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:

Continue reading “Is There Life on Mars?”

Lennon, Cash and Long Verse Structures

Today I’ll be talking about a particular tool in the songwriter’s kit that I don’t see utilized much any more: The long, non-repeating verse structure. This is in contrast to your standard pop verse which might be upwards of, say, 16 measures long, but typically takes a four bar (sometimes eight bar) chord progression and repeats it a few times – maybe changing the vocal melody on top to keep it interesting. I’ll just dive right in so you get the idea of what I’m talking about:

Johnny Cash – Sunday Morning Comin’ Down

sunday morning

Continue reading “Lennon, Cash and Long Verse Structures”

Black Hole Sun and Borrowed Chords

I think back to my Rock Band days: Sitting in my friend’s living room during the middle school awkwardness, playing this track on a plastic guitar, then eventually on plastic bass and drums. I was fixated, mesmerized. Even the times I had heard this song before – on the radio or in the movies or what have you – I always found my ears erect, perked and delighted. The sound is so otherworldly, but not demented or twisted. Just…Strange. Captivating. And beautiful. Like an extraterrestrial, I can’t help but gawk at the alien life.

To me, there are two factors planting this song somewhere on Mars, and the first is the chord selection. More than half of the chords are non-diatonic, and even the tonal chords are approached in such bizarre ways that, well, they may as well be non-diatonic too.

The second is the guitar sound, but I’ll touch on that later. Continue reading “Black Hole Sun and Borrowed Chords”

Alien Days – AKA How MGMT are the most interesting songwriters of this decade.

 If you haven’t heard Alien Days by MGMT, check it out:

(the video is creepy, but bare with me)

MGMT’s first record is overall a rather straight forward, electronic psych pop album. It was my first introduction to them, and I fell in love, but man how I also love what they’ve grown into. I recall reading an article where Andrew VanWyngarden actually told his label not to sign them because they would not be writing music similar to Oracular Spectactular, and that they would instead attempt to branch out and experiment. I must say, that takes an extreme amount of foresight, guts, and artistry on behalf of the musician. What’s more, they pull it off with flying colors. Continue reading “Alien Days – AKA How MGMT are the most interesting songwriters of this decade.”