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Has anyone studied Bowie's chord progressions?

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by dead of night, May 6, 2010.

  1. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    Hi. I'm a big fan of David Bowie and find his chord progressions very unique and difficult to analyze. Has anyone else looked at them intently and formed some conclusions?

    For example, the bridge to 1984 is very unusual. Many other songs seem to defy a traditional analysis. Any thought and comments about Bowie harmony would be appreciated.
     
  2. seiko

    seiko Member

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    I suspect, at least on the early stuff, that he wrote chords progressions that sounded good to him without regard to rules, simple as that.
     
  3. JonR

    JonR Member

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    I've looked at a few Bowie songs, and his changes (or should that be ch-ch-ch-changes?? :D :facepalm) are indeed very interesting.
    I suspect the concept of "modal interchange" will explain most of what he does (as with most rock songwriting), but IMO he is an under-rated songwriter, technically - people seem to just focus on his image.

    If you want more detail, happy to look at any song you specify...
     
  4. gennation

    gennation Member

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    I've been playing Bowie tune's since I picked up the guitar '76. Actually, over the last year I've played two Bowie tribute shows as well as about 4 Bowie tunes that get regular rotation in our setlist.

    While it's hard to nail down a formula with a guy who's constantly evolving but, his songs do contain a lot of common chord progressions with his own little twists. Although, you'll find a couple of common things he does repeatedly:

    1. he does this Major to Minor chord thing where he might be playing an A Major and then follow it with an Am chord. This type of thing is found in Space Oddity and All the Young Dudes to name just a couple. He's not the only one who does this but he has done it quite a bit.

    2. The other thing I find is when he starts a song out with a Major chord he continues to play Major chords throughout are a least for a good number of the chords, regardless of the harmonies of the Key, only changing to Minor for the bridge or until it sounds right. This isn't a formula but I have seen it quite a bit. Maybe in his early years he liked Major chords better or something and his ear is just got used to follow series of Major chords. He does it occasionally with songs that start in Minor tunes, but not as much.

    3. He's used that descending bass line quite a bit like C-B-A-G-F-E that's similar to Changes or All the Young Dudes.

    4. You also find a lot of I-VIm-IV-V doo-wop stuff in his tunes too. ala Young Americans and others.

    5. He also has a knack for throwing in time changes where you'd never know it unless you looks into it. Like in Changes, and I think that bridge in 1984 too if I remember right. They just sound so natural and not technical of forced. It's been a long time since I messed with 1984 (high school maybe) but that bridge is cool.

    I think all of this boils down to that modal interchange stuff JonR was talking about. I also think that he takes basic chord progression and might start singing a melody line but lengthening to fit his line in before changing the next chord. This is how Diamond Dogs always stuck me.

    Also, it should be noted that he used a method to write lyrics where he would take a bunch of words and put them on a whiteboard (pinup board in the 70's) and would just start moving words next to other words until he came up with a phrase that inspired him. Then he would cut out more words that he though tied his ideas together and would continue to string more phrases together. Pretty cool idea really for inspiration. I think he got the idea from Burroughs or somebody.

    Now throw all of his cultural travelings, musing, and mixing on top of all that.

    I've never really analyzed his tunes but those are a few things I seen used before in a number of tunes. It might be good if we took a song, like 1984, and analyzed it. I have my own hand written charts to a lot of his tunes, we could pick one of them too.

    Also, splatt has worked with him. I would love to hear his insight! One evolving source's experience with another evolving source :)
     
  5. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    One thing I've noticed is that he does a three chord progression covering four measures, so that the beginning of each subsequent vocal phrase starts on a different chord. I think Bowie does this in the coda of Ashes To Ashes.

    Also, I'd love to hear an analysis of Rock 'N Roll Suicide, specifically the part where he sings, " Oh no love, you're not alone, no matter what or who you've been...."
     
  6. vivaoaxaca

    vivaoaxaca Member

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    Taking a quick look at 1984, I parse it in the key of F major / D minor. I'd probably call it Dm though.

