Space Oddity – 44th AND 40th Anniversary

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” has shown remarkable staying power:

Originally released in 1969, it charted in the Top 40 *again* in 1973. And most recently, received an ***in-orbit*** performance from a U.S. astronaut, a man actually ‘floating in a tin can!’

The anniversary numbers get spooky, because the music I was looking at here all has to do with IV, the chord built on the fourth step of the scale. David Bowie’s music here really is floating in space, and here’s why.

Bowie starts his song in a way that could be either of two different keys. His verses keep winding up on the IV chord (and iv minor chord), so they never “come home” to the key of the piece. His bridge section “For here…am I sitting…” goes off in one tonal direction away from the home key, and the Interlude immediately following (guitar chords and hand claps) goes off in the completely opposite direction. This piece never settles down into a home key at all, and ends in a completely unrelated key, far from where he started.

Because…Major Tom’s not **coming** home, is he? He’s not in the lyrics, and he’s not in the music. Bowie demonstrates a masterful feel for the IV chord, the ‘subdominant’. Used in the right place, the right way, this chord has a mournful, regretful, looking-back feel. Bowie especially milks that right at “Tell my wife I love her very much”–it’s not an accident that he switches to minor right at that spot.

Bowie’s “Space Oddity” sticks in my mind after all this time because—well, let’s face it, because Bowie is a musical genius, and this piece is packed solid with music magic. BUT, it also works because Bowie knows how chords **feel**, put in a certain place, with the right lyric. In this one, Bowie gets all the orbital mileage he can out of the power of the IV chord.


For those wishing to keep score, here’s how the Music Theory works:

Bowie starts with alternating C major and Em chords, but this could be a I – iii sequence in the key of C major, or it could be a i – VI sequence in the key of e minor. We can’t tell. Then the next line that ends “put your helmet on” goes to a D major chord, which isn’t part of either C major OR e minor. It begins to feel a little more nailed down to C major when he sings “This is Ground Control to major Tom”, but even that goes immediately to what sounds like a secondary dominant (signaling a key change), an E Major chord which, if we were in C, would lead naturally to an A minor chord, which he HAS already used earlier…except that it goes to an F major chord instead. This opens the F major – F min – C Major chord sequence (switching the subdominant from major to minor to heighten the emotion, as mentioned above), and we cycle around sort of in C for this section.

What we’re missing throughout this song, in terms of tonality and nailing down the key, is the cadence V-I, a dominant chord built on the 5th scale step of the key, to a tonic chord, built on the home note of the key. If we’re in C Major, sooner or later we most often get a G Major to C Major chord progression–but this never appears anywhere in the song.

When Major Tom starts floating around, he does so to an F Maj7 chord, an F-A-C triad with an E natural added at the top. This is a softer, jazzier, more indeterminate chord than just a straight triad, with many possible choices for a next chord. “Planet Earth is blue” takes us around the circle of keys towards the flat side, to a B flat, chord, but immediately after that we go to chords from the sharp keys, the opposite direction tonally: A major, C Major, D Major and E Major.

Bowie doesn’t do a pure circle-of-fifths sequence, so I can’t claim this is depicting an actual circular orbit, but it IS in the neighborhood of that kind of chord order. An elliptical orbit, maybe. Lopsided–hey, maybe that’s why Major Tom can’t recover and and get back home: faulty orbit. If only he had done a strict B flat-F Major – C Major – G Major – D Major – A Major – E Major in the proper order, he’d have made re-entry on target. As it is his musical spaceship is flung far out in the direction of the sharp keys and never comes back…


5 Comments on “Space Oddity – 44th AND 40th Anniversary”

  1. SpandexBoxers says:

    We are socially trained, from a very early age, to attach certain emotional responses to certain chord relationships. Or perhaps there’s an innate mechanism in place within us, mapping those chords and responses. Whichever it is, IV is the chord that stands squarely in the path of emotional resolution (I), one step away from confrontation (V). A hanging IV is the ideal tool for weaving uncertainty into a lyric …

  2. So which is it, do you think: Innate? Learned? ….Both?

    • Scott Robinson says:

      It’s hard to tease apart, though many have tried. Lacking a complete theory of cognition, there cannot be a final answer at this time. If you’re asking my personal view, I believe that SOME of our emotional response to tones has been driven by evolution – a very-low organ tone will produce the emotion of Awe, for instance – but beyond a handful of such fundamental built-in reactions, we learn these responses, beginning with Mother’s song.

      • At present, compositionally I’m banking on an innate feature of *some* power, which knows the difference between making patterns, avoiding patterns, and breaking patterns. These translate to tension and the release of tension, I hope. Is it possible, for example, that anyone could *ever* hear this sound as calming and restful? If not, then the raw mathematics of music constrain our possible reactions to it.

  3. Scott Robinson says:

    That’s a tough nut to crack, but worth the effort. The problem is that for such an argument to have force, the pattern-handling would need to be compellingly traceable into prehistory. We do have a start on this: we can reliably map the fundamental rhythms of music to the cadence of human footsteps and horse gait; we know that mothers sang to their children. We know that both these patterns and their interruption stir strong emotional response.

    Extending this as far as you hope to is problematic, but if it can be done, it would be deeply revealing.

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