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
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
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.
SECTION 1 - THE VERSE
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
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.
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
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
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.
SECTION 2 - THE PRE-CHORUS
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.
SECTION 3 - THE CHORUS
(Writeup unfinished - maybe someday I'll get back to this one!)