Back in 2001, when I began this site, I wasn't
aware that Hal Leonard
Publishing Corporation had published a transcription of this
song. You can find it in The
Elton John Keyboard Book. It’s an excellent book – the
only book of transcriptions other than the ones at my web
It does a pretty good
job with about 8 A-list songs and another 8 or 9 B-list songs.
I recommend you buy this book because since I discovered
it, my policy has been that I
won't repeat any of the songs found in it.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight is one of Elton’s great
achievements. When I take on a song of this stature, I feel
its important to provide a serious analysis of the music
so that Elton-a-holics can get some music appreciation in
the process. Sometimes these A-list songs have so much genius
in them, doing any justice to the analysis becomes a project
in and of itself.
Part of what makes Someone Saved My Life
so interesting is that YOU CAN’T TELL EXACTLY WHAT
KEY ITS IN. From a harmonic perspective, Elton’s
entire purpose is to keep the listener off-base about the
tonal center for this song. He stretches this uncertainty
out for the longest time, shifting between 3 different keys.
When he does finally resolve to a root tonic, it’s
only for a brief moment and then he takes off again. This
tonal uncertainty is a perfect match for the dramatic lyrics
about confusion and despair in Elton’s personal life.
Combine this with a brilliant melody, a compelling vocal
interpretation and an unforgettable piano riff and voila,
you’ve got a monster hit from a pop genius.
Another important aspect of this song is the very obvious
influence of the Beach
Boys and the genius of Brian Wilson.
Later in this analysis, I’m going to suggest that there’s
a connection between this song and God Only Knows.
Let’s first look at the piano riff in the intro. Elton is just incredible
at coming up with signature riffs. This is another one, like Levon, like Bennie
and the Jets, like Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, like The One, etc.
etc. The average listener only needs to hear about 1 second of this intro in
order to identify the tune. Here's the classic intro riff with its partial
scales in the left hand.
The intro sets the stage for the tonal uncertainty of the
entire song. We start with an Ab over the Eb
bass, a slash
chord, notated as Ab/Eb. The uneasiness you sense is
because it doesn’t
establish if we’re in the key of Ab or Eb. The partial
scale in the left
hand that follows doesn’t help set the key since
it could represent an Eb major scale or an Ab scale
on the 5th of the key. Either way, the Ab, which is the dominant of
Db, seems to resolve to a root Db chord. The net effect
of the 2 bars is that we can’t decide if the song is
in Ab or Db.
The verse is essentially a harmonic journey through 3 keys over the course
of 12 bars (well, 12 and a half to be precise). The verse starts in that
very tentative Ab key, arrives at Db at the midpoint, and then ends in Eb.
These of course are the natural major chords in the key of Ab. The structure
of the verse divides itself into three (and a half), three and six bars.
The first 6 and a half bars, which use a descending bassline
to modulate into the sub-dominant
key, are shown in
the following example. Elton modulates to Db WITHOUT EVER
ESTABLISHING the tonic in the first place.
The first 3 bars use a descending diatonic
is, the bass line follows notes in the scale and these notes
are the basis for the chords. When he reaches the Bb bass
note in bar 3, Elton plays a Gb chord over
the Bb bass. Diatonically,
a Bbm chord is the natural chord in the key of Ab, but Elton
has changed keys on us. The Gb chord, which
can be interpreted
as the bVII (flat-7)
of Ab, actually functions as the IV
of Db in this instance. You can hear it resolve very solidly
to the Db, although Elton uses the Db/Ab, maintaining the
The last few bars shift between the IV and the V of the
new key, finally resolving to a root position Db.
While the first 6 and a half bars basically use half note
harmony changes, the following 6 bars shift to whole note
harmony structure. It uses a VI7 (depending on what key you
think we’re in) to modulate.
The second half of the verse is a build up to the chorus.
It uses the natural tension of a I to VI7 chord change. The
VI7 is a secondary
dominant. It acts as V7 in a new key,
the melody climbs higher and higher, finally climaxing with
the resolution into the key of Eb.
Hello. You've just been taken from Ab to Db to Eb.
