July 5, 2022

The Breakdown: "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel

The Breakdown: "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel

Doo-wop era Billy Joel doesn't get catchier than "Uptown Girl." It's a world-class pop record among world-class pop records—an eminently singable underdog love story. What could be more lovable?

Today we're gonna break down some of the musical genius under the hood of this 500-horsepower track (is that a lot? I just guessed. I don't know cars.) I use that analogy purposefully, because like some of the greatest songs in history, "Uptown Girl" hides some really impressive technique and theory behind it's catchy hooks, and it's structure is quite a bit more complicated than you might imagine. But it's done so well that really all you think in the end is, "Man, that's a fast, beautiful sportscar."

The intro and verse establish our key, and a chord progression that's simple and common enough. In the key of E, all we're doing really is counting to 5. 

|E - - - |F#m - - - |E/G# - - - |A - B - | 

or |1 - - - |2m - - - |1/3 - - - |4 - 5 - | for our Nashville Number System folks.

Now the B section adds our first twist. Buckle in, becuase we're about to switch keys twice in the span of 12 bars!

When the lyric swaps to "And when she knows what she wants from her ti-yi-yime…" we're in C for a few bars (6 or 8, depending on how you want to look at it.) Our progression:

|C - - - |Am - - - |Dm - - - |G - - - |

|C - - - |Am - - - |Bdim - - - |E - - - |

That B diminished is natural to the key of C, but the E major isn't. So what are we doing here? We're setting up for another key change! Bdim-E becomes a gateway into the key of A. The melody does the genius work of making this key change almost unnoticeable—it would be pretty tedious to explain how, so you'll just have to take my word or work it out at your piano. 

Under "She'll see I'm not so tough, just because I'm in love," we have:

|A - - - |F#m - - - |Bm - - - |B - - - |

in which the B minor to B major re-establishes the B chord as the 5 (dominant) chord in the key of E, leading us back into E for the verse.

Now be honest. Have you ever thought, "Gee, that really felt like 3 keys in 13 bars just now" as you sang along to Uptown Girl? I doubt it. You were almost definitely distracted by Christie Brinkley, and rightfully so.

After finishing another verse in the original key, we're headed for yet another temporary key change adventure!

The "whoa whoa" section puts us in an 8-bar dip into the key of D, although we'll never actually hear a D chord. (That's 4 different keys in this little pop song, by the way, if you're keeping score.) The progression:

|G - - - |A - - - |G#dim - - - |Bm - A - |G - - - |A - - - |G#dim - - - |B - - - |; or

|4 - - - |5 - - - |5#dim - - - |6m - 5 - |4 - - - |5 - - - |5#dim - - - |6maj (or more accurately, 5 in the original key)

Once again the shenanigans revolving around the B chord send us back to our home key of E—although with this many vacation homes, it's almost hard to tell where the real residence is for this song. And once again, here, the melody makes it all happen seamlessly. Both the B section and this interlude have a melody that repeats almost exactly in each passage (literally exactly in the B section), that works so well over the changing progressions that it smooths over the movings and shakings of the chords underneath.

Overall, as is almost always the case with Billy Joel, we end up with something completely polished, classically informed, and melodically satisfying. This guy is intentional about his arrangements and the building blocks of his songs to a degree that few other artists are, and it gives him the ability to create things that few others can.

What song would you like a blog breakdown on next?