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Thursday, October 18, 2012

U2 "Beautiful Day" Song Analysis

U2 "Beautiful Day" Cover image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
U2 song analysis have always been popular here, and I've done them for both "One" and "Two Hearts Beat As One" in the past, so when reader The Big Matthias asked for an analysis of the band's 2000 hit "Beautiful Day" from their 12 times platinum All That You Can't Leave Behind album, I was glad to oblige. The song won a Grammy for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and hit #1 in many parts of the world despite only making it to #21 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. Like with all analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
“Beautiful Day is like many U2 songs in that they don’t follow what might be considered a standard song form. In this case, there are two bridges, and sometimes the chorus changes melody and arrangement-wise to almost seem like another section. The song form looks like this:

intro ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ bridge 1 ➞
intro ➞ bridge 2 ➞ chorus ➞ bridge 1 ➞ chorus/solo ➞ intro

The Arrangement
This is one of the few songs that has all five arrangement elements (and sometimes even more) simultaneously playing. There are a lot of different sounds that sneak in and out of the verses, but the chorus and bridges are about as dense as can be.

The song starts with a keyboard pad, electric piano and bass outlining the chords, and what sounds like a drum machine kick drum. When the vocal enters after 4 bars, so does a snare drum doubled with a tambourine. After 4 more bars, a guitar enters on the right channel and a keyboard pedal note on the left. On the last 2 bars of the verse, a heavily reverbed background vocal enters on the right.

 For the chorus the band cranks up the vocal with the drums entering in full with a power chord guitar on the left and the same reverbed background vocal on right.

The second verse changes in the bass is now playing 8th notes, driving the beat, with different guitar fills on the right and keyboard fills on the left drifting in and out of the mix. During the second chorus, a new background vocal enters on the right, this time lower in pitch and drier, so it’s more up front.

The same primary instrumentation continues for bridge 1, only drummer Larry Mullen switches his snare pattern to toms. The song then drops in intensity to another 4 bar intro, this time with a modulated guitar on left, and then it’s into bridge 2. 

The first half of bridge 2 lowers in intensity with no drums, the bass playing whole notes, keyboard pads and the Edge playing a guitar arpeggio. The drums enter for the second half, building it up to a chorus, but it’s unusual in that it’s 4 bars of string and keyboard pads and background vocals.

Then we’re back to bridge 1 for a second time with exactly the same instrumentation as the first. It then goes back into a chorus, but only the first line is sung and a guitar solo enters on the right. The outro breaks down to only a tremolo guitar on the left and feedback that pans left to right.

The arrangement elements look like this:
  • The Foundation: bass, drums, drum machine kick, tambourine doubling the snare
  • The Rhythm: Edge’s signature arpeggiated guitar
  • The Pad: various synthesizers
  • The Lead: lead vocal
  • The Fills: back ground vocals, various keyboards and guitars
The Sound
“Beautiful Day” is a very dense mix with many different synth and guitar sounds appearing for short periods of time then disappearing, some never to be heard again. There’s a lot of sonic layering both with reverbs and delays. Edge has always been the master of delays on his guitars, but this song features deep dense reverbs on some of the synths and background vocals.

One of the cooler things is the panning during the song. The keyboards lean left and most of the guitars lean right except for the power chord guitar in the choruses, the arpeggiated guitar in the second bridge and the vibrato guitar at the very end, which is panned left. The background vocals are always on the right side (most unusually), and while Edge’s high vocal is bathed in reverb, Bono’s low vocal is drier and up front.

The drums are very small and tinny sounding (especially the snare), but this might be because that was the only way to fit everything together in such a dense mix with so many elements. The snare also has the tambourine doubling it on the verses, which makes it sound a little thinner than it really is.

Bono’s vocals are dry so he stays in front of the mix and the other song layers.

The Production
“Beautiful Day” has all the hallmarks of a song where overdub after overdub was tried in an effort to come up with something that works, then they decided to keep pieces of everything when it came to mixing. That’s the production trick here, where so many different tracks were able to blend together in the end and not fight one another. 

That said, one of the best things about this record is the dynamics. While most records use different elements entering and exiting to build momentum and dynamic tension and release, “Beautiful Day” uses the plentiful dynamic skills of the band to go from a whisper to a roar. U2 has never been afraid to play quietly, and when you hear the transition from the first verse to the first chorus here, you understand how valuable an asset that is. Since it’s release, “Beautiful Day” has been one of the band’s concert staples, and it’s easy to see why. 


