Rihanna's "Disturbia" – Why It Works

One of the points that I make over and over again to songwriters is that you really need to listen to the music of successful songwriters if you want to be successful. It’s not enough to hide yourself musically from what’s going on the comercial music world if you want to be part of that world.

“Disturbia,” by Rihanna, is a perfect example of some points I’ve been making on this website lately. I want to show you why this song works, and what you can do to get your own songs working. The aspects I want to talk about are chord changes, lyrics and melody.

About Disturbia’s Chords: So many of you are looking for that “killer chord progression,” but this is a great song that actually uses a very limited number of chords, essentially the same ones for the chorus as is used in the verse:

Bm  D  A  G (The G is occasionally replaced with an Em.)

Once we’ve heard that chord several times, our ears start listening elsewhere. So why does that work in this song? Because the lyric is much more captivating, and using a repetitious chord progression allows the listener to spend more time listening to other more interesting elements. (This is a point I make in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting“, pp. 145-147)

About Disturbia’s lyrics: What’s so interesting about this song is that it’s not obvious what the song is really about, and depending on your mood when you listen to it, it could actually be about almost anything. Obviously, the singer is tormented by something:

“It’s a thief in the night / To come and grab you…”

And she’s finding it very difficult to give voice to this torment:

“Nothing heard, nothing said / Can’t even speak about it.”

But in all of this lengthy lyric, she uses very down to earth, common words and terminology. (The importance of this is explained in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting“, p. 134).

“Disturbia” is not great poetry, to say the least. Without the song, this text looks very simple. But that is, in my opinion, why it works so well! Words like “I feel like a monster”, “Don’t want to think about it” and “Watch out, you might just go under” are every day words that everyone uses, and even if we debate what she’s really singing about, the emotions those words conjur up are real, raw, and expressive.

About Disturbia’s melody: The song starts off with that great hook that you’ll no doubt sing for the rest of the day. The verse melody is in two parts, and is pitched lower than the chorus melody (see Melody /Lyric Principle No. 4 in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting“, p.134.) The melody throughout contains many repeating figures, repeating just enough to cement them into our minds, but not so much to be boring.

There are many other reasons why “Disturbia” has been on the top of the charts that would take too long to go into in this article. The way the song is accompanied, by starting with a very bare bass-only accompaniment, moving to light string synth chords in the second half of the verse, to a fuller, higher octave accompaniment at the chorus, really hits home.

This is a great song, and it’s important to learn from songs like this if you want to be a great songwriter. 


-Written by Gary Ewer. The ideas in the blog entry are the kinds of ideas you’ll find in Gary’s suite of songwriting e-books. Check them out here.

Posted in Chord Progressions, music, songwriting, top ten and tagged , , , .


    • Yes, and in fact there are four writers that share copyright: Andre Merritt, Chris Brown, Brian Kennedy and Robert Allen. I really should have made mention of them in my post. I said “by Rihanna”, meaning she was the performer, but that was misleading, obviously.

      Thanks for writing,

  1. I’d like to know what exactly the lyrics are in Disturbia by Rihanna at the chorus.There a lot of them on the internet (put on your brake lights/throw on your break lights…)what is the correct and what does it mean??Thank you!

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