result. The bassline underneath remains firmly planted on D, which is exactly where it stays except for moving to E at 3:29 (5:30 in the album version) for a few seconds. This lack of chordal movement is part of what gives Atlas its drone-like quality. In the absence of a chord progression, Battles relies on evolving melodies, syncopated rhythms and the frequent introduction of new elements/sounds** to keep interest level high throughout this seven minute epic.


Shuffles are kind of like the matrix. No one can be told what a shuffle is… Well, I guess really what I’m trying to say here is that the text book definition of a shuffle is not necessarily how we hear it. Shuffle is a fancy name for a triplet feel where the second note of the triplet is not played or generally emphasized. Often, though, we hear the third beat of each triplet not as part of a triplet at all, but simply a pickup note going back to the initial beat rather than part of a triplet. A song which uses all beats of the triplet is said to be in 12/8 time. One could argue that Atlas is actually a 12/8 groove rather than a shuffle because the drums often use all three beats of the triplet, but the vocal melody and bassline strongly reinforce a shuffle feel. Soloists sometimes use triplet patterns over shuffles, so the presence of a few full triplets here is negligible.

The Difference Between a Shuffle and Swing

Shuffle feel is actually a type of swing based on a tap dance (the shuffle). There are two main differences:

  1. Shuffles typically emphasize beats 2 and 4 while a swing groove often does not (see: the entire Jazz idiom). Atlas features a clap (speak of the devil) on beats 2 and 4 during the verses, with the snare drum eventually coming in.
  2. Though it sometimes sounds like it, swing is not thought of as a triplet feel. What’s actually happening is every other 8th note (or other note value) swings (drags) a little bit late, hence the name. The end result may sound like a triplet, but unlike in a shuffle, a timing of a swung note is inexact–some performers are known to “swing harder” than others and certain subgenres of jazz call for different types of swing feels. And again as with shuffles, triplets are sometimes used for soloing over swing time.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have any other observations about Atlas, feel free to leave a comment. If you find yourself writing in the same songs over and over again, try integrating modal harmony or a triplet feel into your next song. It could end up being the stand-out track on your album.


*My first experience with Battles was several summers ago, and Mirrored was just about to be released. A friend of mine convinced me to go on a road trip to New York City from Atlanta, one of our main objectives being to see brit-rockers The Noisettes. To our delight, we learned upon arrival that the show had been combined with a Battles show which was set to take place at elsewhere but had been cancelled. I was blown away by what I saw, and it looked a lot like what you see in the video above.

**To read about the Atlas vocal tone, check out Phil’s post on the Boss VT-1.

Buy “Atlas” on Amazon MP3

Battles - Mirrored - AtlasBattles “Atlas” on iTunes.

UPDATED: July 19th, 2011

I listen to all types of music, but I think you’ll see from this blog that pop music is what gets me excited. From years of working as an audio engineer, I’ve found that many pop songwriters (except the old school ones at the very top) have little, if any, formal music education. But the internet is changing all that, and I want to help in any way that I can. I’ve researched modes online to see what’s out there, and frankly most of it is either downright confusing or written exclusively for guitarists. So without further adieu…

Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians

You probably already know that there are two types of keys: major and minor (aka the “happy” and “sad” scales, respectively). But what if I told you that there are also 5 other exciting, sexy scales to choose from?

pianoPlay a major scale. Now play those same notes, but this time start from the sixth note (or “degree”) of the scale. You’ll notice that it sounds dark–you’re playing what’s known as the “relative minor” of your original major scale. Every major scale has one. Take C major and A minor, for example: they are comprised of the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano) but sound very different.

Already knew that? Here’s something you may not have tried: start from another degree of the major scale other than the first or sixth. These scales are called modes. You’ll notice that they have an unusual but not entirely unfamiliar sound. Each mode has its own general vibe. Technically, the major and minor scales are also considered modes, but songs written in these two most common scales are not thought of as “modal” music. Listed in order of degrees that they start from on the major scale:

1 – The Major Scale (aka “Ionian Mode”) – The most common scale there is.

2 – Dorian Mode – Minor with an exotic twist.* Often associated with the Eastern world, particularly Asia, or psychedelic music (see: the first half of “Come Alive“). Minor scale shape with a raised 6th degree (starting from the root of this Dorian scale, not from the relative major scale).

3 – Phrygian Mode – Darker than the regular minor scale. Most commonly used in metal and rap (see: “Swagger Like Us“). Minor scale shape with a lowered 2nd degree.

4 – Lydian Mode – Major with an exotic twist. Used mostly in film music and dreamy rock (see: intro to “Dancin Days“). Major scale shape with raised 4th degree.

5 – Mixolydian – Major with a rock edge. Defined the 90s pop rock sound (see: “Since U Been Gone“). Can sometimes sound Eastern. Often referred to as “Mixo” for short. Major scale shape with a flatted 7th degree.

6 – The Minor Scale – All styles. More specifically called “natural minor” or “aeolian mode.” I sometimes call it the “regular minor” scale because everyone knows what that means, but that’s not an academic name for it.

7 – Locrian Mode – A very unstable, confusing-sounding version of minor. (see: “YYZ“) Some argue that our ears cannot perceive a song as being Locrian for reasons which I will not get into. Minor scale shape with a flatted 2nd and 5th degree.

To make things even clearer, you can play the following scales with the notes CDEFGAB:

C Major, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Minor, and B Locrian.

Now you’re probably wondering: “if all these scales use the same notes, how do we know what mode a song is in?” After all, if you read my compositional analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, you know that major key songs don’t always start on the root note.

Unfortunately that answer is mostly beyond the scope of this article and not always definitive. Each mode has its own identifying characteristics in a compositional context (versus a soloing context), but for now, try to hear which root note/chord feels like “home,” and use that information, along with which scale degrees are being used, to deduce what mode you’re in.

It can be tough to write something that actually sounds modal, because certain chords will cause the listener to hear the song in the relative major or minor key (the one that has the same notes as whatever mode you’re in). For this reason, there is typically very little bass movement in modal music.

Modes are not the end-all be-all of music or scales. Far from it. There are many other harmonic possibilities including pentatonic scales (5 notes per scale instead of 7), harmonic minor (regular minor with a raised 7th), songs where the key changes from section to section, songs that borrow chords from parallel keys, secondary dominant chords, and even songs with two different keys at once (polytonality). The list goes on. Nonetheless, being aware of modes will give you yet another tool for your songwriting toolbox.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If there’s something you still don’t understand, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to clarify it. Theory won’t make you a great songwriter, and it’s certainly not required for becoming one, but you can think of it as a toolbox for understanding what you love or hate about certain songs and a potential cure for writer’s block.

*A great rock guitar player on getting through jazz solos: “play dorian over everything and people will think you’re hip.”


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