Three-Minute Throwdown: Sanremo 2020 Edition

Festival della canzone italiana di Sanremo, the Italian Song Festival at Sanremo, began on 4 February. All 24 songs were performed in the first two nights, and a demographically representative jury has cast its votes in favor of 2017 representative Francesco Gabbani’s song “Viceversa”. However, these 24 songs have made it onto the stage of the direct ancestor of Eurovision and Festivali i Këngës (Albania), a stage which has held the weight of the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Il Volo, as well as legendary performers such as (but not limited to) Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, and Shirley Bassey. Forgoing preliminary impressions due to time constraints, this will give a semi-brief overview of each song on first listen with no backtracking (bar Achille Lauro’s, who had received much media attention for his antics). As with the other three articles published about national finals (Czech Republic, Latvia, Australia), this will take a music theory approach with brief explanation where warranted; further explanations may be linked throughout.

Due to RAI’s YouTube restrictions, no video can be streamed from ESCtakeover. The playlist (and order of listening) can be found on YouTube. The playlist includes 8 songs (13-16, 29-32) from the newcomer section that are not eligible to compete for a Eurovision spot this year. These also reflect the performances on the first and second nights, not the fourth night.

Michele Zarillo – Nell’estasi o nel fango (In ecstasy or in the mud)

B minor beginning with acoustic guitar and piano. Second chord is a G6/9 (gee six (slash) nine) chord, which is a very spicy/colorful sound. Jazz bassist, bandleader, and YouTube music theorist Adam Neely explains this chord at 0:50 in this video:

Adam Neely answering many questions, including what the 6/9 chord is.

The instrumental is chugging away on the 3+3+2 tresillo rhythm which keeps on popping up! Cool how the song picked up in second half of verse: electronic effects from those computer-aided synths and drums. The blend between the string orchestra and the rest of the elements was not balanced. Chorus reminds me of Coldplay, between the falsetto and the generally tone color-focused arrangement, a common occurrence among modern film score. The low-mid guitar frequencies are cutting in a bit on the general musical atmosphere. As a former sound technician, I wish the instruments and voices blended a bit better after that first chorus in the second verse. The snare sound is VERY tight and accented; would prefer it to cut a bit less in the mix. Bridge changed to half-time feel (feels like half speed due to where the drum is hitting). The drummer grooves well. Digging the piano/strings break before the final chorus. Ending swell to silence was nice, but this song needs to be cut to 3 minutes if it wins.

Giordana Angi – Come mia madre (Like my mother)

C minor. Piano-led ballad, a bit spoken word and much more relaxed than the classical counterpart sprechstimme, more akin to Broadway-esque speech-level singing (SLS), if a bit more restrained in its approach. At the same time, this also sounds a bit like a modern recitative (reh-chee-ta-TEEV), a sung monologue, when the instrumental backing comes in what could be considered a chorus in modern parlance. Her singing is focused primarily on three notes: G, A♭, and B♭, which adds to the recitative feeling. Like “Arcade”, the song begins and ends with a major chord centered around fa in the context of minor centered around la (in “Arcade”, the key is A minor, while here it is weakly C minor due to the A♭ – B♭ – Cm – E♭ – Gm – . – A♭ – . (chords held where “.” is present) not having strong resolution toward either C minor or E♭ major). The fa beginning and end, along with its duration, gives this song an A♭ Lydian-like feel at times, though neither song feels particularly settled. Beautiful orchestration.

Junior Cally – No grazie (No thanks)

Vibrato, overdrive on a guitar to begin? The energy is kicking up! D minor, probably drop D tuning on guitar (wasn’t paying attention to hand position on the vibrato D4 in the beginning), which means that the top 5 strings are like a normal guitar, but the lowest string is tuned down from E to D. Am thinking about the White Stripes with how the bass is following the guitar and how riff-driven this is. Swung 4/4 and how hard the song hits reminds me a bit of “Look What You’ve Done”, as sung by Karin Park (writer of “I Feed You My Love”) in the beginning of a Melodi Grand Prix medley with singer Margaret Berger in 2014.