    In that context, the bridge probably just uses the Bb chord (the IV in F) to pivot to the key of Eb major (in which the Bb is the V). I also note that there is no similar pivot used to get back to the home key after the bridge, but that the little funk riff that provides the foundation of the arrangement gives some cover for that choice.

    That kind of key change is pretty common in a lot of pop songs, tho it is used to particularly good effect here.
     
  7. Echoes

    Echoes Senior Member

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    I played a number of Bowie songs in the 70's ... they are all very common chord changes. You just asking about one particular song?
     
  8. Bryan T

    Bryan T Guitar Owner Silver Supporting Member

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    I've always liked the surprising chord in "The Man Who Sold the World."
     
  9. JonR

    JonR Member

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    Great sequence!

    He starts off pretty safely in an ordinary C major sequence - with an E7 to hint at modulation to relative minor which doesn't quite establish itself.

    Then with "oh no love you're not alone, you're watching yourself..." he alternates C with A major - back and forth so we don't quite know where he's going to end up.

    After that, the next section moves into an indeterminate key centre - well away from C/Am. The full sequence here (following the last A major chord) is:
    C#m - G#m - B - D#m - A#m - C# - B - D#m - A#m - C#
    These chords share no one key scale but mostly derive from F# major - only the initial C#m doesn't quite fit, but can be explained as a kind of transition chord from the A major, softening the modulation slightly.
    Of course there is no F# chord as such, which - with the seemingly random root sequence - make this section seem tonally unfocussed (deliberately, no doubt).
    F# major is of course, as far away from C major as you can get!

    And to cap it, he tacks on a coda alternating Bb and Db major chords - like the early C-A alternation but a half-step up and in the reverse direction.
    The effect is high drama, even somewhat camp and over the top. (But we wouldn't expect Bowie to be anything else in those days... ;) )
    The final chord is Db, half-step up from where he began.
     
  10. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    You're right, key of Eb major, with a few non-diatonic but common chords thrown in: the bIII and the bVII. Thank you.
     
  11. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    I see a pattern here, if perhaps by the last B you meant G#. I think you may have? The pattern is, Im, Vm, bVII, then this same sequence is moved down a sixth, repeated one more time, then moved down a sixth again. The last C# there begins the coda, and is not part of this moving pattern.
     
  12. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    Never mind, I'm confused: need to look at it more.
     
  13. ABKB

    ABKB Member

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    Bingo! I do not know for sure, but he seems to write as if he's a not very good guitarist, but also having one HECK of an ear for melody, thus him repeating some of his tricks from time to time. But those things he does, maybe because he doesn't know any better, makes it all the more unique and fresh sounding to the ears. Having great bands over the years just makes it all the more appealing. I have broken down a few of his songs over the years and while it's cool to know the chords, I see no method there other than a way to impart his melody. I suspect he writes his lyrics first and just uses the chords to get to the melody his ear hears. Paul McCartney does that as well and it's a GREAT way to write to get out of the rut guitar players tend to get in where they write the music first and try to jam a decent melody in there. For me anyway, writing the lyrics and melody first is the harder way to write, but also more satisfying ultimately as it forces chord progressions I would not ordinarily come up with.
     
  14. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    C#m - G#m - B - D#m - A#m - C# - B - D#m - A#m - C#

    I want, I need, to look at this again. Here's how I analyze it:

    It's a series of two chord key changes. The first is in the key of C#m.
    The second is in the key of B. The third is in the key of A#m. The fourth is back to B. The fifth is back to A#m.

    Musically, here's what this says. The poor sap, the protagonist in the song, starts out in a rut, a repeating chord progression in C. Then Bowie breaks him out of his rut with lyrics singing of hope, in a rapidly moving, key changing, progression suggesting growth and movement.

    There I have solved this puzzle.
     