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Hans-Christian Holm said...

Your "song analyses" are useful from a technical point of view, but they should be called "production analyses", because that's what they are. They are not "song analyses" in the traditional meaning. There's litte or no mention of how melody, chords, lyrics and various external factors contribute. I find all those to be more important than production and arrangement, even in 2012.

To give a hint of what you're missing, one could have a brief look at how chords and melody contribute in "Beatiful Day". The song is in D major, but is dominated by A major, which is – well – the dominant chord. This gives a very unsettled feel to the song. Normally, D major would be used as a relief of tension, but that never happens. D major is just passed through briefly. D major dominates the bridge (bridge 2), but since it's the bridge and the A major is already so well established as the driving force, the roles are inverted. Instead of being a resting point, the D major in the bridge makes you want to hear the dominant again. It's a never ending song, clever. (Another interpretation could be that the song is in A mixolydian, but the effect is the same.)

Both the use of chords and melody are rather minimalistic and repetetive, typical of U2. That also contributes to the never ending drive. The melody is based mainly on the three notes D, E and F#, both in verse, chorus and bridge. There's emphasis on F#, which creates neither a resting point nor a strong tension anywhere in the song. To a D it's the 3rd, to an A it's the 6th, nothing special. The F# just floats there, adding to the unsettled feel.

You mention "dynamic skills" and going from "whisper to a roar", but you're missing that Bono takes the melody an octave up to achieve this. This happens in the chorus, where the octave shift is the most prominent feature that creates the wanted "lift" you expect when going to a chorus. One interesting detail is that the octave shift continues halfway into the second verse. Combined with some melody changes, this creates a needed variation from the first verse.

The dynamics created by the arrangement are needed, but they are the only a coarse foundation. The vocal pitch, i.e. the melody, is the real creator of dynamics. While U2 are fond of soft-strong dynamics, they are not experts at creating levels in between. It's mostly on or off. The arrangement goes to max in the first chorus, burning it all off and leaving little arrangement-wise for creating a climax in the song. The climax point is created by Bono's singing, going up another octave into falsetto in the last bridge.

One could continue with a look at how rythm in the melody creates contrast and dynamics, an analysis of the lyrics and so on. As for external factors, one important factor which you fail to mention has to do with production. The most important feature production-wise in this song is the guitar sound. It's correct that it's the Edge's signatur sound, but what's important here, is that the sound in this case is a strong reference to their early recordings, where this guitar sound was much more prominent than in later recordings. With this song they take their sound go back to their roots. That must have had an impact on the song's popularity.

On a music production blog, a "song analysis" will of course deal mostly with the production side, but your analysis concludes with "it's easy to see why ['Beautiful Day' has been one of the band’s concert staples]', suggesting it has all to do with arrangement and production. I would advise you to make less bold statements about what makes a song successful.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Holm: Dude. Although the melodic and harmonic analysis you gave was very interesting and useful, there's no reason to bash the blog writer. He's giving us all a free service. Why argue over semantics? Although you're probably correct that Bobby's analysis is more production-focused and not song writing-focused, don't get mad at him because he names them song analyses. I'll say thanks to you for your "song" analysis, thanks to Bobby for his "production" analysis, and be on my way. Let's all just enjoy it and have a nice day!

Bobby Owsinski said...

Yes, you're right, these are more production analysis.

As for your other comments, it's true that I miss some things. I spend a long time doing these things, but it's usually not enough to cover everything like I would in a book.

Thanks for bringing anything additional to my and my readers attention.

Anonymous said...

Hans great song analysis!
Bobby great production analysis!

Anonymous said...

Hi This is a great analysis. However, the picture you have up top if from the band "It's a Beautiful Day" not U2. Cheers

Anonymous said...

When I heard the line "It's a beautiful day" in the chorus of "Beautiful Day", I thought of two things: the band It's A Beautiful Day (a great band), and the song "It's a Beautiful Day Today" by Moby Grape (a great song by a great band). I'm sure Bobby thought the same thing, and put the graphic of It's A Beautiful Day's 1st album up to provide a fun/interesting connection.


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