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  • Abba – Dancing Queen

    Night is young and the music’s high. This is a song born deep in the time when harmony and voicing were the main differentiators between good music and world-shaking music. The pedal (base note held common while the chords move above it) projects confidence. This stays firm from bar 32 through to bar 44 which ends with a nudges down to an E leaving us balanced precariously on an A major second inversion.

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  • ABBA – Waterloo

    The history book on the shelf has started repeating itself. This song hits all of the buttons a 1973 audience expects but goes on to challenge the musical norm of the time. The switch from D Major to E Major over D (D in the bass didn't move) is all it needs to give this song a haunting opening. I don't have enough hands to simultaneously play the Saxophone riff which makes up the body of the chorus so I instead rattle a chord one octave higher which is as close as I can get to the raspiness of a reeded brass instrument.

  • Aerosmith – Don't Want to Miss a Thing

    I don't want to fall asleep 'cause I'd miss you baby. Orchestra and rock ballad is a juxtaposition of the primary colours of rock and the pastel shades of orchestra. But piano can easily cover both. The introduction superimposes an A across B minor, Db minor and E Major which is not resolved until we land at the verse in D Major. Steven Tyler’s vocals are 90% of this song but this actually enhance the coverability of the song due to his solo use of rhythm and variation on a theme which translate rewardingly to piano.

  • Anita Baker – Sweet Love

    Hear me calling out your name. The world was lucky the day this song was created. It is a gift to keyboard players. It maintains a mix of extended chords throughout. The highlight is undoubtedly the first chord on bar 32, not to say that it has not hit my highs before reaching that point nor fails to pull out more character through to the end. A Gb major chord over a Cb base pivots beautifully to transport us out of the bridge and into the final verse.

  • The Beatles - I want to Hold your Hand

    I want to hold your hand-a-and-a-a-a-and The Beatles clocked up a lot of hours performing together; according to the book 'Peak' by Rober Pool and Anders Ericcson, over a thousand hours before they wrote this song. So although this song sounds spontaneous, and indeed it probably is, that spontaneity is the output of a highly polished music making process. This song wanders just far enough from the tonic, G, out to B to give it an attention grabbing lift on the first mention of the word 'hand' to a slightly shocked 1960s audience.

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  • The Beatles - Yesterday

    Yesterday came suddenly The almost instant modulation from the tonic through the major chord on the on the third through to the relative minor puts a lot of harmonic credibility in the bank from the outset. This leaves the rest of the phrase free to coast back home to the tonic with nothing else required to prove its worth. I believe McCartney’s story that he dreamt this song because a tired brain searching desperately for inspiration could never come up with something this gentle and inspired. However, I guess that McCartney was probably immersed in inventive music at the time and so recognised the quality of his dream.

  • The Bee Gees - How Deep is Your Love

    It's me you need to show This song is so complete and perfect in its original form that I was nervous about covering it. I’m wary to call it jazz because jazz means different things to different people, but I would argue that it is harmonically if not rhythmically influenced by jazz. But it’s helpful to realise that nearly every chord is some sort of seventh. There are no clean chords and this makes it easy to introduce subtle mistakes to the arrangement. However, the liberal use of sevenths offers scope for many different voicings. You could make forty different arrangements of this song and they would all sound sweet and all sound convincingly close to the original.

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  • Billy Joel - She's Always a Woman

    She never gives out and she never gives in. Flow and momentum are the hallmarks of this carefully crafted piece of music. The climax is the E flat minor chord which buys an amazing lift followed by the gentle climb down back to normality. The 6/8 rhythm gives plenty to play with just by nudging the emphasis in feel to a 3/4 feel momentarily. A very enjoyable song to learn.

  • Cat Stevens, Rick Wakeman - Morning has Broken

    Like the first dewfall on the first grass Well it doesn't get a lot fresher than that. I remember the head teacher at my infants school playing a recording (yes - it was 1971 and I was five years old, nearly as fresh) and I could not believe how beautiful and complex the piano sounded. Both the step down a tone and the step up a tone sound fantastic, so why not switch a few times. Even now I love whacking those deep octave bass notes at the end of each verse. The last verse includes a descant line which is just about workable over an already busy accompaniment.

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  • Chicargo - If You Leave Me Now

    We've come too far to leave it all behind. I have absolutely no idea where this song gets its power from. If fails musical analysis. While other tracks try so hard to grab your attention this one is happy to wait calmly at the back of the room for you to discover it. Common Tone Modulation - not a term I had heard of until someone kindly pointed it out to me in the comments section - is exemplified eloquently here as the F from bar 24 switches role from dominant (its day job) to 9th extender (its subversive evening passtime).

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  • The Darkness – I Believe in a Thing Called Love

    There's a chance we could make it now. The first time I heard this song I had to check that it was not a cover of a late 1970s song that I had somehow forgotten about. It is perfect in form and structure and bold because it was released in 2003. From the way it sounds it is loaded with intense emotion, only the video reveals that far from taking itself over seriously, it exploits an impossibly contrived narrative. The introduction contains a trill which leaves the harmony dithering between Bb Major and D minor second inversion. The playout introduces a new inner melody played in thirds giving us a final chance to hear the refrain from the chorus with fresh interest.

  • Dire Straits – The Sultans of Swing

    And then the man he steps right up to the microphone. How can a song just jangle away so happily for so long? I think it is because it is happy with itself. Its riff wanders around D minor but avoids snatching between unrelated chords. Knopfler doesn’t really sing a tune – and that makes it challenging to transcribe to piano, but it really doesn’t matter because the riff is so powerful and punches on through. My favourite section starts at bar 237 as the hands interleave to spin up a rapid pattern poised ready to explode out.

