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David Bowie chord techniques Plugin Presets/Expansions
Old 23rd June 2016
  #1
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David Bowie chord techniques

I imagine many of you are familiar with David Bowie's songs. With his passing I'm getting more into his stuff and I took a look at a chord songbook. Wow! We are not talking I-IV-V chord changes. A ton of chords are used and often borrowed out of key (non-diatonic is the term I believe?). It's to the point where I can't comfortably guess the key without really thinking about it.

I'm curious if anyone has knowledge of his composition style. If I had to guess, I'd imagine he purposefully strung strange chords together and hummed his way into interesting melodies.
Old 23rd June 2016
  #2
Gear Maniac
 

It’s absolutely essential that I get surprised and excited by what I’m doing, even if it’s just for me. I think process is quite important. To allow the accidental to take place is often very good. So I trick myself into things like that. Maybe I’ll write out five or six chords, then discipline myself to write something only with those five or six chords involved. So that particular dogma will dictate how the song is going to come out, not me and my sense of emotional self. Of course, I’ll cheat as well. If I’ve got the basis of something really quite good coming out of those five or six chords, then I’ll allow myself to restructure it a bit, if I think, well, that could be so much better if it went to F-sharp [laughs], or something like that.

David Bowie On Songwriting - Feature - Classic Rock

Always heavily influenced by those he admired, Bowie wrote Hunky Dory’s Life On Mars in envious tribute to Frank Sinatra’s recent My Way.
Carefully avoiding copyright infringement, he borrowed the chord sequence from the opening lines of that song and reproduced it with a different rhythm and melody line.


David Bowie was envious of Sinatra’s My Way... so he used the chords to write Life On Mars: The studio secrets of his greatest hits | Daily Mail Online

Bowie himself asserted that his approach to songwriting is constantly changing. “Sometimes I’ll inflict rules like, All right, this piece can only have five chords, and go from there,” he explained, “because it can be good to set parameters. Then again, I’ve developed such a lot of different processes over the years, ranging from accidents of looping – taking three or four chords and looping them in a particular way, and then writing a melodic theme over the top of them – to old-fashioned, crafted songs.


According to Visconti, it was normal for Bowie to pen a song’s lyrics a month or two after its chord structure had already been figured out. “We would work on the musical content,” he remembered. “David would have some idea as to what the song was about, and we would use that idea – like if it was going to be a happy song or a depressing song – to make the instruments come out with an emphatic arrangement or sound in order to invoke the desired emotion. Then the stage would be set and David would throw his lyrics on at the very last minute. He would write his lyrics in a morning, it would take him an hour or two, but beforehand he’d also need a month or two to let the ideas really germinate.”

Such was the case with Heroes. Before recording commenced on the album, Bowie and Eno spent a couple of weeks working out some basic song structures – again without lyrics and melodies – and among the stronger structures was that which would evolve into Heroes.


The story behind the recording of David Bowie's Heroes - extract - Q MagazineQ Magazine


So, Bowie's preferred method was to start with an interesting chord progression (borrowed from another song or developed by him or Brian Eno or someone else), then "vibe"/"emote" the melody, and then quickly get done with the lyrics.

Pretty similar to the way Sia writes songs, if I understand correctly. Interesting.
Old 23rd June 2016
  #3
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

@HarryDelmarva;

Here's something to whet your appetite.

David Bowie- songwriting techniques? | Page 2 | Steve Hoffman Music Forums

Good night,
~HW
Old 23rd June 2016
  #4
Quote:
Originally Posted by Veld View Post
[I]
So, Bowie's preferred method was to start with an interesting chord progression (borrowed from another song or developed by him or Brian Eno or someone else), then "vibe"/"emote" the melody, and then quickly get done with the lyrics.

Pretty similar to the way Sia writes songs, if I understand correctly. Interesting.

Wow, never knew this. its how ive always written songs also, seems natural to me that the music creates the mood and inspires words.
Now if only i could write something as good, i have taken to using the cutup technique from bowie also
Old 23rd June 2016
  #5
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Thanks everyone these are amazing links!

When I first got into composition I was taught never to use such strange chord combinations I guess I can feel OK giving it a try finally.

As a possible topic of conversation, for anyone who cares to do so, consider his song "Drive In Saturday" and let me know what's going on with the chord harmonies. It's complex.
Old 23rd June 2016
  #6
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryDelmarva View Post
Thanks everyone these are amazing links! [..]
As a possible topic of conversation, for anyone who cares to do so, consider his song "Drive In Saturday" and let me know what's going on with the chord harmonies. It's complex.
Glad you found all the replies helpful.

Here are the chords to the song - plus a video - detailing the progression.

Let us know what you think and if you have any questions. There are a few interesting spots - that's for sure.

Drive-in Saturday Chords by David Bowie | Songsterr Tabs with Rhythm



Ah yes, Bowie's own interpretation, of course.

