Piano Man and much more. A tale of emotional engagement.

The Chass Lounge
9 min readMar 11, 2022

Piano Man is a song written by American recording artist Billy Joel in 1973. As he struggled to find early success, the song largely depicts real life events while he performed at a small piano bar called the Executive Lounge in Los Angeles (Getlin, 2014). While initially only peaking at 25 on the American Billboard Charts (Billboard,1974) the song went on to become one of Billy Joel’s most famous works and is now included in the American National Recording Registry for its “historical significance to American society” (Library of Congress, 2016).

The purpose of this emotional design analysis is to identify the emotional design techniques being employed in the piece, indicating how they affect the audience. I have chosen to focus on the lyrical content only. The musical devices employed to create emotion would be a separate presentation on its own. On that note I previously wrote in a blog titled “Emotions, Music and Science” (Guthrie, 2021) that, “some scholars believe that the notion of musical emotions remains a controversial area (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2006), and that the recognition of emotion in music has received little attention” (Lima & Castro, 2011).

Setting The Scene

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sittin’ next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin”

The opening verse to Piano Man sets the scene and tone for the song with intent. It’s nine’oclock on a Saturday night at the local bar and we are initially greeted with anticipation and excitement. As “the regular crowd shuffles in” for a night of drinking with live music and frivolities, we are quickly introduced to our protagonist, piano entertainer Bill Martin (McDonald, 2021), along with the first of 6 central characters who frequent the bar. The fact these customers are regular implies Bill has seen them before and is familiar with the faces and stories behind them. As an old man makes “love to his tonic and gin”, I am quickly introduced to the theme of loneliness, noting he has a strong pour of gin and perhaps little tonic in his glass.

In a lecture series titled “What an Audience Feels”, screen writing scholar Stephen Cleary argues we must answer eight pivotal questions to set our scene, with question one being the most intellectual (Where are we in this time?) and question eight being the most emotional (How do I feel?). Here, Cleary believes the writer’s aim should be to guide the audience from question one to eight as quickly as possible, “because it is there that empathy with the character begins” (Cleary, 2015). While Cleary was referring to screenwriting in his lecture, I would argue this beautiful four line song introduction does exactly that, propelling us into verse two where we can begin to connect with our characters on an emotional level.

Connecting With The Characters

He says, “Son can you play me a memory?
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes”

In verse two, Billy cleverly replaces the word melody for memory. In this moment of weakness or vulnerability, the old man can’t quite recall the song he has requested but does remember the emotions it made him feel at that point in time. This longing for the past, to be in “a younger man’s clothes”, is a deliberate technique to make the audience feel empathy for the character. Inglesias (2005, p.67) suggests that there are a number of techniques used to enhance our identification with characters and goes on to list three broad categories.

  • We care about victims — characters we feel sorry for
  • We care about characters with humanistic virtues
  • We like characters with desirable qualities

In what I would argue to be a relatively standard song structure, we then transition onto the first bridge, which more often than not, connects us to our main chorus section. Maddison Bell states, “[F]orm or structure (hereinafter designated as narrative design) is of first and final importance to any work of fiction” (1997). While Bill himself can’t quite recall the song our old man is referring to, he comforts the old man by humming back a melody. The key of the music moves to a minor, sadder harmonic tone and we are drawn back to our protagonist at the piano, who is showing genuine care for his regular patrons. “Any character who cares about something or someone other than himself will generate appeal”, (Inglesias, 2005, p.71). Billy’s melody is reassuring the old man and as we crescendo towards the first chorus of the song, I can’t help but think he is satisfied.

For the purpose of this song’s emotional technique analysis, I am going to skip the first chorus and move onto introducing the other characters found in the bar on this night. By getting a better feel for the other patrons, the true message of the chorus can be better validated and understood.

“Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he’s quick with a joke, or to light up your smoke But there’s some place that he’d rather be
He says, Bill, I believe this is killing me
As a smile ran away from his face
Well, I’m sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place”

Lets face it, anyone who hands out free drinks at a bar is a nice guy and we’re instantly drawn to their mischievous character. A “sense of humor or playfulness” is also seen to be a desirable quality which helps us to relate to the character (Inglesias, 2005, p.73). John is a friend, he’s funny and generous but we also learn he has unfulfilled dreams of being a movie star. What happened in John’s past? Did he make mistakes he now regrets or was he the victim of undeserved misfortune? I would argue he has a sense of regret and “[W]hen a character regrets making that mistake, we connect with him even more” (Iglesias, 2005, p.70). We are then further drawn towards feeling sorry for John when we discover he can’t break his habits and has resigned to working in the bar for life. He feels trapped and doesn’t have the confidence or ability to change. I’d argue this is a common tripe experienced by many people and a deliberate technique to align our emotions with John.

“Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the navy And probably will be for life
And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness But it’s better than drinkin’ alone”

The same can be said for Paul, the real estate broker who had dreams of being the great American novelist (Getlin, 2014). I would argue he’s smart, successful and still longing for love, all admirable qualities that help us connect with him (Iglesias, 2005). But he too has regrets of unfilled dreams, along with Davy, who’s likely to be stuck in the navy for life. Paul may never finish his novel or find true love, which we can sympathize with, while Davy has dedicated his life to serving his country and helping those less fortunate than him, a character we could admire and humanize with. As they say, there’s always something to be said for a man in uniform and I’d argue it’s a simple yet effective technique for the audience to understand and relate with this character immediately, especially considering the working class American fans that made Billy Joel a household name. This is because he predominantly wrote about working class ideals and the broader American culture (Duchan, 2016).

