Tiny Dancer
Madman Across The Water
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311 KB
Studio Version
Key: C Structure: A-A-B-C-A-B-C

Simply put, this song is a masterpiece of pop craftsmanship, one of Elton’s greatest accomplishments. The piano music itself is stunning and a great piano piece in its own regard. The lyrics are among Bernie’s best and most quotable. While Tiny Dancer did not chart all that well as a single, in fact Levon did much better, Tiny Dancer has endured like a precious gem.

In my humble opinion, Elton and producer Gus Dudgeon achieved a stylistic zenith with this one. The piano playing is dense and intricate; one of the finest, if not the finest, examples of Elton’s broken arpeggio and riffing piano style. The overall structure of the song is epic by pop standards: there are three separate sections to this song with chord structures and harmonic movement that are uniquely Elton. Through these sections, one of Elton's greatest melodies is woven, reaching a climax that is almost spiritual. With this arrangement, Gus Dudgeon and Paul Buckmaster achieve both a balance and brilliance that have rarely been equaled. It all comes together in Tiny Dancer.

In order to give this masterpiece its proper treatment, this analysis is divided into 3 sections: one for each of the 3 main sections in the song.

The 8-bar intro and the first part of the verse feature just the solo piano, allowing the listener to fully appreciate Elton’s genius. The chords are just a simple C major and F major played over a C pedal tone. Elton’s use of arpeggiation as a basis for accompaniment was firmly established in his early work, however Tiny Dancer takes this approach to incredible new levels. Never before had the left hand played such a prominent role, providing harmonic counterpoint in addition to being an integral part of his signature riffs. Elton's internal voicings and phrasing make this intro a stunning bit of piano music.

The most obvious thing that you hear is a dizzying array of riffs and anticipations within Elton's right hand work. Throughout the song, no riff is ever repeated (a fact that is almost an anomaly in pop rock). These riffs are made up of accented up beats (a), suspensions, and 9-3 resolutions (b) that make one forget the simple harmonies they are based on. One of the most unique aspects of Elton's playing is that his riffs primarily use internal voicings. The riffs are played with his thumb and index finger while the little fingers hold anchor notes.

Also crucial to the opening section is the right hand phrasing which is delicate and smooth throughout. Its 16th note architecture achieves a cushiony bed for the melody to rest on, yet pulses with rhythmic energy due to the syncopated punctuations within it. As with all of Elton’s arpeggiated work, Elton anchors his arpeggios with either his 5th finger or his thumb (c), sustaining notes for quarter or half measure durations. This provides the legato phrasing without relying on the pedal, a key ingredient to Elton's playing.

In my mind, it is the left hand work that elevates T.D. to piano mastery. In repeated listenings to this piece, the contribution of the left hand really stands out. The notes are articulated and phrased so that they ring out and stand on their own. Elton strokes his left hand in contrast to piano players that hammer the left hand percussively. The chord fragments (d) are played with such great precision and discipline – both in timing and volume - while the pedal tone (e) rings through. As part of his riffs, the left hand fills in spaces between the right hand notes. The interplay between the 2 hands is seamless. With Elton’s phrasing, the listener cannot differentiate which hand is playing what note; they are woven together into one.

Not much mention is made of Elton’s pedaling. Generally I believe Elton pedals lightly, letting his technique provide sustain and fullness to his sound rather than the pedal. Nevertheless he does pedal through much of the song, generally releasing the pedal on chord changes. I believe you can hear just a trace of overlap between the chords as he releases and re-presses the pedal.

With the start of the verse, Elton shifts his right hand down to a lower inversion of the C chord while maintaining the same basic arpeggiating style as the intro. The melody of the verse is interwoven in Elton's piano parts, creating its own counterpoint to Elton’s playing. This weaving of melody and piano is sheer delight.

While only 16 bars, the verse is fairly lengthy nonetheless. It's structured in an A-A-B-A format. The B section features a lot of harmonic movement, both diatonic and circle-of-4ths, providing a significant contrast from the C-F harmony in the A parts. In a way, the B-part is like a mini-bridge within the verse. You will also more clearly see Elton's typical approach to chording with anticipations on the upbeat before the 2 (a) and 4 (b) in each bar. Here's the B-part of the verse.

At the end of the B-part of the 1st verse, Dudgeon makes a brilliant and daring move by introducing the pedal steel guitar. This instrument is generally associated with country music and had really not been heard in the pop-rock medium. But here it makes a beautiful statement lending a lot of character to the song without countrifying it.

At the end of the 1st verse, we're a full 1 minute into the song and the entire band finally comes in. The band includes an acoustic guitar (Davey) laying down a soft rhythmic support and an electric guitar that inserts small licks in between Elton's vocal phrases. At the end of the 2nd verse, a small choir of voices comes in, laying down another cushion of sound.

In the 2 minutes it takes to get through these 2 verses, the song has built from solo piano to a full band and choir. Gus Dudgeon has built a lush support for the song that in no way takes away from the delicate piano work at its core. It just builds beautifully. But we're not done yet.


At this point, the song shifts into a small 7-bar section that is frequently called a pre-chorus. A pre-chorus is a small section that contrasts significantly from the verse and serves as a setup for the chorus.

In this case, Elton modulates from C to an Ab chord. What makes this modulation work is the common note in both the C and Ab chords - i.e. the C. In fact this type of modulation is called common tone modulation. There are several ways to look at this key shift. For one, you view it as a shift to C-minor , the relative minor of Eb through the Ab or IV chord of Eb. You might also view it as a shift to the C aeolian mode. The chord progression moves diatonically, i.e. through scale tones.

What really distinguishes this section is the shift to a march or marcato feel. Elton plays full chords on an 8th note beat, providing that get up and march quality.


(Writeup unfinished - maybe someday I'll get back to this one!)