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The Smile Is Only There To Hide: Musical Analysis and Personal Interpretation of Emerson, Lake, &amp

May 4, 2015

Introduction: Form & Section Structure


At first hearing, this piece of music came off as a symphonic poem, as it had the qualities of a programmatic orchestral work based on an extra-musical idea. In the case of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s (ELP) “Trilogy”, the extra-musical idea comes from the lyrics, which tell the story of a breakup and the profound emotional trauma that comes with the event. The piece is mainly composed rather than improvised with essentially three sections, however there are a few subsections and repetitious tendencies throughout the sections that result in song-like qualities.

Section Structure

The first three bars are arguably the most important part of the piece to focus on, as they foreshadow how the rest of the piece is structured. Bar one is in B major and the main melodic vocal line is introduced by a muted synthesizer with a string-like effect. This choice of instrumentation could be seen as an allusion to a 19th century violin introduction to a symphonic poem. Since Keith Emerson admired the work of Franz Liszt, it is not entirely unexpected to find traces of Liszt’s influences in Emerson’s work, or for Emerson to create a symphonic poem, as Liszt was well-known for his tone-poems.

In bar two, A and G become natural (or to some, a B major-minor), proposing an unknown key and a possible modal change suggesting a Phrygian mode before being interrupted by bar three with a C major descending triad suggesting a Neapolitan chord relative to B major. In essence, each bar of the first three bars foreshadows one of the piece's three main sections. For instance, the first bar represents section one of the piece (mm. 10-60). Firstly, it is without a doubt in B major, which section one is in for the most part. Secondly, section one contains most of the lyrics, and the lyrics are set to the melody of bar one. Bar two represents section two (mm. 60-90) as both are filled with a sense of uncertainty. In bar two there is a shift in key and a hint of the unknown, similar to section two, which reflects the narrator’s shift in their relationship (i.e. leaving), and the uncertainty of what comes next. Essentially, section two is one giant transition/musical journey which leads into section three (more on this later).

Bar three shows stability with a C major descending scale, a rallentando with fermata at the end suggesting a cadenza. Similarly, section three also shows stability with a permanent key change to B flat major, a change of mood in the direction of optimism, the reintroduction of the vocals, and a final tritone substitution or “jazz” cadence ending on a bii13 – I.

In the first three bars the key changes from B major to C major. The semitone progression and chromaticism play important roles in the remainder of the piece in terms of keys, the cadence at the end, the chromatic descending lines in the piano, and the keyboard flourishes. For example, in bars 4 and 5, there is a descending chromatic pattern that gets repeated in bar 37 and continues to bar 41. After bar 5, there is a continuous chromatic descent in the right hand until section one. Essentially, the remaining six bars (mm. 4-9) are virtuosic passages that serve as an introduction to section one and are melodically similar to piano phrases in the sections to follow, including the solos.

Musical Analysis: Section One

Within section one is a nod to the classic Tin Pan Alley form of AABA. This section begins with the lyrics provided by Greg Lake that depict the story of a breakup and finding one’s self after the dust settles. The lyrical melody is the same as the synthesizer melody of bars one through three, except that between bars two and three, the melody ascends for two bars before descending like the melody in bar three.

In this section the narrator discusses a relationship that can no longer stand on its own. Lies are exchanged, they pretend they’re still in a relationship when in reality the love ended long ago, and the narrator is now counting the time that has passed them by. This section represents regret over deception and overall depression. When the first verse ends in bar 17 there is no resolution in the piano. Instead, the B-major chord resolves to IV (mm. 15) and Vsus4 (mm. 17). The same chordal structure appears in verse two, the second A section, in bars 23 and 25. This lack of resolution adds to the idea of being stuck with no clear ending. Although the F#sus4 chord could act as a dominant, it is not part of a clear I-V imperfect cadence. Similarly, although ending the relationship seems to be the only way out, at this point it is not the definite solution and the narrator must face the implications and emotional traumas of such possibilities.

The B section begins at bar 26 and proceeds through a circle of fifths (Em, A, D, G) followed by a semitone descent (F#sus4). This feeling of travel and progression matches the lyrics nicely, as the narrator is writing and sending the breakup letter through the mail. The tempo has increased slightly and rolls right into the last A section in two distinct ways. Firstly, there is a definite resolution back to the tonic at the beginning of bar 30. Secondly, usually the final A section of the song starts at the end of the B section, but the last A section comes in abruptly after the second line at the word “leave”.