Being Truthful

“When he sings, the waitress is practicing politics, that was Elizabeth. There really was a Davy who was in the Navy, and probably would be for life. [Another guy,] Paul, was a real estate broker, but he wanted to be a novelist” (Getlin, 2014)

In a video interview with Christy Dena (2017), Peter Dunn talks extensively about the importance of the author being “the one” to tell the story from a unique and truthful perspective. The honesty in the storytelling is what will make audiences connect emotionally and I would tend to agree.

It’s well documented that Billy Joel’s Piano Man is based on real life events (Getlin, 2014; McDonald, 2021; Duchan, 2016). Billy Joel moved to Los Angeles in 1972 with his first wife Elizabeth and spent 6 months working at a piano bar called The Executive Room under the alias of Bill Martin (Getlin, 2014). Elizabeth was the waitress “practicing politics” while the local “businessmen slowly get high” (Joel, 1973). In Dunns video interview he goes on to mention the author should have “clarity, gravity, integrity, sensitivity and illuminate without lecturing” (Dena, 2017). If we refer back to the lyrics of Piano Man I believe Billy does a wonderful job of exactly this, especially in respect to the latter two. In his book on Emotional Structure, Peter Dunn also stresses, “Write about what you know to be true and valuable and meaningful” (Dunne, p.14).

The Chorus And Our Hero

Now that we have gotten to know some of our characters and can both sympathize and empathize with them, how is it that Billy is able to help them and take care of them with his music? I would argue this is best answered by looking deeper into the now famous sing-along chorus from the song. Here the point of view is reversed and it’s the audience who are now singing with joy back to the entertainer, who has their complete and divine attention.

“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright”

I feel a sense of comradery has developed in the bar by this point. Billy has managed to unite his audience and help them to forget about all their problems. They came to the bar alone but are now surrounded by friends. “They are in this joyous mood not necessarily because they are happy, but rather they want to forget their real lives at least for these few hours” (McDonald, 2021). I would also argue the importance of the word “melody” and not “memory” in this section of the song. Billy is taking their pain away and replacing what they have all lost with a brief moment of clarity and faith. For a second Billy has managed to dull the overarching theme of loneliness and unfulfilled dreams. He is our hero and admired by all.

Being on stage and in control of an audience could be seen to show a position of power. One could also argue music is a glamorous profession requiring great skill, expertise and persistence. All of these assets may also make Billy attractive, both physically and emotionally to his audience. Karl Iglesias believes these ideas are all central to characters we like (2005, p.73). They are all desirable qualities and he goes on to add, “A reader rewards his sympathy to characters who make heroic efforts to solve their problems” (2005, p.74). Here we can clearly connect with our protagonist.

Bringing It Home

When I started this research I was focusing on the idea of loneliness, and this is indeed a major theme and common emotion connecting all of the characters in the bar. However, I now believe the idea of unfulfilled dreams is more prevalent and is a clever technique to connect us with “all” of the characters including Bill Martin himself. It isn’t until the last line of the song that this becomes evident, when the audience itself asks Bill the question, “man what are you doin’ here?”.

At this moment we realize that our hero may also have unfilled dreams. He too may have lost his way or lost faith in his abilities to be a successful musician. And just like that, we realize our hero is also an ordinary man, no different to anyone else and just trying to make his way through life. We empathize with him and we also admire him. We are illuminated to the value of not giving up and that all good stories are about overcoming loss or at the very least, learning how to deal with it.

References

Bell, M. (1997). Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Structure. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company

Christy Dena (2017, Sept. 28). Peter Dunne on “Emotion Structures” at Crafting Intangibles [Video File]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kvy42Y5wI7g&t=558s

Cleary, C. (2015). What an audience feels. Retrieved from: https://apocalypsefilms.com/stephen-cleary/

Duchan, J. (2016). Depicting the working class in the music of Billy Joel. The Cambridge companion to the singer-songwriter (pp.137–143). Cambridge University Press.

Dunn, P. (2007). Emotional structure: creating the story beneath the plot: a guide for screenwriters. Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books

Getlin, L. (2014). How Billy Joel became “The Piano Man”. Retrieved from: https://nypost.com/2014/01/26/how-billy-joel-became-the-piano-man/

Guthrie, C. (2021). Emotions, Music and Science. Retrieved from: https://thechasslounge.medium.com/emotion-music-science-8776c9974b24

Iglesias, K. (2005). Writing for emotional impact: Advanced dramatic techniques to attract, engage, and fascinate the reader from beginning to end. WingSpan Press.

Joel, B. (1973) Piano Man. On Piano Man. Columbia
Juslin, P., & Västfjäll, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying

mechanisms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5), 559–575.

Library of Congress. (2016). Retrieved from: https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-16-056/

Lima, C., & Castro, S. L. (2011). Emotion recognition in music changes across the adult life span. Cognition & Emotion, 25(4), 585–598.

McDonald, A. (2021) Billy Joel — Piano Man | Lyrics & Real Meaning Explained. Retrieved from: https://justrandomthings.com/2021/06/04/billy-joel-piano-man-lyrics-meaning-explained/

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The Chass Lounge

Music Producer, Pianist, Father. Brisbane, Australia.