These are the first four lines of Billy Joel’s infamous “Piano man” song, and one of my own personal favourites. I think I have to thank/blame my parents for introducing me to an artist who, in my humble opinion, is still the best singer/songwriter who was ever lived. A bold statement I know.
Despite being an extremely talented piano player himself and having a family history and education in classical music – what makes Joel’s music so engaging to me is his ability to tell a story through his lyrics. Many of his songs are written about his own feelings and life experiences; whether it’s as a young man growing up in New York City trying to fund his way through school with part-time piano work or his thoughts on the U.S. Marines being trained before going off to fight in the Vietnam conflict. Joel manages to paint a picture with his words and from those pictures we can create a morale of our own that connects with us on a human level.
Let’s take the song “Piano Man” as an example.
The song itself is based on the time Billy Joel spent in Los Angeles in 1972-73, avoiding his record company after his first solo album (Cold Spring Harbour) has failed to live up to expectations. He was working in a piano bar called “The Executive Room” to pay his bills during that time. Joel states that the character he mentions in the song “Piano Man” are all based on real people he met in the bar at that time:
“Now John at the bar is a friend of mine…” – John was a bartender who used to work a shift at the same time Joel played piano in The Executive Room.
“Now Paul is a real estate novelist…” – is a line about a real estate agent named Paul who would sit at the bar and work on what he believed would be the next great American novel.
“And the waitress is practicing politics” refers to Joel’s first wife Elizabeth Weber, and who worked at The Executive Room as a waitress.
I’ll summarise my thoughts now with a few tips I’ve learned about how you can increase your storytelling skills, whether you are a Product Owner, Agile Leader, Scrum Master or maybe just someone telling your stories to your own friends and families.
In storytelling, specific details help us visualise and imagine a more defined landscape. Joel calls out a specific time and date at the start of the song, which helps the listener find their place in the story at the very beginning…
“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in…”
We can engage more of our brain when we hear words associated with our senses. This can be specific sights, sounds, tastes and smells. And these senses will invoke memories of places we have been when we encountered those senses before. This helps us visualise the situation or environment the storyteller is describing now by association. Joel demonstrates this well in the final verse with the lines…
“And the piano, it sounds like a carnival, and the microphone smells like a beer…”
The metaphor of a “carnival” describes a bigger, more raucous sound – each of us will get a better sense of the volume and range of his piano, and how the microphone has the sweet yet lightly stale smell of alcohol at the end of the night in a crowded bar.
Joel builds up a picture of all the different lives he sees around him whilst he plays the piano and entertains his followers. Reading deeper into the lyrics, we sense those characters all suffer from broken or unfulfilled dreams and visit his bar to listen to him play and “forget about life for a while”. The morale behind the story could be interpreted differently due to the listener’s individual circumstances of course, but for me personally the morale here is not getting too down when things go wrong for you, and sometimes the simplest things in life will always brighten your day and are worth celebrating.
Which songs tell a story to you? Add a comment below and share the songs which create a vivid picture or a compelling morale for you personally.