"When Doves Cry" might be called an eccentric song, in the way that it combines and rejects different musical conventions to create a sound that is totally accessible and catchy but also very stripped down and elemental.
For starters, the song doesn't even have a bass line (which is usually a key element of dance music). Prince actually did create a bass line (which he performed—along with all the other instruments on the track) but decided to erase it from the song's final mix. According to the engineer who worked with Prince to perfect the track's sound, the artist seemingly ripped out the bass just to prove that he could; "Nobody," Prince reportedly said, "would have the balls to do this."
With no bass, the song depends even more than usual upon the strength of its dance drumbeat; at times, the song seems to boil down to nothing more than Prince's vocals and the drums. The beat is interesting in that it's not your normal pop beat. (Your standard pop song has four beats per measure. If you've ever rocked out or simply tapped your foot along to music, chances are that you're tapping on the second and fourth beats of each measure—which is where the hits on the bass drum usually are.) The syncopated beat of "When Doves Cry," however, hits on the first and halfway between the second and third. That unsteady, unexpected rhythm, combined with the heavy use of toms and other unfamiliar percussive sounds, gives the beat an almost tribal feeling.
On top of that distinctive beat, "When Doves Cry" offers up a spiritual sound, full of the ad libbing and call-and-response shouting that defines the African American gospel tradition. The layering of vocals—which intensifies near the end of the song—makes the song more an a cappella with a dance beat than anything else. The chorus features at least three vocal tracks layered on top of each other; an emotive, melodic voice in the lead, backed by two separate lower voices creating a chord effect, with the lowest serving a "bass" function. As the song moves along, both the layering and the gospel ad libbing intensify as if they are competing each other; you end up with a swelling wave of voices belting out "When doves cry."
Particularly in '80s music, the synth was an important lead instrument, and "When Doves Cry" was no exception. For many listeners, the song's defining feature will be the synth hook that leads into the first verse and ends all the verses.
Critics have often said that Prince doesn't write instrumental parts to play together so much as compete with one another—after all, since Prince typically plays all of his instruments, there isn't really an opportunity for the parts to play together. Somehow it all just works, though, and that may be the ultimate testament to Prince's creative genius.