Wednesday, 9 November 2016

A look at the harmony used by Elton John in 'Candle in the wind'.

Candle in the wind  - the harmony of Elton John

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.

There are several strands to the musical content which involve melody, the harmony, the pianism and the instrumentation. This blog will focus on the chords or harmony used by 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 harmonic thinking, it makes sense to do so.


Here is a  brief explanation of chords, for those that missed the ‘rudiments’ blog. 

There are 7 chords in C and these are:

C major = Chord I known as a tonic which comprises the notes C E G

D minor = Chord II known as a supertonic which comprises the notes the notes D F A

E minor = Chord III known as a mediant which comprises the notes E G B

F major = Chord IV known as a sub-dominant which comprises the notes F A C

G major = Chord V known as a dominant which comprises the notes G B D

A minor = Chord VI known as a sub-mediant which comprises the notes A C E

B diminished = Chord VII known as a leading note chord which comprises the notes B D F

Any of these seven chords can be played with any of their 3 bass/bottom notes. As an example:

C major has C as a bass note and is called I
C/E        has E as a bass note and is called Ib
C/G        has G as a bass note and is called Ic 

In rock music the terms C or C/E or C/G are more common than I, Ib and Ic. When a musician talks about a chord of C he always means it is a major chord. If it is not, he is obliged to describe its other character as minor or diminished. Often instead of writing “minor”, musicians write “m” so “A minor” becomes “Am.”
This well established system will be employed here.

Elton’s harmony is uncomplicated.

He uses these chords

The C tonic chord I = CEG

The C/E tonic chord Ib, which is an inverted tonic chord with a different bass note of E

The F subdominant chord IV = FAC

The G dominant chord V = GBD

Sometimes he colours this chord by adding an extra note making it a chord of G7. The ‘7’ here referring to the addition of the note of F which is 7 notes away from the bottom note, G.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The A minor submediant chord VI = ACE (Which is noticeable for its less frequent appearances at 57” then at 2’ 09” and 3’ 20” .)

A favoured sequence which he returns to is the quickly moving progression F, C/E, G7/D, C or IV, Ib, V7c, I, because this allows the bass line to move in steps descending from F to C. You can here this after 3” and also at 1’ 05”, 1’ 13”,  2’ 16”, 2’ 24”, 3’ 28” and finally at 3’ 37” . This is recognisable because every time (except the opening time,) it has a distinctive electric guitar solo above it. 

IV Ib V7c I

Apart from this one exception, his harmony is slow moving and typically he has one chord per bar of music. Don’t confuse that with chord activation. A musician can play the same chord - many times in a bar of music. Watch the hands of a guitarist strumming quickly and you may notice that whilst his right hand is very busy, his left hand is static. One famous example is a song called “Question” by the Moody Blues. This video focuses on the player’s right hand but hopefully you can hear how the chords remain more static, even though the right hand is very energised.

Back to Elton’s “Candle in the wind.” The verse’s bass line moves as follows:

time 7” 15” 23”
bass line C F E F C F E F
chord C F C/E F C F C/E F
chord I IV  Ib IV I      IV Ib IV

So having offered his root tonic chord of C, he moves away from it and we sense the lack of resolution until 23” again when once again you can feel the song root down into that primary chord. Even though the tonic chord C is placed between the two chords of F, we don’t feel it as so grounded as we do at 7” and 23” and this is because the bottom note of the chord in not C - it’s an inversion. 

When he gets to the chorus at 38”, Elton uses his G dominant chord V before sitting back on the tonic for 2 beats as he says “Candle.” The sequence goes as follows:

time 38”     42” 44’ 46” 50” 54” 57”      1’01”     1’03”
chord G C F C G F Am        G          F
beats 4 2 4 4 4 4           2          2
bars 1 ½ ½    1 1 1         1          ½          ½

before we hear the F, C/E, G7/D, C sequence described earlier and then Elton repeats this complete pattern of verse and chorus another two times.

The rhythmic impetus is supplied by a guitar strumming the above chords, and drummer laying down a beat. This liberates Elton to engage in an interplay between his singing and piano playing. As we described in the ‘rudiments’ blog, it is perfectly possible for a pianist’s fingers to play constituent notes of a chord separately and Elton is an expert at this sort of playing. Listen after the word “woodwork” at 24” for a short example and there’s another at 1’10”. He plays chords to punctuate his lyric at 29” with the words “set you on”, and that indeed is the more common approach in this song. Good singers/pianists tend to not be elaborate in their piano playing whilst singing - they wait until a phrase has finished before their fingers take our attention. Listen at 2’44” for a clear example.

There’s one other device we need to mention knows as a sus 4 chord. Elton applies it to both the C chord I and the F chord IV. In a sus 4 chord, the 3rd note of the chord is momentarily replaced with a 4th note. The bass note underneath does NOT move so we feel a slight increase in tension which is almost immediately released. There are some examples 21”, 49” , 1’09” and 1’25”.

5 = G 5 = G
3 = E 4 = F
1 = C 1 = C

C C sus 4

Sometimes he amplifies the effect with a double suspension making the 5th rise to the 6th as well.

5 = G 6 = A
3 = E 4 = F
1 = C 1 = C

C C sus 4 sus 6

In the ‘rudiments’ blog we discussed intervals and it’s pertinent to look at consecutive intervals here.

If one melodic line moves step wise such as C D E F G then another line some interval away can move in the same direction at the same time. Consecutive 3rds and 6ths sound very pleasing to the ear’



where the gap from C to E is a 3rd, the gap from D to F is a 3rd, and so on



Here, the gap from C to A is a 6th, the gap from D to B is a 6th, and so on.

The double suspension employed by Elton is, in effect series of consecutive 3rds: E to G = 3rd,
F to A = 3rd. 

These are comfortable on the ear and very common in popular music. (Some intervals are less comfortable on the ear and playing those consecutively really grates.)

Although the texture of the song gradually thickens, with extra piano, electric guitars and more vocals, the underpinning harmony does NOT change. 

If you are seriously interested in what Elton does, I would urge you to re-read the 'rudiments' blog and indeed anything else you can find, to help you get to grips with harmony. It’s impossible to talk meaningfully about harmony without stepping into the musician’s world and using his terminology. 

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