Last night I had dinner at a local restaurant that happened to have a playlist on of great songs from my high school years. As one after another came on I thought, “wow, I forgot how good these songs are.” But after a while I realized I couldn’t really separate the songs themselves from my memories of listening to them back in the old days. Nostalgia, as we know, plays a significant role in how we respond to recorded music. But as to the question of what makes a song great to begin with, what separates it from thousands of other songs released around the same time… this is much more difficult for many people to answer.
We might pull out one or two musical elements—“this beat is amazing” or “those heavy guitars are awesome” or “her voice is just so powerful”—before falling back on subjective criteria about how the song makes us feel and what we think of when we hear it. Most people can’t identify with precision how and why certain songs sound like they do because developing such an ear takes years of training. It’s a skill learned by studying theory, recording, and musical technique, and by listening critically to lots and lots of music. Ask a musician, producer, or engineer what makes a song great and you might get a seminar on its mixing, arrangement, chord progressions, and use of studio effects.
That’s what we get in the YouTube series What Makes This Song Great?, created by musician and producer Rick Beato. Here, as Metafilter writes, he “breaks down the musical structure and production techniques in popular songs. Working from the stems [pre-mixed groupings of drums, guitars, vocals, keys, etc] of each song, he discusses everything from Sting's Lydian mode bassline, to the use of Neumann mics to capture the intensity of Chris Cornell's vocals; from sidechain compression in an Ariana Grande song, to the use of a flat 6th to introduce a melancholy air into the vocal melody of a Tool song.”
Now, everyone’s entitled to their tastes, and you might find yourself looking over his choices and thinking of some of them, “this song’s not great!” And, well, fair enough. But give it a chance anyway. Because you can gain new levels of appreciation even for music you don’t subjectively enjoy, just by learning how that music was constructed. When I first began to learn about the skill and effort that goes into writing, recording, mixing, and mastering studio-quality music, the experience was quite humbling, and I found myself listening to songs I didn’t love, exactly, but could very much appreciate from a technical point of view.
I also found my tastes expanding, even to include some pop music I had dismissed as meaningless fluff. Because I could hear interesting uses of reverb, or stereo panning, or delay, or chord voicings. In short, with careful, informed, listening, you can learn to appreciate the architecture of recorded music, rather than just the choice of exterior paint colors or obvious decorative elements. And songs don’t always need to land emotionally to still tickle your interest. Does that mean that I’m now a fan of Blink 182’s “All the Small Things” (top)? Well, no. But instead of rolling my eyes when it comes on, I can hear the small things (see what I did?) Beato points out and think, okay, that is actually kinda cool.
The little hook in the intro, that one muted chord in the opening progression, a sus4 chord thrown in for a dissonant instant. Maybe it also helps that, with the vocals stripped out, this could be another three-chord punk song and not that song, but, hey, it’s a learning process. Many of the other songs in the series might be more universally acknowledged as “great” for their musicianship and songcraft. But that doesn’t mean we can’t glean something from all of Beato's videos. Getting expert perspectives like his can expand our appreciation for any kind of music, and the best producers and musicians tend to have the most eclectic tastes.
Further up, see Beato’s videos on The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of,” and, just above, Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." And check out all of the videos on his channel here.