In my book, Your Song is the granddaddy of
them all - the song that launched the Elton John phenomena.
A major hit, yes. It is and will forever be one of Elton’s
signature songs. Your Song firmly established several trademarks
of the Elton style, trademarks that continue to this day.
To understand them, is to gain insight. In this lengthy analysis,
I’ll share what I've learned.
Over the years, Elton tinkers with and modifies how he plays
his songs. And thus, over the course of his career, you will
find many different arrangements of Your Song. I've chosen
this particular version from the Here and There album as
the most representative of how most people think of it. But
perhaps someday I'll put together some of his other arrangements
for the sake of comparison.
Because of its length, you can jump ahead to the following
Basic Elements of Elton’s Style
The Key of Eb
BASIC ELEMENTS OF ELTON’S
There are several important keys to understanding
Your Song and most of Elton’s other important works.
o Harmonic lines,
o Great Riffs or Hooks
o Melody and
The harmonic lines in Elton’s
songs, that is the pattern of shifting chords, generally
have a good amount of movement and can be complex by pop
and rock standards. We’re not comparing Elton’s
harmonies to those found in jazz, contemporary classical,
or abstract idioms, but to pop. As a pianist, a lot of times
I find his harmonies to be naturally idiosyncratic to the
piano. By its very architecture (the pattern of black notes
and white notes), the piano has a natural harmonic palette
that is different than, for instance, guitar-oriented music.
Riffs and hooks are crucial to
the pop and rock idiom. They are the defining flourish of
a song. A mediocre hook can diminish a great song. A great
hook can elevate a mediocre song. There maybe no other 20th
century songwriter who has created as many great opening
riffs as Elton John has. But besides these great intros,
Elton’s playing style is dominated by lots of little
riffs. These little riffs incorporate passing
tones and suspensions,
creating harmonic interest.
I by no means have a good understanding of what goes into
great melodies, but I do know that
Elton John creates great melodies. He is able to craft melodies
with all types of lyrics that range from dense to ever so
brief. He’s not beholden to a 4 or 8-bar structure.
He is only monotone when it’s by design. His songs
build to melodic climaxes. He is capable of evoking all different
sorts of emotions. His songs are memorable, distinctive and
And finally there is the rhythmic element.
Elton’s trademark playing style centers on 4 or 5 standard
rhythmic patterns that he employs in his playing. Your Song
introduced what I tend to call the "default" Elton
John style. Figure 1 illustrates this pattern which involves
the extensive use of rhythmic anticipation, i.e. hitting
the chord on the upbeat before the downbeat and then holding
it through the downbeat. You will find it in many dozens
of his songs.
Joel for instance, work hard at not locking
into a set approach to their piano accompaniment. But for
Elton, he has consciously chosen to define himself and his
music by repeating this stylistic approach. Mind you, he
didn't invent this style, he just made it his signature style.
THE KEY OF Eb
By putting the song in the key of Eb, Your Song stood out from much of what
was heard on the radio in 1970. Remember, this was the era of the sensitive
guitarist / songwriter (James Taylor, Cat Stevens, etc.). There are no guitar
songs in Eb. The key of Eb belongs to Elton.
But there is another reason for Eb. It’s also a very
comfortable key for a pianist. Any key that includes 2 or
3 black notes matches up very well anatomically with the
human hand. The pianist can keep their littlest digits, the
thumb and 5th finger, on white keys and keep their longer
fingers on black keys. It’s a much more natural feeling
than the key of C, which uses all white notes, and which
forces you to contort the hand a little more.
This approach to hand placement also governs the chord
inversions that Elton uses. He almost invariably grabs the chord inversion
that places his 5th finger or his thumb on a white key. This
serves as an anchor while the other fingers arpeggiate notes
from the chord. This creates that characteristic sound.
The time signature of the song can be a little confusing
to figure out. The song definitely has an 8th note pulse
to it, which leads one to believe that a 4/8 or 8/8 time
signature is called for. That really doesn’t work though
with the relaxed ballad feel of the song, so you end up going
back to the standard 4/4 timing.
O.K. let’s start with the intro. Elton’s hit songs generally start
with a RIFF FROM GOD. I am not a religious person
mind you, but Elton is tapped into a higher power. No one and I mean no one
has written so many instantly memorable opening lines. You can tell you’re
listening to an Elton song within a bar, I mean within about 2 seconds. It’s
uncanny. Here’s the classic intro to Your Song as performed on the 1976
album Here and There and in particular, the Riff from God.
The harmony of the intro relies on the use of what's called
point. The Eb is held in the bass while the chords
shift from I to IV to V to IV. This establishes harmonic
motion while still keeping the listener locked into the tonic.
The Bb / Eb chord (called a slash
chord) in particular resonates
somewhat like an EbM9, but the motion of the chords says
that it’s not, it’s a Bb.
An interesting aspect of this intro: You can play almost
any notes from the chord and it still sounds like Your Song.
It’s the rhythm, that Elton John default rhythm style,
and that pedal point harmony. They completely define the
intro. Go ahead try it!
The verse begins with a restatement of the intro, but this time without the
pedal point. Elton moves through Eb, then Ab (with the added major 7th) and
then Bb, just as he does in the intro. But the Bb chord has a D-bass, signaling
that he intends to diverge from the intro at this point. D is the dominant of G, and he uses that to take us to the Gm7 chord, the relative
Bb. Of course the three upper notes of the Gm7 chord are the Bb major chord.
This sets us up for a long diatonic linear progression starting
from Cm. Elton holds the Cm chord while the bass descends
through Bb and A. This is a well-known tension building progression
that resolves nicely into AbM7. The top three notes of the
AbM7 are the Cm chord.
