Billy Joel’s 1973 song “Piano Man” is one of the most popular pop songs of its era, and an endlessly catchy and fascinating song to listen to. A piano and harmonica-driven ballad about a piano lounge singer and the characters that inhabit that lounge, Joel provides wonderfully clear, tenor singing to back up sprightly instrumentation
The song begins with a piano solo that has its roots in jazz improvisation; syncopated piano playing starts out the song, uneven rhythms providing an explosion of music right at the beginning before the song settles into its harmonica-and-piano melody. A steady 3/4 tempo is established as the piano supports the harmonica’s playing of the melody, the harmonica dropping out as the piano picks up. At this point, Billy Joel’s smooth tenor voice pipes in with the lyrics, with a lack of vibrato – he sings in a straight tone, relaxed and mellow. The notes move in a wave contour, moving up and down to give a more adventurous feeling. Once he finishes his first verse, relating to an old man next to him enjoying his gin and tonic, the harmonica takes over for him; the vocals and harmonica (a type of idiophone) trade melodies in order to transition between sections of the song. In the second verse, Joel’s singing is louder, more plaintive – more vibrato is used to increase the showmanship of the man’s request. In the refrain before the chorus, Joel relies on vocables – ‘La da da di dee daa, la da di daa da dum’ – to convey the lost song that his audience member half-remembers, and wants him to play.
At this point, after three building notes from the harmonica, the song leaps into its chorus, building into the more forte bravado of ‘Sing us a song, you’re the piano man’. The rhythm stays steady, a steady pulse of the piano that Joel’s syncopated vocals and harmonica play over. Joel repeats each new verse, talking about a new individual or group of people in the bar, connecting each verse either with a reiteration of the ‘la da da di dee dum’ vocables or a harmonica rendition of the main melody. Every two verses, he launches into his more dramatic, vibrato-laden verses, where the notes go up an octave and his singing is much more pleading and passionate. Approximately 3:30 in, another improvised jazz-inspired piano solo appears as a refrain before re-launching into the chorus, more syncopation to break up the normally-steady rhythm of the song. The chorus then moves in – rinse and repeat for several more verses until one final utterance of the chorus, when the song slows to its eventual stop with the piano refrain of the arpeggios of the main chord progression.
“Piano Man” by Billy Joel is by no means an innovative song, but it relies upon steady lounge-ish musical elements to keep going. Joel’s voice is a soft croon, only lapsing into vibrato when it is time to get more passionate; the instrumentation is a solid mix of steady piano and syncopated harmonica, as well as simple drums that follow the rhythm. The song is meant to evoke the kinds of easy lounge singing and playing that Joel himself was famous for in his time working these clubs, using it to evoke the kind of atmosphere populated by the characters he sings about. In this way, “Piano Man” uses these familiar musical elements to tell its story of a well-traveled place and the people in it.