Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Elton John's treatment of melody in 'Candle in the wind.'

Elton John’s song sold 33 million copies when Diana died, but the music he used for the Norma Jean version ( a tribute to Marilyn Monroe ) is essentially the same. For reference purposes, I invite you to listen to this version.

Much has been discussed about the difference in Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, but that isn’t the subject of our interest here. 

There are several strands to the musical content we need to look at: the melody, the harmony, the pianism and the instrumentation. This blog will focus on the melodic style of Elton. For ease of comprehension I have moved his tonal centre from its original E to C. It’s simpler for a non musical person to follow if we do, and since the intent is to de-mystify Elton’s melodic thinking, it makes sense to do so.


Elton’s melody is syllabic. This means that for every syllable there is a note. Of course there has to be one, but there could be two or three and when there is, we call it melismatic. With a few exceptions he avoids this. There’s an early two-note syllable after 9” on the word ‘Jean’  and a few moments where he ornaments a syllable with more than one note ( listen to him sing the word ‘life’ after 41” ) but these are not a core component of the melody. The vast majority of the song sets one syllable with one note. Melismatic singing is used in popular music as decoration of a word - and when we are impressed with a singer on a talent show, it may often be because he/she has put their ability to ornament a melody on display. 

I think Elton wrote the two note ‘Jean’ into his song but the ornament on ‘life’ was an effect he developed as the song evolved. Access to the original manuscript would reveal the truth…

Elton uses a lot of syncopation in his melody. This is when a musical event happens in between beats. If we tap our foot as we listen to this song the fundamental beat occurs about once every second, but there are many events which occur in between. He does it immediately in the phrase “Goodbye Norma Jean.” The only part of that which coincides with that once-per-second beat is the syllable good - all the rest is off the beat.

Listen at 11” and the most striking of them all arises. The line of Bernie’s he needs to set is “though I never knew you at all.”  If you are unfamiliar with this song (very unlikely!) I invite you to try to say the phrase and listen to yourself. There’s several different ways to emphasise these syllables. Perhaps you feel it is natural with a stress on I and knew. Elton John opts for knew. Say it again. Did you at any time pause for breath? Neither did I. But Elton does - he deliberately avoids placing the word knew on a beat, but places it after the beat. If you sing along with him you will see the effect. If you now stop the song, but keep your foot tapping and sing it yourself, you may feel tempted to sing knew earlier than he does, on the beat.

This is a clever device. He sets up an expectation with though I never and denies us the next word. Leading your listener on, and then turning an unexpected corner is all part of the writer’s craft. Say this:

Once upon a…

What’s the next word?

99% of us, in memory of our childhood fairy stories will say time.

But it could be 

Once upon a plate there sat a ham sandwich. 

So doing something unexpected is a tactic available to melodist and lyricist alike.

Elton uses this off-setting of the word knew in a structural capacity too. Below is a very rough outline of the melody. It doesn’t matter if you don’t read music. I invite you to get a pencil out and follow the contour of the note heads, (the black circular bits.)You will see that your pencil is at its highest point on the screen in notes 10, 11 and 12. Thereafter they fall to the final note, the lowest on the screen. Music is visual - it sounds like it looks. So notes 10, 11 and 12 are the highest and this is where he places that word knew. So this is his second device to really pull us towards this word. Firstly he syncopates, and now he places the notes high in the pitch spectrum.

There is a 3rd device he employs called chromaticism. If you read the ‘rudiments’ blog, you will recall we observed how a composer can stretch his building blocks by moving to unexpected notes. Note 12 is one of these. The symbol in front of it which looks like the letter ‘b’ is called a flat, and it’s a black note on a piano. If you listen to Elton sing, it occurs on the word you straight after knew

Three tools have been harnessed to clearly point this out as the highlight of the phrase: delay, height and unexpected notes. 

Back to your pencil and if you roughly trace it across the notes you will see an arch. Staring middle-ish, going high and dropping back down low. This is a classic phrase shape employed by thousands of songwriters. 

We could dip into his melodic style for ages and turn up fascinating details. But we will finish with one interesting use of repetition in the chorus.

And it seems to me
That you lived your life
Like a candle in

These 3 phrases are represented in the melody above. Notice how they are melodically identical.  (It has been stripped back of all decoration so that we just look at the bones of the tune. ) He uses the same idea three times, but on the third time it gets extended to include the words

the wind

and his extension reaches the highest pitch. ( Used the pencil again and notice the word the is at the top,) immediately followed by syncopation on the word wind. Two of his three former devices re-deployed to climax phrase, combined with the manipulation of repetition. 

The next blog shall look at the harmony and chords Elton deploys. In the meantime call in to 

and check out the songs on there. 

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