He continues with scale tone movement in the bass, letting
the chord harmony follow the bass. The most notable chord
in this series is the G7/B, which is a chromatic step up
from Bb. G7 is the natural dominant chord for Cm, the relative
minor of Eb. From this point, Elton jumps right back into
Eb, where he walks up to the suspended Bb turnaround riff
that takes us to another verse.
The structure of the verse (based on 4/4 time) is 8 bars
with a 2-beat added tag. I was not certain where to place
those two extra beats, they flow so seamlessly. I finally
decided to put them in the 7th bar of the verse, isolating
the 8th bar since it operates as a turnaround.
Elton’s playing has always fascinated me. Part of
it has to do with how rich his sound is. The piano players
from the 50s (Jerry Lee, Fats Domino, Little Richard) and
the 60s (Brian Wilson, Paul Revere) pretty much just played
their chords straight. If the song called for a C chord,
they played a C chord - period. By contrast, Elton incorporates
tones and suspensions into little riffs, continuously
adding color and harmonic interest.
Mostly he uses the added 9th (or 2nd if you prefer) or the
4th of the chord, resolving them most of the time to the
3rd. These are called respectively a 9-to-3 or 4-to-3 resolution
place them on an accented beat to highlight them before resolving.
got a million variations of these little riffs and he’s
able to interchange them on the fly.
As you all know, I don’t spend much time considering the lyrics of Bernie
Taupin. But Elton’s best songs always have lyrics that really touch a
lot of people on a personal level. At their best, they create an emotion, a
feeling, or an attitude that pulls people into another place from where they
are. It’s like being taken on a ride, a spiritual ride, in which you
and others connect in this new place that the lyrics describe. Elton is the
medium who transports you there.
Your Song has that magic. Its words spin a gentle, heartfelt,
and honest tale of a working class guy who ponders the various
ways that he might express his love. Ultimately he knows
that his gift is for creating songs. He offers up his song
in a humble, sort of shy and nervous way. "I hope you
don’t mind." "You can tell everybody this
is your song."
The chorus starts off with a Bb/D, a nice strong move away from the Eb center
of the verse. Throughout the song, Elton uses these slash chords. I think
this just shows what a developed sense of harmony Elton had, even at fairly
early stage. The slash chords accomplish two things. First of all, they’re
not as stable as a root chord. They beg for movement to somewhere else. Second
of all, they create a horizontal line that’s much smoother than one
that jumps around. It’s part of the richness that Elton injects into
his piano work.
In this version of Your Song, Elton uses an Eb bass under
the Cm chord. I’m not sure how often he does this versus
going down to the C bass. I've heard it both ways.
In the middle of the chorus he does a nice little run that
I’ve called an Fm6/Ab. The notes are C-D-F-Ab. It has
a diminished sound to it and I could have called this chord
a D half-diminished 7th or Dø7. The half-diminished
refers to the fact that the 7th interval (C) is a minor 7th
up from D rather than a diminished 7th interval. I don’t
which one is more correct. How about an Ab13b5? Do you like
that better? Anyway, it’s really kind of a jazz move
don’t you think?
Elton ends the chorus with a I-IV-ii-V progression.
Elton is exacting and VERY disciplined in his playing. For the beginning pianist,
it is important to strive for a real precision both rhythmically and dynamically.
For the more advanced pianist, there is a subtle looseness within the context
of his precision that adds some real snap and pop to his playing.
For the Beginning Pianist:
- When playing a chord, all notes must sound at precisely
the same time. It’s easy to strike a black note a
little earlier than a white note, or if your hand is not
in position, to come in a little late with the thumb or
5th finger. DON’T DO THAT! It’s a 2-step process.
Set your hand and fingers in position, hand centered over
the chord, then strike downward on the notes all at the
same time. With a little concentration and practice, you’ll
do this automatically in a continuous smooth motion.
- Elton’s sixteenth-note rhythm is precise like
clockwork. Set your metronome to the eighth note’s
speed and work at it.
- Elton’s dynamics are also very uniform. Just like
with a scale, each sixteenth note should be as loud as
the one before or the one after it. Especially if you’re
playing a chord, you don’t want it to overwhelm the
single notes in between. Because it has two or more notes,
a chord automatically has more presence than a single note.
I have to consciously play the chords a little softer to
get the right balance. Work on this aspect first. Accents
can be added later.
- The left hand has kind of a bouncy rhythm that must be
seamlessly integrated with the right hand. Don’t
pound the low note, stroke it. The upper note must blend
in with the right hand notes.
- DO NOT over pedal Elton. Yes he uses it. But he also
plays with a very legato style. He holds anchor notes of
the chord. Look at the voicings in my transcripts. He overlaps
the individual notes. Play legato more and play the pedal
For the Advanced Pianist:
- There’s a slight roll to Elton’s chords.
This is a very subtle roll, not like an arpeggio movement.
If the chord uses his thumb, he rolls down towards his
thumb. The thumb comes in just a tick later and usually
louder than the other notes in the chord. If there’s
no thumb, he’ll roll upwards towards the fifth finger.
- Contrary to the advice I give the beginning pianist,
Elton doesn’t play like a robot. There are plenty
of slight hesitations and anticipations in his playing
at the individual 8th and 16th note level. It gives his
playing feel. Generally speaking though, his tempo is rock
- When Elton accents a note or chord, it’s often
pretty exaggerated, at least by classical standards. You'll
hear these notes popping out at you and interplaying with
the melody line.
- Elton almost always works around a 4-note chord. Always
position your hand over 4 notes. Even if he only plays
3, he will work in the 4th note with his broken arpeggio
There it is - the granddaddy of all Elton's hit songs. I
hope this analysis has given you further insight into how
Elton makes it happen.