But if you asked the same question about The Beatles or The Beach boys, I could write you pages and pages with specific details, some very technical, others not so much.
Beefheart is not as naive about music theory and history as he sometimes projects, he was well aware of many forms of obscure world and contemporary classical music.
And his techniques are not all ineffable matters of taste, he developed and repeatedly used specific "tricks" to get his effects.
For instance, his tendency to have the last note of repeated melody modules jump up in a leaping interval, often to an alternating note, creates a kind of quirky mechanical jig.
He composed quite deliberately to portray his formidable visual imagination and often achieves the same trippy Breugal-esque animism in both his music and his lyrics.
His band mates were sometimes distressed by his tendency to lay over those blasting horns and vocals, which can remind me of an intricate and perfectly rendered painting that has wild graffiti spray painted on top of it. But that could work in a painting, even if it distresses the guys who labored mightily on the underpainting.
Many of his compositions would hold up quite well transposed for string quartet.
Another big factor was his charismatic and messianic personality that allowed him to attract some of the worlds best musicians who committed to unholy amounts of study and practice to learn his pieces.
His music has repetitive elements, but it is mostly through-composed, meaning it just keeps disclaiming all the way, so playing it must be not unlike memorizing long passages of Homer.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:07 AM PST on January 26 [!]