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What makes this song great?

Children for many years have no choice but to embrace the aesthetic tastes of their parents. Later on, they may come to resent this as an imposition; or they may come to respect those tastes and to some degree affirm them as their own.

Either way, for most people there exists a moment when at certain work or production emerges as the first: that is, the first creative work to which he or she were drawn inexorably as an individual. For me, while I grew up with The Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the rest of it, the first song that really spiked me, qua me, was the Canadian rock band Rush’s classic “Limelight.”

This tune I’ve heard about a thousand times, but the opening guitar riff, even now, thirty years later, still hits me right in the lizard brain.

Recently I discovered the fantastic Youtube channel of Atlanta’s own Rick Beato. If you want 22 minutes of sophisticated musical analysis of “Limelight,” here it is:

What’s impressive about those 22 minutes is that Beato’s absolutely genuine enthusiasm carries the whole thing. Simply riveting. His whole “What Makes This Song Great” series amounts to an authentic celebration of human creativity.

Another point concerns how Beato got ahold of all these separate tracks from the original production. That’s not something anyone can get; and indeed, some of Beato’s videos start with warnings that publishers might take the video down. “As we know, the Beatles are blockers,” he says in one episode.

Whether that raises a question about digital capitalism’s inherent perversity -- blocking people who are encouraging your product -- is a topic I leave for another time.

Comments (19)

Thanks for this! It was excellent.

Always thought Rush was interesting musically but could never tolerate Lee's voice.

One of the first songs outside my parents' purview that I remember being bowled over by as a kid was "Holly Holy" by Neil Diamond. It came out in '69, so I would have been seven or eight at the time, and I heard Diamond do it on some variety or show or other. I remember being intensely moved by it, to the point of tears, but being a little kid, not having any idea why.

And the first song I can remember latching onto personally as a kid was the classic "The Breeze and I." I was very small, probably three or four, and heard Jack Jones or Andy Williams or someone along those lines sing it on The Mike Douglas Show. It may even have been old Mike himself. I remember asking my dad a day or two later to buy me the record, which I couldn't remember the correct name of, but which I had morphed experientially into "Little Boy in the Wind." After some back and forth he eventually figured out what song I was talking about, to his considerable amusement, but I never did get the record. And I still like the song.

I can't remember exactly what rock song was my first ever "reptile brain" tune, but I know that one of the first to hit me that way, and a song I still like very much, was Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years."

Actually met Geddy Lee wandering around the National Art Galley in DC on Rush's "Presto" tour. I'm embarrassed to say me and the friend that was with me acted every bit like fanbois that the lyrics of "Limelight" complain about. Ahh well, foolish youth.

Beato is fun to listen to because he is a serious composer but hasn't let his tastes get too stuffy.

Let me also recommend YouTuber Adam Neely, who has appeared on Beato videos I believe. You might start with his reaction to the film "Whiplash" of "Things they don't teach you in music school."

Beato is pretty amazing, in his ability to pull apart the elements in the song, and not only see them himself, but enable US to see them (errr, hear them) - including me, I who am a musical illiterate. Of course an important part of that seems to be having access to the separate tracks (at least some of them - I half suspect that he simply reproduced some of them by himself), but that's not the most important part. And he's clearly a musical talent of no small means himself.

The song itself is instantly catching and likable. Some great riffs, and remarkable transitions and counterpoint etc. But it doesn't strike straight through to my soul like some other music.

I think the first piece I know I enjoyed purely from my own preferences and not from my family (in my case, my large cadre of older siblings) was Beethoven's 5th Symphony (at least the first movement, I don't remember hearing the rest at that time) - when I was 10. Nobody in my family really listened to classical music: my siblings listened to rock (early rock, at that time), and my father listened to drippy 30's and 40's music on the radio. (Oddly, he had an old collection of 78 speed albums that had classical - mostly opera, but I don't recall his putting them on the record player even once.) At the time, I thought classical music was 'like the old fogey music of the 40's", but even more so. More likely than not, I had only been exposed to some of the stuff that kids shouldn't be exposed to at all - the modern atonal music, the most intensely non-intuitive stuff from the romantics, that sort of junk. Beethoven's 5th opened up my eyes and ears to the larger possibilities, such as melding a vast variety of different instruments into a harmonic coherency. The Beatles and Beach Boys did great harmonies with just 3 or 4 voices, imagine how much more we can do with 50 voices!

