Is There Life on Mars?

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. I suppose I got caught up in other projects and works and didn’t feel much up for analysis. I do apologize! As per request of r/musictheory, I give you David Bowie’s:

Life on Mars

There were numerous questions about this piece on the music theory subreddit some time ago. “Just what is David doing here?” many wondered. It’s so dreamy! It’s so alien! Yet, so beautiful! Are there any other songs like it?

To which the answer is yes, yes there are. Well, sort of–-at least harmonically. Bowie admitted that he took what was the sheet music to Comme D’habitude, a French song that would later be turned into that Sinatra song, put some lyrics on top of it, lost out to some hack songwriter named Paul Anka, and wrote Life on Mars almost out of spite. I use that phrase lightly, though. I do believe it was less out of spite and more out of “Well, shit, I guess I might as well do something with it and see what I can come up with. Sounds like a good time!”

Here, Bowie explains it a bit better:

I could wax romantic all day about my infatuation with Bowie—and believe me, to the bewilderment and irritation of my close friends and coworkers, I frequently do—and the fact that the man died fairly recently, but I think I’ll save all the sentimentality for another time (or another writer).

Life on Mars…Life on Mars! You were there when I rode the bus on those groggy, wintry high school mornings after only three or four hours of sleep! For those three minutes and fifty-five seconds you provided warmth and clarity—even though I dreaded calculus an hour later. So much has been written about you, Life on Mars! So many musicians, writers, directors, actors, painters and poets have knelt at your feet, asking you for your secrets and the answer to your timeless beauty! I apologize in advance, you angelic, near four-minute spectacle of the human soul, for putting you on my operating table and dissecting you for what I believe you to be—for what I believe makes you so precious to me. You deserve more than this! And yet here I am, and here’s my analysis:

Form:

| Verse | Verse | Pre-Chorus | Chorus | Post-Chorus | x2

| Outro | Reprise Fake-Out |

(I’m calling each chord progression lasting eight bars starting on F, ending on C, one “verse”. Surely you could look at two whole progressions as one verse, but it’s not that important)

Melody:

  • In the verses and pre-chorus, David’s rhythm propels us forward with a lilt, leaving us just enough space between phrases to keep us holding on, and giving us enough activity to want to move with him.

  • This is a classic David trick—listen to Heroes for a similar thing. I think any other songwriter would sound amateurish, but it’s truly a Bowie trademark!

  • I mean, the rhythm doesn’t change at all for the two sections. Talk about a motif!

  • Our Thin White Duke bends his knees on the tight rope hanging high over the salivating string section and, with a little help from a marching snare drum, leaps upward to the Bb4 on the downbeat of the chorus. ¡Que increible! ¡Que fantastico! The crowd is in utter disbelief! They’ve never seen such a spectacle!

  • I don’t think he hits anything higher—in his head voice that is, not falsetto—in all his discography.

Verse:

life-on-mars-verse

There it is…The iconic progression. Let’s see what makes these chords work so well, shall we?

  • Really dig how open that piano voicing is. Just those two notes>F2 and A4. It gives Rick a lot of room to play around with the notes in between. He even hits that low F1 on the downbeat of verse 2.

  • I’m parsing this pretty quick here, with the snare hitting on beat 3

  • As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, the first part is harmonization by way of a chromatic line. In this particular case, it’s descending and in the bass. In the case of “Come On Eileen”, it was also descending, but hidden in an inner voice, making it a tad more concealed and less “Look ma, no hands!” than “Life on Mars.”

  • That line is, of course, F, E, Eb, D.

  • Now…I’m sure many folks will disagree with me on my analysis of that third measure. “Cm?!” you’ll type furiously from behind the comfort of your computer screen, after having a beer or two after a day of work spent constantly looking at a computer screen. “Preposterous! That is most certainly an F7!” and let me tell you this: It’s a thing I’m not 100% sold on either way, especially given that the piano doesn’t play a G anywhere, and in fact the only notes present in the harmony are Eb and A—the tell-all of an F7 as jazzers would like to tell you—but it really feels like a Cm chord, albeit with an added sixth. Give it a shot. Play an F7 there, play a Cm there, see what you think. The Cm tends to shiver and shrink a bit more than the F7, and as weird as it sounds, that’s more what I hear in this context.

  • Also, you’d expect an F7 to resolve to a Bb in most cases, yet the next chord is most clearly a D7. v-VI (deceptive cadence) seems stronger than I7-VI, no?

  • All this is to say, maybe the harmony in the first four bars isn’t actually there. Maybe I’m reading into it too much. It’s really just a chromatic descending line over the tonic…But I already digressed! And plus, finding the “WHACKY HARMONY” made by the chromatic voicings is fun—a real party trick.

Pre-Chorus:

life-on-mars-pre-chorus

  • The string section, combined with the chord choice, is an extra terrestrial crashing into the scene and spreading its alien philosophy to the audience. Thanks, Mick Ronson.

  • Here we have a nice harmonization of a chromatic line, this time ascending, and twice! Eb, E, F, Gb up to Ab, A, Bb, Cb(!!).

  • For more of this thing, see: Rossini, Brian Eno, and I’m sure there are other examples.

  • So what we have here is this: An augmented chord, in this case the Ab+, wants to resolve up a fifth to Db, but that E (aka the sharp five in this case) goes up to the F, creating an added sixth, and the F goes up to a Gb, making a dominant seventh which we also want to resolve up a fifth.