  15. Bryan T

    Bryan T Guitar Owner Silver Supporting Member

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    I'm not familiar with the song, so I'm not sure if your analysis is correct or not. I'd look at what the melody is doing. Find the tensions/resolutions there and then try to analyze the harmony.
     
  16. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    I am now going to learn from Bowie's lesson and write my own two chord, key changing sequence:

    A - Bm - F#- C# - G# - Cm - A - Bm - F# - C#
     
  17. bobmc

    bobmc Supporting Member

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    I like the chords to ATYD (as I hear them) especially the D-Dmaj7-Bm-D/A part.

    Simple enough, but when I first learned it, I used the descending bass line as the roots for power chords: D-C#-Bm-A. People knew what tune I was playing but it just wasn't right. After playing it enough times, the C# chord fell first, it became a C#m chord for awhile, and so on. Heck, I could still be playing it wrong! Anyway, working in that tune was a big deal to my harmonic development.
     
  18. gennation

    gennation Member

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    Kind of along these same lines...good fodder anyways...

    A few shows ago I was tasked with writing a Rock and Roll Suicide-esque epic type ending (chords and melody) to a song our band leader.

    Funny thing is, I came up with two ideas as well as two variations of these two ideas, as well as a separate melody for each...then as I was deciding which one to send him it hit me...'tie them all together as one big ending, but alternate the variations'.

    So I recorded each one individually for him to choose from as well as the four modulating together. He ended up using the "all four tied together" version.

    This is what I sent him (the recordings are complete scratch recordings just for demo, one guitar, two tracks):

    Before the ending the band is vamping on
    | A | G | F# | F# |


    Ending 1 (with the proceeding vamp so you can hear the Key change):

    | A | G | F# | F# Ab7| C#m E | B/Eb F# | G F# | B ||

    Here's the recording with the melody too: http://test.mikedodge.com/mvdmusic/miked/shftb/ending1mixdown.mp3

    Ending 2 (with the proceeding vamp so you can hear the Key change):

    | A | G | F# | F# Bb7| Ebm Ddim7 | C#m F# | G F | B ||

    Here's the recording with the melody too: http://test.mikedodge.com/mvdmusic/miked/shftb/ending2mixdown.mp3

    Ending 3 (with the proceeding vamp so you can hear the Key change):

    | A | G | F# | F# Ab7| C#m Ddim7 | B/Eb G#7 | G F | B ||

    Here's the recording with the melody too: http://test.mikedodge.com/mvdmusic/miked/shftb/ending3mixdown.mp3


    Ending 4 (with the proceeding vamp so you can hear the Key change):

    | A | G | F# | F# Bb7| Ebm Ddim7 | C#m G#7 | G F | B ||

    Here's the recording with the melody too:
    http://test.mikedodge.com/mvdmusic/miked/shftb/ending4mixdown.mp3

    All the endings modulating from one to the other(with the proceeding vamp so you can hear ALL the Key change):

    | A | G | F# | F# Ab7| C#m E | B/Eb F# | G F# | B Bb7 | Ebm Ddim7 | C#m F# | G F | B Ab7 | C#m Ddim7 | B/Eb G#7 | G F | B Bb7| Ebm Ddim7 | C#m G#7 | G F | B ||

    Here's the recording with ALL the melodies too:
    http://test.mikedodge.com/mvdmusic/miked/shftb/allendingsmixdown.mp3
     
    Last edited: May 8, 2010
  19. JonR

    JonR Member

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    The last B is definitely not G#.

    And there is a pattern:

    |C#m - G#m - |B - D#m - A#m - C# - |B - D#m - A#m - C#|

    IOW, chords 3-6 and chords 7-10 are the same - and the key is the same for all the chords except the C#m.

    Furthermore, if you include the A preceding the C#m, you get another repeated pattern:

    A - C#m - G#m (major key IV-vi-iii) gets raised a whole step to B - D#m - A#m.