Unlike Park’s composition, however, “No grazie” emphasizes the off-beats when singing “[beat] no [beat] no [beat] no [beat] no [beat] no [beat] no [graz]-[ie]” (square brackets indicating beat). This coincides with the clapping pattern in the Sanremo 2019 winner “Soldi”, which is also syncopated. The clapping is indicated by a slash “/” in the counted rhythm below:

Lyrics to “Soldi” with counting. The “/” indicates the claps, “+” (“and”) indicates equal subdivisions within each beat, and “|” indicates a bar line/measure, or a separation of beat groups.

A rap set atop such a high-octane accompaniment is a gutsy decision. Texture change around 1 minute in sounds like a synthesized break in the rock-rap hybrid. Also just thought of P!nk and her ethos in “So What” in particular, although Cally’s vocal delivery is much less aggressive than P!nk’s. The timpanist seems to have had fun, though he can’t really be heard under the rock instrumentation. Perhaps his playing is just emphasizing the home note of the key, D. New synthesized sound, sawtooth maybe (reminds me of a more refined sound than that on Garageband, though I can’t recall the name of the synth lead sound). Finally got to the point of thinking about Muse with their swung 4/4 song “Uprising“, whose thematic material might be closest to the vibe I’m getting from “No grazie” (and is in the same key), if not the blues riffing. The reverb added to the drums within the song might have also been pleasant within Zarillo’s song, but alas, this is the uncertainty of live sound design.

Final song that came to mind was “Riot“, which is much more alt-metal but is imbued with the same guitar riffing and somewhat countercultural attitude emanating from the red-and-black, rap on rock performance aesthetic. I think this was my brain’s way to say this was a swinging song with quite a bit of attitude.

Rancore (feat. Dardust) – Eden

Dardust was part of Mahmood’s writing team last year.

Starts off with a G♭maj7 chord going into a B♭m/F in B♭ minor, piano going at a relatively fast pace with the sixteenth note Alberti bass pattern: instead of playing all the notes in a chord at the same time, they are played one at a time. Auxiliary percussion as well (conga?). This is beginning with a rap. Apple in the background; whatever the text discusses has some Abrahamic allusion behind it. The rapping around 0:47 isn’t particularly locked in with the orchestra for whatever reason. New section including 1:20 has three claps – is this the Dardust signature? Shots zooming into Rancore’s face with the music on ‘ta ta ta’ remind me of “She Got Me” staging alongside the tresillo. The rhythm over the lyrics “Come l’Eden/Come l’Eden/Come l’Eden, prima del ‘ta ta ta’” betrays an underlying 4-on-3 polyrhythm (approximated tempo from memory):

Maybe due to the key and prominent and active piano, but this is giving me darker “Papaoutai” (Stromae) vibes too. Gunshot ending was what I thought I was hearing from the ‘ta ta ta’ execution but surprised in a chilling way.

Paolo Jannacci – Voglio parlarti adesso

Translation: I want to talk to you now

B♭ major, but the song starts on an E♭ major chord. Great to hear an amplified grand piano instead of the electronic equivalent. The tempo and brooding strings suggest that this is possibly about a lost loved one instead of a failed relationship (both are sad, regardless). Bass and drum come in during second verse by a slide and hi-hat, respectively. iiø7-V-i in G minor during the choruses (Am7♭5 – D – G minor) add to the melancholy. C7 chord in the chorus serves as a predominant (preparing the dominant) chord, where eventually the song finds itself on the dominant chord, F in B♭ major. Contrasting bridge: Fm E♭ F♯dim7 Gm Adim7/F♯=F♯dim7 B♭/F F are chords. Diminished 7th chords are symmetrical; each closest note is the same interval (a minor third) apart from each other. This results in F♯dim7, Adim7, Cdim7, and D♯dim7 sharing the same sounds, though different purposes in context. The drop in instrumentation during the bridge allowed for the song to build up a bit before the final chorus. Not dissimilar to the FiK58 performances of “Shaj”, Jannacci lets the backing instrumentals carry the first part of the final chorus. The accordion (or similar reedy keyboard, like melodica) adds to the bittersweet effect of the song, contrasting a “happy” major key with a weighty topic of sorts, similar to “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music.

“Adesso dormi”. Incredibly poignant. I think I was right in guessing the theme – the final words are “now sleep”.

