Madman Across The Water
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Live Solo Piano Version
Key: F Structure: A-A-B-C-A-A-B-C-C

For me, Elton’s solo tours in 1999 and 2000 have become major sources of inspiration. We all love the great songs he’s written over the years, but the solo tour really put the spotlight on his piano skills. Oh we knew he was good. We knew he was really good. BUT THIS ONE IS SCARY GOOD! Be forewarned. This one rocks and you need to be a pretty good player to take it on.

It’s really a pleasure for me to sit down and work out one of Elton’s greatest songs. Levon’s got it all: classic Elton piano playing, a great melody, a fantastic bluesy solo, and the greatest piano intro ever written.

Alright, I’ve said it before. Elton's intros come straight from the God of Music. His piano intros are nearly unmatched in the annals of popular piano playing. Anyone who has ever seriously thought about playing piano in the last 30 years, has played a few of his intros. Guitarists copy his intros. They are iconic, readily identifiable and irresistible.

Although Elton always does little variations on it, the Levon intro remains substantially the same as the original recording. The key to the intro is the use of what some musicologists call the 9-3 riff, or the 9-to-3 resolution. This refers to a chord or a partial chord that utilizes the 9th tone in the scale, most of the time in combination with the 1st and/or the 5th, and then resolving it to the 3rd. See the examples below.

For those who are curious, country pianist Floyd Cramer invented this riff in the 1950’s, and it forever changed the way country, pop, and rock piano was played. Check out his song “Last Date.” It’s an instrumental based entirely on this riff.

Elton's approach to the piano should be very familiar. It uses what I've called his default style, which features broken chord arpeggiating, over octave patterns (or sometimes 5ths) in the bass. Rhythmic syncopations and riffs are worked into the mix in almost every bar. These are the essential elements that create that lush full sounding accompaniment that defines Elton's piano playing.

Elton can play like this all day and night and still keep it interesting. Rhythmically and dynamically, he has perfected (and I say patented) this style of playing. He is able to spin hundreds of little variations to this basic approach: different chord inversions, different chord patterns, different accents, different rhythmic variations, different riffs, different left hand patterns.

Frankly this style is so identified with Elton, I believe other pianists have to consciously avoid playing like this because they would just sound like second rate Elton copy cats.

Levon follows a song pattern that has proven to be very successful for Elton, namely the A-A-B-C pattern. This pattern involves two verses followed by a pre-chorus and then the chorus. It’s the same pattern he used in Tiny Dancer (and also Razor Face for that matter). There are many others, (e.g. Philadelphia Freedom, Crocodile Rock)

For contrast compare it to the very simple A-B pattern of Candle in the Wind (verse-chorus) or the A-A-B pattern of Your Song (verse-verse-chorus).

For reference, the pre-chorus in Levon begins with the line, He was born a pauper to a pawn, and continues through the line, Alvin Tostig has a son today.

The point I’m making here is that Elton’s pre-choruses are simply brilliant. A pre-chorus acts as a transitional element between the verse and the chorus. It’s usually related harmonically to the verse, but it takes a different path. Most pre-choruses are innocuous variants of the verse.

But Elton’s greatest pre-choruses, like the one in Levon, serve to build up an incredible amount of dramatic anticipation and tension. As the melody reaches to higher notes, the tension builds up and in the process the song moves you upwards to a whole new level. That intensity that he builds and sustains over several lines is finally released in the chorus. Part of what makes the chorus so wonderful and enjoyable, is the quality of being released from the anticipation that preceded it.

It’s a lot like being on a roller coaster ride, courtesy of Elton John.

Harmonically, Levon stays strictly within the root key of F. Even the casual listener can hear that much of the song consists of alternating between F and Bb, the I and IV chords in F. For a song that stays strictly in one key, I think it's fascinating how Levon rarely hits the C, the V of the key.

He also uses his diatonic minor chords extensively: Gm, Am, and Dm, the ii, iii, and vi of the key respectively. Let's take a closer look at the major sections of Levon.


|| F · Bb/F · | F · · · | Bb · · · | F/A · · · |

| C/E · · · | Dm · · · | Am7 · Bb · | Gm7 · · · ||

Elton uses a parallel bass pattern in bars 3-4 and 5-6. First he descends from Bb to A, jumps a 4th, and then descends from E to D. In both cases, he's using the 3rd of the chord as the bass (also known as the 1st inversion) to create a much richer and smoother transition from chord to chord. These 1st inversion chords use the slash notation, as in F-slash-A and C-slash-E. This approach to harmony illustrates the principle of voice leading.

By contrast, if you tried using these chords with just the roots in the bass, you'd get Bb to F and then C to D. You'd notice how different the chords would sound. The transition from chord to chord would be more jarring and disconnected.

I also note how Elton holds out the Gm7 in the last bar. Many of us would expect to see a C-chord of some type here. After all, that's the way we usually transition back to the beginning of a verse in the key of F. Maybe something like this:

| Gm7 · Gm7/C · ||

Try it out. I MEAN IT! TRY IT OUT! It works, only it's not as good.


|| Am7 · Dm F/C | Bb · F/A · | Gm7 · F · |

| Bb · F/A · | Gm7 · · · | Gm7 · · F/A ||

While the pre-chorus stays in the key of F, there are several really different ways in which Elton approaches this section:

    1. 2 chords per bar instead of the more leisurely 1 chord per bar in the verse. This gives you more movement.
    2. No pauses between the melody phrases. The verse consists of 1 bar of melody, 1 bar of pause. This gives the section more urgency.
    3. 6 bars instead of 8. By eliminating any pauses between the phrases, Elton contracts the section to 6 bars.


Harmonically, you can't get much simpler than the chorus to Levon. The focus is on the Bb, the IV of the key, but otherwise it just alternates between the F and Bb. The chorus is the only place where the C appears in its traditional dominant role, anticipating the return to F.

|| Bb · · · | F/A · · · | Bb · · · | F/A · · · |

| Bb · · · | F/A · · · | Bb+9 · · · | Csus · C · ||

In the original studio version, this section showed off the revolutionary string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster. At the time Levon was released, Elton and Buckmaster were at the very forefront of establishing how strings could be incorporated into a rock and roll setting. The Madman album was one of the greatest examples of this for its time, and represented a model that many future orchestrators would learn from.

After the chorus, we have a short transition back to the verse. Rather than repeating the opening riff , Elton goes into a 4-bar section that consists of a droning F. Again, in the original, we had Buckmaster's strings carrying the musical burden. In the solo setting, the emphasis is placed on Elton's arpeggiating piano work.

Elton closes the song out with a fabulous jam over the two chords F and Bb. He uses his funky blues style and it's filled with riffs that should sound familiar to Elton fans. It will take some serious chops to make this music snap to the beat and play it at the breakneck tempo that Elton plays it at. This is the stuff we go crazy for!


Here's some Elton funky style stuff. The grace notes are crushed, not articulated.

Here's an Elton variation to a classic blues riff.

And it climaxes into some pure rock and roll pounding at the top and bottom of the piano.

So there it is. I hope this analysis has helped give you greater insight into Levon and the piano skills of Elton John. Enjoy!