True to form, Elton doesn’t stay with the Eb, but does an immediate direct
modulation back down into Db. At this point, one just has to marvel at the
grace with which
Elton has transported us from one key to another. Just take a minute to compare
this with your typical pop progressions: I-IV-I-IV; I-vi-ii-V; etc. They never,
never, never would have measured up for this song.
The chorus starts off with a 2-bar pattern on I and vi.
This is repeated once. On the third repetition, Elton goes
back to the I - VI7 pattern (i.e. Db - Bb7), a guaranteed
tension builder. As it was in the verse, this tension-building
pattern is used as a harmonic undercurrent for a melodic
climax at the end of the chorus. But this time, instead of
taking us to the Eb, Elton shifts back to Db and a descending
bassline that leads us back to the intro riff.
The bridge neatly slides into a reflective tone which provides some relieve
from the almost non-stop melodic and harmonic climaxes that the song has
taken you through. It utilizes the Db and Ab tonal centers and their associated
relative minors. Of course to bring us back into the song, Elton once again
employs his I-VI7 device which lifts us up into the final chorus.
Elton sticks to a 4-beat straight chord accompaniment style with the piano.
It’s basically a gospel style with very few flourishes or ornaments
(except for the intro of course). The Rhodes electric piano doubles the piano,
providing a soft, ringing pad in the mix. By taking this simple approach
to the piano playing, it concentrates your attention on the
The overall length of this song at 6:40 is astounding (although
not uncommon for Elton) and must have been a real problem
for radio programmers. The drums and bass provide just the
lightest of accompaniment to the piano. The bass stays very
simple and unobtrusive throughout the entire song, essentially
following Elton’s left hand. The drum provides a simple
cymbal beat until a whopping 2:20 minutes into the song when
it comes alive with a crash and a rock beat. All of the mini
climaxes and tension builders provide the drummer with plenty
of opportunities for tom rolls and crashes, and Nigel supplies
these with his characteristic style. For me, Nigel’s
drum work is part of the signature sound of many of Elton’s
The bridge brings in some guitar, organ and synth into the
mix. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the guitar
providing harmonics in the closing refrain.
CONNECTION TO THE BEACH BOYS
I think most people immediately recognize the Beach Boys vocal harmony style
in the backing vocals. In general, backing vocals do not play a prominent
role in Elton’s songs. That’s why these stand out. Although limited,
they are a focal point of the arrangement when they come in. The “Oo,
Oo, Oo” at the end of the chorus is just as important as the melody.
It contributes significantly to the emotional empathy that the song invites
you to feel; kind of a sad and reflective response to the climatic call to
fly away and be free.
In transcribing the backing vocals, I have to admit that
I have some difficulty hearing group vocals and / or replicating
them in midi. Beach Boy vocals are noted for their counterpoint
and suspensions, for their fullness, and for their high register
melodic leaps. I’ve tried my best to capture that in
Beyond the vocals though, this song draws quite a bit in
particular from the Beach Boys’ hit song God Only Knows.
Part of Brian Wilson’s genius was to stretch the harmonic
vocabulary of pop music in a lot of different directions.
In God Only Knows, he set about to achieve the same goal
as Elton does here, namely to avoid establishing a tonal
center. Both songs employ a lot of the same harmonic tricks,
specifically, they both rarely hit the root of a chord, preferring
to use inversions with the 3rd or 5th in the bass. Both songs
also shift between 2 keys that are a 4th apart from each
other. In that regard, both of them achieve the same sort
of uneasy feeling with respect to a tonic key.
I make no attempt to compare Elton and Brian. In terms of
harmonic complexity and diversity, Brian Wilson has few peers;
just sheer genius in a way that’s very different from
Elton’s. But by employing some of Wilson’s brilliance
to his own style, Elton achieves his own zenith.
The Elton John / Bernie Taupin partnership may have reached a peak on this
song. I don’t know, but as an Elton fan, going through this song from
beginning to end over the course of the many hours it took to do this work,
I have to admit to being absolutely overwhelmed. This song is a treasure,
a jewel in the Elton John crown. I hope you’ll take the time to get
re-acquainted with Someone Saved My Life Tonight as I have.