Francesco Gabbani – Viceversa

Francesco has migrated from a guitar in his 2017 video to a piano. E♭ major. Fun C♭ (sounds like B) major chord going back to B♭ then E♭ – the C♭ major chord is the ♭VI (flat major six) chord in the key. Said ♭VI chord was present in the 2019 Junior Eurovision songs “La voce della terra” (Italy) and “Armanyńnan qalma” (Kazakhstan). He just sang down the scale going into a Beatles-like chorus with whistling from one of the backing vocalists. The guitar is clean and atmospheric. Swung 4/4 again. Very suave delivery, and his mannerisms are larger than life still.

Tosca – Ho amato tutto

Translation: I loved everything

A♭ major. The piano intro began with an Fm7 chord and meandered before reaching the A♭ major goal. Blue background is a change! This song is particularly chromatic, both literally and musically. Beautiful vocalizations and transition into B♭ major. Chord at 2:40 I think is an Em7♭5(11). Very spicy. (I could be wrong; there’s so much going on there.) At 3:14, I hear an F♯7♭9♯9/E: E lowest note, then G, A♯, C♯, a sung A, and an F♯ from the upper strings. Again, this song is going faster than my memory can hold, but despite the simplicity in delivery, the tonal jazz inside provides for harmonically rich content in this case and reminds me of, for example, Canadian crooner Michael Bublé’s rendition of “God Only Knows“.

Pinguini Tattici Nucleari – Ringo Starr

Artist Translation: The Nuclear Tactical Penguins

This festival needs a bit of serotonin. The name of this group is already legendary.

THERE’S THE SEROTONIN! G major, starts with rapid triplet brass tonguing. Surprisingly little drumming to start a song named after the Beatles drummer. The drummer on the snare was smiling wide, though! Very fun so far. Singers generally singing in G major pentatonic; the brass played an F, so a G Mixolydian sound might be in the works. The chorus is bombastic, and I hope it can hold its own should this advance to Eurovision, since the live brass is doing this song a huge service. The drummer is choking his cymbals in order to execute the short notes in the short break within the chorus. OH, THAT’S WHY THE DRUMMER HAD TWO CRASH CYMBALS! Was that worth it for the one on-stage cymbal crash, though? Conductor conducting in in 2. Everyone had fun with the song, even if the actual singing was maybe not the most on point.

Levante – Tikibombom

E minor. Sounds like EDM-infused pop power ballad material supported by the slow-moving harmonic instruments and faster drums when they come in. A lot of puppets on strings. Her vocals bring the power. I think I heard “Mephisto(pholes)”, the name of a demon first attested in German folklore. This is a four-chord song, but the imagery helps carry it, and the words might help too. Impressive how she sang regardless of posture.

Enrico Nigiotti – Baciami adesso

Translation: Kiss me now

A major, begins with acoustic strumming on a D major chord. 6/8 ballad. Sounds very focused on lower strings – viola, cello, and double bass, though most of that information is lost during the relatively drum-heavy choruses. Four-chord song that starts away from tonic. The guitar solo was messy on the bends. Nice emotion and warm sound, though.

Elettra Lamborghini – Musica (e il resto scompare)

Translation: Electric Lamborghini – Music (and the rest disappears)

A minor. Mandolin or similar instrument at the beginning playing a motif. The rhythm may be a bit hard to find until the bass and drums come in full-blast. The beginning mandolin could do well to be mixed higher during the chorus. Sounds and grooves like a Mediterranean dance hit in la lingua italiana. Clapping orchestra and a dance break might not be an available option at Eurovision, but it was engaging nevertheless, if a bit repetitive.

Piero Pelù – Gigante

Translation: Giant

F♯ minor in the verses. The preview picture looked a lot more daunting than he actually looked live. He was standing a bit far away from the microphone, which led to everything sounding larger than his voice. Before the chorus, it reminded me of a combination of the groove of New Order’s “True Faith” and the outlaw mentality and guitar sound of Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia”.

The chorus is in E major. Interesting two-key dynamic within the song. In the verses, B major chords borrowed from the parallel major key (in the key of F♯ minor, F♯ major is the parallel key) play, which gives the verses a sort of exotic quality, similar to in the folk song “Scarborough Fair”. Not sure about the transition between the verses and choruses. Nice seeing some call-and-response in the part preceding the final chorus and after the C♯ minor bridge which also borrowed the IV chord (F♯) from major. He really got into the audience’s face during the performance, haha. Epic drumming supported by pop orchestra to conclude the song.