    And more, that A#m than moves up a m3 to C#, just as the G#m did to B.
    But instead of repeating the IV-vi-iii pattern (which would mean C#-E#m-B#m, or Db-Fm-Cm), you get the repetition of the 4-chord IV-vi-iii-V pattern in F# major.

    You're right about the final C# beginning the coda, which is simply another clever overlap to the next pattern; itself a repeat (half-step up) of an earlier one.
    Code:
    |C  A  C  A  |C#m  G#m  |B  D#m  A#m  C# | B  D#m  A#m  C# | A#  C#  A#  C#
    |C major     |
    |I  VI I  VI |
             |E major.............|  
             |IV  vi   iii   V |
                      | ii  |IV  vi  iii  V  | IV  vi  iii  V  |  
                      |F# major................................|
                                                           |I    VI  I   VI  I|
                                                           |C# major...............|
    - so he ends up a half-step up from where the bridge began, with the alternating tonic and major VI chord.
    In fact, it's difficult to hear whether C# or A# should be the I, and in a sense that's the point, as it deliberately lurches up and down from one to the other. I-VI in C#, or I-bIII in A#/Bb? Or I in C# followed by I in Bb? Who cares? :rolleyes:
    (One interesting way we can interpret major chords a m3 apart is as V and bVII chords of a minor or - less likely - major key. That would make the implied key centre of this section Eb/D#m or Eb major.)

    BTW, this is omitting the final instrumental sequence of the coda, which begins with the last chord of the repeated C#-A# alternation ("you're not alone"):
    Db Fm C7 Gb Db

    This bears little (tho some) relationship with earlier sections, and seems designed (albeit in an oddly roundabout way) to confirm Db as the final key centre:
    I - iii - V/iii - IV - I
    (There are a couple of quick passing Bb-Ab bass notes on the end of the Gb chord, which help nail the final Db tonic, as does an extra chord on the strings.)

    Of course, if you interpret the B in earlier section as bVII, then this whole section could be seen as key of Db/C# major, just with a deceptive introduction (C#m-G#m) in the parallel minor key.
    That might be the simplest view of the whole thing. ;) Let's see how that looks:
    Code:
     
    |C  A  C  A  |C#m  G#m | B   D#m  A#m  C# | B  D#m  A#m  C# | A#  C#  A#  C#
    |C major     |
    |I  VI I  VI |im   vm   bVII ii   vi   I   bVII ii   vi   I   VI  I   VI  I
                 |C# major......................................................   (etc)
    
    Of course, there is no one "right" answer to this kind of analysis! It just depends on whatever view helps us make sense of it.

    Naturally, one's ear is always the best guide to things like key centre, but sequences like this are deliberately (IMO) designed to disorient our sense of key.
    Bowie may not have thought of all the theoretical ramifications of his choices, but I'd be pretty sure his plan was to surprise our ears at every turn: to startle, while still choosing chords that "sounded right" for some perhaps unknown reason. It's our mission (if we choose to accept it ;)) to try and disentangle WHY those chords might sound right, according to what system of analysis.
     
  20. dead of night

    dead of night Member

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    Thanks JonR, I have been studying your generous reply and I think you're right; I prefer to look at this as a modulation from the initial key of C to the key of F#. It's interesting that this is a move from the first key to the one a tritone apart. Bowie moves as far away on the circle of fifths as he can. In other words, he travels "The Width Of A Circle."

    What do you think of this interpretation of the last instrumental sequence: Db Fm C7 Gb Db: Bowie is using chords that incorporate a moving line from the Db major scale that goes Db to C to Bb to Gb to Db. 1, 7, 6, 4, 1. This sounds "right" because of the moving line along the major scale.

    This Bowie song, to my mind, the finest example of rock songwriting and the level to which I aspire. All I want to do is assimilate all these tricks, to find out what makes Bowie tick, and use it all in my songs. So what do we have here?

    A modulation a tritone apart. An instrumental sequence that uses a moving line along the major scale of the I chord. I'll try some of these tricks for now.
     

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