Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Captain Fantastic and the
Brown Dirt Cowboy
56 KB
61 KB
263 KB
Studio Version
Key: Ab Structure: A-B-A-B-C-B

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 site. 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 that starts 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 pattern, that 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 diationic pattern. 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, Eb. This tension builder is repeated while 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 vocal.

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 hits.

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.

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 this midi.

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.