I am sure that I had been prepared for the possibility of liking such music by TV and movies - nobody had ever pointed out to me that great film includes great classical music. But imagine my shock when I first put on a record with Rossini's Barber of Seville: "Wait - That's Bugs Bunny music!!!

I wonder if Beato can take his analysis a step further than he does here: in the middle he gets into talking about some of the (complex) chords being played, and the progressions. What I wonder is whether he (or anybody) has a good grasp on why those chords, or why those progressions strike the soul as something to be liked very strongly. I am sure that the real answer requires knowing quite a bit about the human soul - both the soul'd faculty of hearing, and the psyche that apprehends it as a unity. I am sure our dear reader Masked Chicken has a wealth of knowledge about this, but I don't think the state of knowledge out there has quite reached the level of a science (i.e. a package deal with demonstrative proofs of the underlying and ordering principles) just yet. (If it ever can.) Or if Beato, when he has analyzed the music to the degree he shows here into components, then just relies on intuition (a highly developed intuition, to be sure) to state this or that part is great.

Superb! Thanks for this.

Our backgrounds are somewhat similar. As a kid it was Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Mozart's Requiem for me, then some Mahler. No one else in my family ever really listened to much classical music. They didn't dislike it, they just rarely played it, though I do recall my dad occasionally playing the Planets.

As I got into my late teens and twenties, while Mozart's Requiem endured as a favorite, I shifted towards earlier music (

Completely agreed on the atonal Schoenburg style stuff. It is horrible, and no one has, and a hope never will, convince me otherwise.

Plato insistence that children need to be taught what they should like and what they should dislike extends importantly to music. If they ever listen to Schoenburg at all, it should be as a negative example. Better yet, just teach them to love God and like Bach and when they hear Schoenburg they'll naturally just turn it off.

By "earlier" I meant Baroque and before. And that has pretty much stuck ever since then.


You wrote:

"Completely agreed on the atonal Schoenburg style stuff. It is horrible, and no one has, and a hope never will, convince me otherwise."

I understand your position on Schoenberg (not Schoenburg) and atonal music in general. Many classical musicians I know feel the same way. But personally, I enjoy many atonal works - there's an emotional intensity and otherworldly, dreamlike aura that appeals to me, and to many other classical musicians I know.

It's like how some people enjoy fantasy literature. Musically speaking, listening to atonal music is much like exploring fantastical worlds. If you've ever met people with wanderlust, it shouldn't be an unreasonable stretch of the imagination to understand that some people experience musical wanderlust, as it were. Some people just feel drawn to these strange new musical worlds - not for the sake of mere novelty, but because they do hear some kind of beauty in this music.

Of course, not everyone will hear this beauty. Atonal music really is a niche genre, and that's fine. But just because one can't hear that beauty, that doesn't mean it isn't there. And of course, one shouldn't expect the same kind of beauty that one finds in Beethoven or Mahler. (Though it should be said that atonal composers like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern were highly influenced by Mahler!)

Moreover, it's simplistic to imagine all atonal music is similar. There are so many kinds of atonal music out there! They might sound all alike if one doesn't listen carefully, just as some people think all classical symphonies sound alike.


You wrote:

"What I wonder is whether he (or anybody) has a good grasp on why those chords, or why those progressions strike the soul as something to be liked very strongly."

It depends on the specifics of the case. Sometimes we like a chord progression because it's associated with good memories. Or because, in conjunction with the lyrics, it brings to mind positive images or ideas. Or because of how it confirms or violates our musical expectations. And so on. See the following link for an influential, multi-mechanism theory of musical emotions: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1571064513000638

" ... the stuff that kids shouldn't be exposed to at all - the modern atonal music, the most intensely non-intuitive stuff from the romantics, that sort of junk."

I was a kid when I first listened to Webern's music, and I instantly fell in love with it. I've been performing atonal music in public for the past decade or so. I admit that the music isn't for everyone. But I (and many others I know) find beauty in it. This isn't because we're aesthetic anarchists who find traditional beauty passe and conservative. Every lover of atonal music I've met also loves the classics - Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc.