  • …And they do. And then it happens again and…It’s magic! It really is! But you knew that already, didn’t you?

  • I say it’s in the key of “Db” because…Is it? I don’t know. The tonal center is up to interpretation. Maybe there isn’t a key. I don’t know. The Db certainly doesn’t go where you expect it to (a Gb) and instead brings us, somehow nicely, into the chorus

Chorus:

life-on-mars-chorus

  • (I do apologize for the formatting. I hope it makes sense. I mean to say that the first eight measures of the chorus are repeated twice before tacking on the final four measures where Bowie belts “MAAAAAAARS” – which I do see as still part of the chorus and not the post-Chorus, although I suppose it’s up to interpretation 🙂 )

  • Bowie reaches high for that Bb4 and nails it. “SAILORS” is one of the most climactic moments in all of pop music—and it couldn’t have been done without the fantastic set up in the previous section.

  • I really don’t know how to analyze that F#+ in the fourth measure. Even if you look at it as a Bb+ or a Db+ (bearing in mind enharmonics, here) it just doesn’t resolve to that F in any conventional sense. SO!… It’s just a chromatic harmony by way of a passing tone. That’s really it.

  • On further inspection, I’ve thought that maybe that chord is an EbmM7/Gb, given the fact that Bowie’s melody lands pretty squarely on that Eb note. But…That doesn’t make much sense either, in terms of resolution.

  • You could call the F a IV/ii if you’re so inclined. I won’t stop you 🙂

  • Going IV>iv tonicizes the Cm7 chord rather nicely.

  • The Ebm7 on measure eight finishes the descending line (A, Ab, G, Gb) and also hints at a half diminished chord with the Cm7 before it (flatting the fifth). Dig it!

  • I always liked how, after the words “freakiest show”, the piano plays a high up, tinkly arpeggio that sends the most chilling shivers down your spine.

Post-Chorus:

life-on-mars-post-chorus

  • Mick Ronson lays down a little melodic solo here—tasteful, not at all showy—exactly what needs to happen.

  • Nothing we haven’t seen here. Chromatic ascending line starting on F, ending on Bb.

  • I say it’s in F, but I feel like I only know that in hindsight. Coming off of the chorus, the center of gravity seems to have shifted somewhere closer to the tropic of capricorn than where it was before.

  • Regardless, the IV>iv brings us back oh-so-nicely to F for the verse.

  • Really, really dig that rubato. It’s so romantic. Tchaikovsky and Mozart and all the rest would have been delighted. I bet you anything that was Mick’s idea.

  • (not to say that Tchaikovsky and Mozart wouldn’t have been delighted with the entire piece, for that matter 🙂 )

  • I would like to point out there is a variation on this the second time it’s played, just before the song is through. After that Gm chord, we’re given a big Bb/F > Eb then to a HUGE, slowing Ebm > Bb. That last Bb comes complete with a tuned timpani and everything.

…And that brings us squarely to the end. What a ride, what a ride! Some notes on arrangement:

Arrangement

  • The song is rife with variations and I won’t go over every single one of them—I’ll save those for you listeners to discover 🙂

  • My personal favorites include Rick Wakeman’s varied piano playing. The man never plays the same thing twice, yet it always feels consistent. He alone provides enough variation to keep you interested for the whole piece.

  • I also like how David harmonizes with himself at the start of the second verse—his shrill voice sounding even more shrill and tender in that upper register.

  • That unison on “And she’s hooked to the silver screen,” coming off of the harmony, is rather engaging.

  • Those strings…I don’t think I’ll ever get over those strings! I watched an interview once, I couldn’t point to it now, where a gentleman said that Mick Ronson’s musical genius was greatly unacknowledged, going as far to say that having him as your guitarist/arranger would be like having Stravinsky in your band!

  • Or, maybe more like having George Martin in your band 🙂

  • The slapback delay on that snare is neat. It sounds tempo synced to the 16th note, but that sort of technology wasn’t really around then, so it must’ve been done by ear.

  • According to wikipedia that flute-ish part is a Mellotron recorder sound. I personally haven’t heard that Mellotron sound anywhere else (and I have a Mellotron software with all the sounds), and to my ear, the attack sounds more like a synthesizer with a little bit of glide/portamento. It’s just too smooth and refined to be a Mellotron…It lacks the tape grit and saturation.

  • Bowie holds off on the harmonization in verse 3, and brings it back in for verse 4. Oddly consistent with his previous couplings…

Final Thoughts:

  • I’m not one to look to deep into lyrics. I find that most artists like to paint pictures and play with words, so most of the times lyrics such as these are more abstract than they are anything else.

  • That being said, according to wikipedia, David later mentioned that the song is about a girl who grew enamored with media and movie stars and artists and the like, “Is there life on mars?” essentially being the question “Can I get into this sort of thing, too?” I like that. What it has to do with sailors and cavemen and police brutality, I’m not sure.

  • Lastly, I saw some interview which, once again, I wouldn’t be able to dig up now, that put this whole work into perspective. A gentleman mentioned how everything was recorded live and they had so little time to do it. Think how many things needed to be perfect: The bass, the piano, the voice, the guitar, the drums, the strings, the mic placements. What a miracle! What incredible talent possessed by each musician on this one singular recording. I’m glad it turned out alright.

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