Anatomy of a Classic Song

A recreation of the score to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reveals musical elements that undergird the iconic pop anthem.

The Score

The production of the nearly five-minute track demonstrates ultimate restraint, building slowly and deliberately from beginning to end. As the score shows, the piano is the only accompaniment instrument for the first minute and a half, from the introduction through the first verse and turnaround to the second verse (bars 1 to 36)

Knechtel plays a masterful intro—majestic from the first chord—that quickly sets the gospel tone. It’s replete with gospel chord movements. In the second half of bar 2 through bar 4, he plays a bass line rising from the root of the IV chord (A♭), up to a C7 chord by employing a series of unresolved secondary dominant chords. The A diminished chord on beat four of bar 2 moves deceptively to the I chord in second inversion. That I chord becomes a dominant seventh that also moves deceptively away from what the ear anticipates, to what sounds like it will be a V7/ii. But instead of going to the ii chord (F minor), that C7 resolves deceptively to the IV chord.

During the last two beats of bar 4, the A♭ chord changing to A♭ minor, further mines the gospel style. For the last four bars of the intro, Knechtel plays a tonic pedal note on an E♭ and the chords above change from E♭ to E♭ 7 to A♭. The final plagal cadence (from IV to I in bars 8 to 9) provides more of a church feel, and sets the stage for Garfunkel’s vocal entry.

Throughout the verses and piano interludes, Knechtel provides a full accompaniment that’s confident, relaxed, and has a solid groove. It’s the perfect example of a well-crafted accompaniment capable of carrying the song and serving its needs without showboating. He inserts a gospel flair on walk-downs from the IV chord to the I, and then from the I down to the V chord as found in bars 16 to 17 and elsewhere. He continually varies the texture in the right hand, with long chords at the top of the verses and a mix of quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes depending on the level of intensity needed. He adds variety juxtaposing rolled and block chords and brief pianistic flourishes as seen in the interlude in bars 31 to 36.

To add spring to the rhythm, Knechtel inserts occasional syncopations in the left hand, playing double-dotted quarter and sixteenth notes (bars 12, 15, 27, 28, 39, 68, and so on), and in other places dotted-eighth- and sixteenth-note rhythms (bars 21 to 23, 40, 48 to 49, and 88). After dominating for nearly the entire song, the piano part thins out considerably, passing the baton to the strings and percussion to carry the coda (bars 94 to 99).

The production begins its slow and subtle build at the top of the second verse. Simple chordal pads played on vibraphone broaden the instrumental texture and add a shimmer to the mix. It should be noted that transcribing music from a song’s full mix (without access to the stems) is not an exact science. What’s notated on the score is what is perceptible in the mix. It’s possible that more notes on some instruments are present but masked by other instruments or by the reverb. The vibes part is a case in point. The vibes enter quite noticeably and then recede in the mix. In bars 37 to 42, I hear triads, but the part is heard intermittently beginning in bar 41, and alternates between triads and two-part chords from bar 43 forward. It sounds like an organ is quietly doubling the vibes in bars 67 to 69. (The very last notes of the song as the strings fade are those of an E♭ triad played pianissimo on the vibes.)