But how can anyone find beauty in atonal music? I don't want to sound elitist, but it's hard to answer that question without pointing to the plain fact that some people are more musically sensitive than others. It takes a high degree of musical sensitivity to find beauty in, say, how an atonal chord progression varies in texture and tension, or how a melody soars, curves, twists, and turns despite being atonal, or how succeeding musical moments psychologically connect to each other despite lacking an overarching tonal center.

Lost between some brackets was my comment that I don't really listen to Mahler much anymore, my preferences having shifted to earlier music. I should get out the old albums though... But, since we are on the topic, it is interesting to think that you have at (roughly) the same time, lovely tonal music like being composed by Rachmaninov, very grand tonal symphonies with splashes of atonality as a kind of rhetorical flourish coming from Mahler, and completely atonal music like Schoenberg (I could have sworn I typed an 'e') all at around the same time.

And at that time, the future by those "in the know" was expected to be solidly in the hands of atonality. Tonal music was played out, banal, old-fashioned, etc.

It seems to have gone the other way, with composers like Britten providing an explicit return to traditional tonality, and those like Arvo Part offering a return to tonality, but not quite the traditional tonality, something "modern" without entailing a rejection.

With perhaps an exception here or there, I remain a skeptic of the entire atonal fad. But, to take a swipe at my own idea, and use Beato to do it, developing absolute pitch requires (apparently) exposure to a wide tonal palette played in unexpected ways. So perhaps we should play Schoenberg to kids after all.

But I still can't bring myself to do it; I had the Well-Tempered Clavier on yesterday for my 6 month old daughter instead.


I think every musician I know that enjoys atonal music also enjoys tonal music - from Bach to the Romantics. I myself still prefer tonal music to atonal music.

Tonal music will never be old-fashioned. Even Schoenberg himself said there's still a lot of good music to be composed in C major! I once took a course surveying classical music composed in the last 30 years or so, and I'd say roughly half or more of the music was still tonal.

Should kids listen to atonal music? I'd say, why not? I was exposed to Webern's atonal music as a child when I browsing Microsoft Encarta for composers I didn't know, and I was instantly fascinated. My parents had nothing to do with this; up to now, they still don't like atonal music. Perhaps it's easier to appreciate atonal music as a child, before one's aesthetic expectations and preferences grow inflexible.

One of my music teachers sometimes performs atonal music for children, and he says, more often than not, they tend to appreciate the music more than adults.

"he says, more often than not, they tend to appreciate the music more than adults."

But surely that's not necessarily a good thing. The question for me would be why do they tend to appreciate it more? It would obviously be a result of lack of prejudice, but in this case is that lack good or bad?

Nice Marmot,

> It would obviously be a result of lack of prejudice, but in this case is that lack good or bad?

Good question. I'd say it's a good thing, but it's hard to argue for this. If John can't hear the beauty of unfamiliar music due rigid listening habits, how can I ever convince him about that music's beauty? We don't even have to talk about atonal music - I've met classical musicians who can't hear beauty in Bach's music.

I doubt we can argue each other into hearing beauty. I can only ask people to listen, carefully and repeatedly.

For example, listen to the 1st minute of Feldman's Rothko's Chapel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZZ0DYIkaP8

It opens with quiet drum-rolls, like distant thunder spreading through a desolate landscape. Listen to how motionless, mysterious, and stark this music is. Over this dark soundscape enters the sound of a viola. Its melody isn't romantic, isn't sentimental. We're far from the emotional world of Tchaikovsky or Brahms, and yet the music evokes a palpable sense of anxious sadness, which slowly builds and builds until it reaches a high-point at the one-minute mark. We hear a magical chord on the vibraphone - a moment of breathtaking musical beauty.

I don't know if this helps at all. But besides giving even more examples along with commentary, I'm not sure what else I can do to make the case for atonal music's beauty.

That Feldman clip is nice; I don't have a problem with atonality in small segments. Lots of modern tonal composers use it for effect or for "spice." But I doubt I'd be able to listen past three or four minutes. Since the music has no tonal center, it can't really "go" anywhere; there's no progression. And I just find that very uninteresting. I suspect that kids like it because it sounds "weird" or "spooky." I remember liking creepy-sounding music when I was little. But I don't think that means they find beauty in it. I mean, as a child I liked both Kabalevsky's "Comedians Galop" and Saint-Saens' "The Swan" (I had them both on the same record), but I think that if you would have asked my four-year-old self which one was "beautiful" I would have immediately, instinctively said the latter.