  • Earth, Wind and Fire – September

    Do you remember, never a cloudy day. It’s a meaty song bursting with harmonic interest. Distinctive, tight, euphoric, momentous, confident, proud, optimistic and joyous – while sticking to a restrained structure which gives it its punch. It works well on keyboards because there is more in there than can be covered with ten fingers. No two keyboard players would ever create the same arrangement. Bar 44 onwards is the highlight with the bass imposing a brand new feel as the song plays out.

  • Eric Clapton – Layla

    Let’s make the best of the situation before I finally go insane. An iconic pentatonic riff, a common tone modulation into the verse, falling fifths back into the chorus and then a mixolydian piano play out. My brother bought a copy of this on vinyl and I remember listening to it over and over amazed at the detail and complexity of what was happening. The warmth of the overdriven valve amplifier, the whining of the lead guitar, Clapton’s angst-ridden vocal mood, but above all the momentum of the progression of the song all add to its timelessness.

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  • Elton John – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

    Baby you’re not that kind. Such a bouncy, natural song. Bars 15 and 16 have the most compelling bit of instrumental filling which keep the pace up. The Ab major at bar 38 is the highlight. These were bold times when harmony was not obvious. The C major second inversion is typical of Elton John who never randomly threw in inversions but always used inversions to put the song momentarily on a cliff edge before resolving safely back to solid ground.

  • George Harrison - My Sweet Lord

    But it takes so long It's taken me 50 years to get around to recording this cover. This song is so deep. It's so powerful. It so takes you back to the start of a the 1970s. I just cannot get over how confidently it progresses through the chords at roughly one per bar and how uncomplicated the sound is. The use of the dominant 7th, typically a tool for pulling the modulation down the flats and away from the sharps is used to sneak through a diminished chord and out the other side two sharps higher. Finally - Harrison saves the best until last with a choir above the main melody which is a gift for piano as it interlaces perfectly.

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  • George Michael - Careless Whisper

    Guilty feet have got no rhythm This song taught me what a nineth is. Try cutting the opening nineth on the saxophone and see what remains of the song - nothing we would still be talking about 35 years later. This was 1984 when nineths were in fashion and melodies were at their elastic limits. The lyrics are sad, but I have to say I mainly hear joy, confidence and excitement in this tune.

  • Gilbert O'Sullivan - Clair

    Will you marry me uncle Ray? This is songwriting genius. It has been a pleasure to unlock this song from my early childhood. O'Sullivan created a playful song with powerful momentum and direction. There is a liberal use of diminished chords which give the harmony traction and which is a gift to song cover performers. Best of all is the left of field modulation for the mouth organ solo which, rather than giving the song a cheap lift, actually manages to tactfully climb back down to the original key from which it leapt ready for the melody to pick up where it left for the final chorus.

  • Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven

    If the stores are all closed ... such as is the case when there is a pandemic. Let's study a song which 'builds' from acoustic guitar and recorders through to heavy metal with overdriven guitar and doubled up vocals. I have always found the timing of the entry of the drums to the scene to be daringly late, almost long enough for you to forget that drums exist. D Major over C in the bass in the bridge (the join up before the guitar solo) is an inventive piece of tension-building. What follows has so much more power because the audience has been teased and finally the pent up energy is all released finally to be capped off with Plant's solo return to back to where it all started.

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  • Lionel Richie - Three Times a Lady

    Now that we've come to the end of our rainbow This slow waltz ballad hinges on a chorus starting with four chromatically descending bass notes with bold Ab, Eb (1st inversion), Gb, Db(1st inversion) chords woven into a silky massage. I've always liked the harmony and the melody for this song. I'm not sure who this 300% lady is, the lyrics don't explain.

  • Mariah Carey - Without You

    I guess that's just the way the story goes The first two chords of the introduction are all that it takes to trigger a strong emotional response from anyone who grew up with this song. It's about heartbreak and deep sadness, and somehow the drop from A minor to G minor at the opening of the verse is all the musical grammar needed to express dispair and wretched powerlessness. It's bad news. But this is the power of music and why it is worth being a musician - you have a voice with which the spoken word cannot compete. In amongst those tones and semitones is the power to make people cry.

  • New Radicals - You Get What You Give

    When you feel your dreams are dying Why don't more songs use extended chords? And I don't just mean as passing chords - while the song transitions from one stanza to another but throughout the riff. I don't know another song which so inventively morphs between one extended chord to the next. This use of harmony forms an entire category of music which contains just this one song. A happy but empowering song.

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  • Prodigy – Omen

    You just ran an automation. Works well on the piano as evidenced by the number of covers on YouTube. The range of keyboard used is large and stretches what can be represented on two staves. The dynamic range is also pushed for effect, building crescendos and a full on give-it-all chorus. The most satisfying section is bars 55 to 57 as the right hand is worked to play the busy instrumental melody while snatching chords to fill out the sound.

  • Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance with Somebody

    When the night falls the loneliness calls. This is my favourite Whitney Houston song because of its playability. It's clearly written to be full of bounce and life which I think is a difficult emotion to capture in song without sounding trivial. It's much easier to write music which is moody, edgy, dark and full of angst. There are large, confident spaces in the bass line and rich extended chords in the right hand played on fat synthesiser brass sounds. The highlight is obviously the bridge where the rhythm accompaniment kicks in.