Raphael Gualazzi – Carioca

Translation: Someone from Rio (Brazil)

The Eurovision 2011 runner-up is back with his piano! E♭ minor. Not as much jazz from the get-go: a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern commonly found within electronic dance music permeates the background. He sings constantly on the offbeats, and the piano was playing fewer block chords in this new song, more single notes within arpeggiated passages. Nice bass groove. Ottolini Jazz written on the bell of the tuba… what is going to happen? Considering the translation of the title, it makes sense that the sound has moved south to Latin-inspired dance aesthetics instead of those associated with New Orleans jazz. Not sure if everyone’s rhythms were locked in in the transition to the second verse, but that’s a fixable gaffe. The laid-back way he’s singing the offbeats makes the rhythm feel more unsteady/less locked in, and if he had another chance to redo this (he does – at 20:30 CET), he would probably do best to enunciate the consonants a bit more to give a more pronounced attack to his words. The staging is quite colorful, and his mannerisms remind me a bit of Elton John, if a bit more subdued and Italian.

Riki – Lo sappiamo entrambi

Translation: We both know

B♭ major. Piano again. There is a gated synth that is pulsing in the background before his singing returns. I think that was an unexpected number of measures in the verse, after which snaps and strings enter. The hook into the first chorus is good, starts off away from tonic (E♭ chord instead of a B♭ chord). Vocoded vocals at the end of the chorus were slightly unexpected. The beats sounded pre-sampled, so there was definite indication of something electronic going on in the background even after the gated/stutter synth faded into the background. The small synth trinkets return more audibly in the second verse. Reminds me of a solid track from the Backstreet Boys if it were orchestrated. Do I hear flute arpeggios in the bridge? Interesting choice! Will the vocoder be kosher for Eurovision, though? I don’t think that sort of thing has been used since the Olsen brothers won with “Fly on the Wings of Love”.

Alberto Urso – Il sole ad est

Translation: The sun to the east

B♭ major. The beginning reminds me of an old-school aria: the orchestra carries an introductory melody in anticipation of Urso beginning his singing. Indeed, the singing sounds semi-classical in the presence of vibrato and sounds less nasal and/or throaty than the past three Italian acts to grace the Eurovision stage. His tenor does not lose pitch throughout the range of the song, even as he mixes head and chest voice before hitting the B♭4 climax note in the second half of the choruses. Interesting a cappella beginning of the second chorus only to have instruments come back in on the second chord (F, the V chord in B♭ major). I just noticed the trap hi-hats, interesting blend of many worlds within music. Grandiose modulation to C major. C5 here we come? YES. Honestly loved “Grande amore”, but this was better performed and possibly more modern.

Bugo e Morgan – Sincero

Translation: Sincere

B♭ major. Somehow, this running order might not be the most spontaneous… at least it’s easier for the live musicians to process! Begins with what looks like an analog synthesizer. Fat sounds abounding. I don’t know these people, but the hair game is quite unique! Sounds like a synth-pop song with the two people harmonizing with each other. I think the mic stand is way too low for the guy standing away from the synthesizer; people shouldn’t be sacrificing their posture for a mic stand. Nice hearing some delays in the guitar part – used tastefully, they can enhance a guitar part significantly. Interesting bland of voices! Seems like the two singers have a decent amount of stage chemistry. The ending was a bit unpolished in execution – don’t break character early! – but that can be fixed.

Elodie – Andromeda

Written by Mahmood and Dardust. Am I going to expect more urban vibes or something similar to the other song Dardust wrote, “Eden”? G♯ minor, begins with piano as well, but also has plenty of sound design artifacts like samples and synthesizers from the beginning. True to the name, this sounds more spacey than “Soldi” did due to the heavy synthesizer usage. New section beginning around the 1-minute mark focuses on a C♯9sus4 sound (notes C♯F♯ G♯ B D♯), while she emphasizes the first and fifth degrees of the minor. Solid groove once it kicks in. Rocking bass line. Back in the disco I go! Interesting camera choice to show the singer through screens at around 2:19. Mahmood’s signature might be a grunt, as Elodie does before the final chorus, among other places.