Nice Marmot,

It seems we're using "beauty" differently. I was using it to mean general aesthetic goodness, as opposed to a more specific aesthetic quality, which seems to be how you're using it. In your sense, I agree, atonal music isn't beautiful. But I'm reminded of this quote from philosopher Jerrold Levinson:

"...some great music that is not narrowly beautiful, but instead powerful, disturbing, restless, or sublime: the outer movements of Beethoven’s 'Appassionata' Piano Sonata; the outer movements of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, 'Death and the Maiden'; the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; Brahms’s Piano Trio in C minor; the opening movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony; the 'Dies Irae' of Mozart’s Requiem; 'Siegfrieds Trauermarsch' from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung; Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet; Schoenberg’s Erwartung; and Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra. And finally, some great music that is perhaps even ugly: Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the third of Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Xenakis’s Pithoprakta, and Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima."

I'm not sure about the idea that atonal music has no progression. Sure, it has no *tonal* progression, but other aspects of music such as dynamics, rhythm, texture, and voice-leading can still convey progression without a tonal center. A passage that grows louder and faster will express an increase of tension. A passage that grows texturally thinner and descends to lower registers will express a decrease of tension.

"I was using it to mean general aesthetic goodness, as opposed to a more specific aesthetic quality, which seems to be how you're using it."

True, but I'd say that the general aesthetic goodness "opens up" from or builds upon the more specific quality, which seems to come somewhat naturally to us humans. Of course, there is a sense in which "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." It does have a subjective element. It can't be entirely subjective, however, as that would lead to a complete inability to offer judgment. As I once heard it put, if you went to someone's house for dinner and instead of a bouquet of flowers on the table they had a plate of rotting meat, you'd wonder (at very least) about their aesthetic sense.

I'm not saying that atonal music is the aural equivalent of rotten meat. But I do think that our sensibilities tend to move us generally towards the harmonious and orderly, as opposed to disharmony and disorder.

"I'm not sure about the idea that atonal music has no progression."

I've not heard much atonal music that has noticeable rhythmic or textural progression, unless it's something that has incorporated aspects of minimalism. But even then, it seems that the rhythm/texture is serving as a sort of substitute for tonality.

Curse you Paul...I'm now going to spend way too much time on YouTube over the next couple of weeks watching every single one of those Beato videos!

In all seriousness, this is an amazing find -- especially because like you I'm a big Rush fan (a particular thrill for me was seeing their 30th Anniversary tour back in the 2000s.)

I think my own special "lizard brain" pop/rock music would have to be U2 -- hearing the opening riff of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (which was my introduction to them) or the later "Pride (In the Name of Love)" gets me every time. I actually think their later stuff is even better (my favorite album is probably The Joshua Tree) but those two songs still capture my imagination in a special way.

Nice Marmot,

"...I'd say that the general aesthetic goodness 'opens up' from or builds upon the more specific quality, which seems to come somewhat naturally to us humans."

I disagree but I'm not sure how to argue against this except to point to music again. Beethoven's Grosse Fugue isn't beautiful at all, but it conveys a powerful sense of rough-hewn, jagged, visceral energy that never fails to astound me, even if I don't find it pleasant to listen to. Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is imposing, violent, exhausting, but perhaps anything less would fail to do justice to its subject matter.

"I've not heard much atonal music that has noticeable rhythmic or textural progression..."

Bartok's music is full of examples of this. For rhythmic progression, listen to 0:16-0:23 in this piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJLb7-m-pAY

The music's rhythm gets faster, clearly leading to the passage's end-point at 0:23.

As for textural progression, the opening from Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta starts with one melody, then a second melody joins in, then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. Throughout this whole passage, the music slowly grows in energy, almost like an inexorable organic process.

" ... it seems that the rhythm/texture is serving as a sort of substitute for tonality."

I think it's more accurate to say that tonality, rhythm, texture, etc. are various aspects of music that can be used to convey progression.

"I'm now going to spend way too much time on YouTube over the next couple of weeks watching every single one of those Beato videos"

I've watched three or four of them and they're informative, but his taste in music is fairly mainstream. He seems like a guy who was raised on classic rock and doesn't venture too far afield from stuff that's in that general stream. As such, some of his choices for "20 best..." whatever are a little bit predictable and mundane. He definitely knows his stuff though, and even if somewhat narrow, the videos are enjoyable.

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