Chops (Piano Edition): Billy Joel, “Prelude” (1976)


By Jonathan Bellman

Particularly for those of us who play instruments, one hook before which we are powerless is The Hook On Our Own Instrument That Must Be Figured Out.  Until it is owned, it will bewitch us, and (in my experience, at least) it requires being brought to ground by ear; getting it from a music book does not produce the same satisfaction.  Just such a hook is the opening toccata-like piano figure from Billy Joel’s “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” off Turnstiles (1976): as technically challenging as anything in the Rock piano repertory, this combines a martellato (“hammered”) rapid alternation of the hands on Middle C with offbeat chords in the right hand, while the thumb is machine-gunning the C.  Above the C, the added tones are all thirds—E and G, F and A, G and B, and C and E above—and these are played in a syncopated pattern: the right hand may be thought of as a rapid sequence of eighth-notes, while the left hand (use the third finger) plays the 16th-note offbeats.  The additional pitches in the right hand hit on the 3rd and 6th 8th-notes of the first sequence followed by the first, fourth, and seventh of the second sequence; this then repeats.  So:


……..G            G            A            A            A                 B            B            E           G             G
……..E            E             F            F            F                 G            G            C           E             E
C  C  C  C   C  C   C  C  C  C  C  C  C   C  C  C  B  C   C  C  C   C  C  C   C  C  C  C  C  C   C  C
1   2   3  4   5   6   7  8   1  2   3  4   5   6   7   8  1   2   3  4   5   6  7   8   1   2  3  4   5   6   7  8

As I say, the left hand third finger plays the same middle C as the RH thumb, alternating on the offbeats.  Final touch: do it at a gazillion miles per hour.  No sweat!

A couple of thoughts about what makes this so compelling: it’s as if Billy Joel, piano man extraordinaire, is doing his own take on the toccata bit at the end of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; the motion is similar, and the patterns related.  Also, the rapid-fire repeated note contrasts with the syncopated chords that follow throughout “Prelude” to give a film-noir sensibility to the piece, as if gunfire alternates with sudden, police-photographer-type black-and-white stills of city hustlers flicking up on the screen, one after the other: a mug shot, a guy caught in the act in a police flashlight or searchlight, Mr. Wrong-Place-Wrong-Time in a pool of blood.

I wrote more at length about this on my own blog, Dial M for Musicology [see “Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken”], and offer this commentary at Steve Smith’s request.  Go listen to it, and see what I mean; if the pianists among you become obsessed until you can do it yourselves, well . . . sorry.


About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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