Anastasio – Rosso di rabbia

Translation: Red with anger

That is a lot of electric guitars (I wish I had one sometimes). I think one of them is tuned to drop C♯ or similar. C♯ minor, the 4/4 swing was somewhat hard to hear because of how fast he was rapping compared to the distorted rhythm guitar. The other guitar is using a bottleneck slide. Odd mismatch between his steady rhythms and the swung music accompaniment. The chorus fits better. The performance fits the title. He has quite the range!

Le Vibrazioni – Dov’è

Translation: The Vibrations – Where is it?

Another group. C major. A sign language behind the singer, already a thoughtful staging. This song is slowly building from its piano beginning into orchestra + mallet cymbals. Pleasant pop rock ballad, and I absolutely love when sign language interpreters really get into interpreting their work, like Tommy Krångh (Sweden), Nenad Mahmutović (Serbia), and Amber Galloway Gallego (USA) do, among others. The messaging and emotion gets that much stronger because of such touches. I hope that sign language interpretation becomes more prominent in the musical environment in general.

Diodato – Fai rumore

Translation: Make some noise

F♯ major, piano ballad. His high notes are a bit of a stretch right now, so it might be better to lower the performance key, even if proper execution would impress the crowd. It got better over the course of the song. The backing vocals after the second chorus help carry the song. I think the final chorus has a different chord progression or I was just focusing too much on his voice and didn’t write the chord progression down. The bass messed up, but no big deal, the show goes on. He sings diatonic notes over chromatic chords (iv in major) fine, though the chromatic notes might take him a while to reach – something to work on. Beautiful ending.

Achille Lauro – Me ne frego

Translation: I don’t give a damn

I watched this part-way through, so I can say that the provocateur has received a lot of attention even as he claims to, more politely, not care.

The glittery visuals contrast with with the slightly overdriven guitar sound but complement the brass responses to his singing in the chorus. E major, though with Mixolydian flavor. I am getting a lot of glam energy, but that says nothing about Lauro’s taste in people. If people were talking about this song and blasting him as a fascist due to the phrase’s usage by Mussolini (see the link for details), this was probably one of the most non-fascist displays of fabulous energy I have seen in a while.

Rita Pavone – Niente (Resilienza 74)

Translation: Nothing (Resilience 74)

A minor. Syncopation in the chords in the beginning. Most interesting usage of whispered responses in the pre-chorus; would be easier to hear what was said with a different mix and maybe microphone setup. Solid pop. The strings have been doubling, or emphasizing using similar/identical notes in, the beginning keyboard part. Pavone’s voice reminds me of Magali “Maggy” Luyten‘s in its slight rasp and power, though this is more hard-ish rock. Love the bass guitar break. The backing vocals support her well after that bass break. Coordinated band ending. Was she trying to convince us that this song was nothing? She failed at that!

Marco Masini – Il confronto

Translation: (The) comparison

E major, Masini on the piano for what seems like another piano ballad. Adds EDM percussion in second go-around of chord progression. Did his song actually have the word “piano” in it while he was playing in the pre-chorus??? Interesting. The vocals (lead and backing) were a bit off-sync with each other but quickly recovered. I am thinking about how fast Italian is sung and how much more slowly I speak in every single language I know (which are on average slower to begin with). The backing vocalists are epic and under-appreciated in my opinion. I really liked the intimacy at the end when Masini squatted toward the camera and sang to it like a friend, only to have the lights dim to black at the end.

Wondering if the Italians would try to make Eurovision have an orchestra again if they won and hosted in Sanremo. I’d welcome it gladly.

Irene Grandi – Finalmente io

Translation: Finally me

Finally, I’m at the end of the 24 songs!

F♯ major with F♯ note swell into the verse, four-to-the-floor bass drum, acoustic guitar strumming. Danceable. The bass was thankfully reduced after the first 3-5 seconds. Epic bass jamming to this piece after it comes in.

I’m beginning to wonder what would happen if they had their own sound designers come and do some live sound design for their entries instead of depending on the orchestra. After 24 songs and analyses over the past 48 hours (not to mention 4 days of the festival for attendees and watchers), it does tend to blend a bit… Despite having played viola in orchestra when I was younger, just listening to pure orchestra tends to put me in a somnolent trance after a while. It would help if I knew the lyrics and could understand them, though.

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