Old 23rd June 2016
  #7
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Thanks. Looking at chords, the chorus is what throws me. I analyze the verse as: I vi V V, I vi V V, IV I VI I, vi VII. It then goes to some variant of A minor with a lot of major chords? How would you analyze the chorus
Old 23rd June 2016
  #8
Gear Head
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryDelmarva View Post
Thanks. Looking at chords, the chorus is what throws me. I analyze the verse as: I vi V V, I vi V V, IV I VI I, vi VII. It then goes to some variant of A minor with a lot of major chords? How would you analyze the chorus

Not music theory expert by any stretch, but I interpret it as modulating to C major, but substituting the ii with II. (Based on the tab link posted above.)

EDIT: Didn't notice it before, but there are few stray E majors in there too, so basically, C major with a couple of outside chords.
Old 23rd June 2016
  #9
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by spelunker View Post
Not music theory expert by any stretch, but I interpret it as modulating to C major, but substituting the ii with II. (Based on the tab link posted above.)

EDIT: Didn't notice it before, but there are few stray E majors in there too, so basically, C major with a couple of outside chords.

Check this out!

Old 23rd June 2016
  #10
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Zyzygis's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Herr Weiss View Post
Glad you found all the replies helpful.

Here are the chords to the song - plus a video - detailing the progression.

Let us know what you think and if you have any questions. There are a few interesting spots - that's for sure.

Drive-in Saturday Chords by David Bowie | Songsterr Tabs with Rhythm



Ah yes, Bowie's own interpretation, of course.

Thanks Herr Weiss. I always loved this song and thought the modulation, though unusual, worked really naturally to support the melody. Bowie was a master at this kind of thing and he reminds me of Lennon in this respect.
The key, I think, (pun intended) to the chorus is that descending C scale.
Old 24th June 2016
  #11
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Zyzygis View Post
Thanks Herr Weiss. I always loved this song and thought the modulation, though unusual, worked really naturally to support the melody. Bowie was a master at this kind of thing and he reminds me of Lennon in this respect.
The key, I think, (pun intended) to the chorus is that descending C scale.
Very nice of you to thank me.

I did not know this song at all, so I'm glad the OP wanted to. I usually don't go around analyzing 'pop' songs, but I'm glad I did this time. I should do it more frequently - good way to learn.

There are no secrets, it's all there for the taking.


Good night,
~HW
Old 24th June 2016
  #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Herr Weiss View Post
Quote:
Originally Posted by spelunker View Post
Not music theory expert by any stretch, but I interpret it as modulating to C major, but substituting the ii with II. (Based on the tab link posted above.)

EDIT: Didn't notice it before, but there are few stray E majors in there too, so basically, C major with a couple of outside chords.

Check this out!

This looks cool but I don't follow the relevance here. Showing that you can split a chord with its fifth in a harmonic arrangement, and play Am-Dm instead of just Dm? I'm curious to see what I'm missing.
Old 24th June 2016
  #13
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Muser's Avatar
His early compositional style is very similar to Ron Davies imo, who sounds like He's very Dylan influenced. Bowie was also very very eclectic so his influences change quite dramatically. I'm not sure any kind of rule sets will get you very far but they could be of some use.

Old 24th June 2016
  #14
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 



Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryDelmarva View Post
This looks cool but I don't follow the relevance here. Showing that you can split a chord with its fifth in a harmonic arrangement, and play A-Dm instead of just Dm? I'm curious to see what I'm missing.
As you remember , we were analyzing the chorus, right?
You thought it was in A minor, but spelunker correctly pointed out that it was in C major. It begins on C and ends on C; that's a big clue right there.

We have: Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, diminished. As you can see, D (ii) and E (iii) are both minor chords. So, why do we see a D major AND an E Major instead?

Because, these are not the 'natural' chords of the scale, but the dominant chords of G major and Am, respectively. (think, G major and Am keys)

https://www.basicmusictheory.com/c-major-triad-chords

Why use Secondary Dominants?

They create new 'tensions' by temporary putting the focus on a chord other than the Tonic, thus extending the harmonic continuum by making it more colorful and interesting. (less boring); it also can be used as a modulation tool, if so desired.

Noticed that C major is shown as the V of V of F major. (first pic)
Only if it becomes a Dominant 7th by adding a B flat, otherwise is just the Tonic to my ears and yours.

Whole chapters have been written about Secondary Dominants and other types of secondary chords; yes, there are more.

Example #378821



Cheers,
~HW
Old 25th June 2016
  #16
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Thanks a lot. Fascinating to me. I find it hard to imagine someone would go to this much "trouble" in their pop songwriting nowadays. Perhaps 60's music was generally more harmonically complex? I don't feel the modern music era invites people to push into such interesting territory. So much stuff is 4 chords.
Old 25th June 2016
  #17
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Muser's Avatar
I've heard some producers say that they think that James Blunt - You're Beautiful, marked a turning point in song writing simplification. He could actually be right about that. a lot of chorus's now don't even have a lyric, they just use those kinds of reggae yodels, which The Police perfected. there's a huge amount of homogenisation going on, at many levels.
Old 27th June 2016
  #18
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryDelmarva View Post
Thanks a lot. Fascinating to me. I find it hard to imagine someone would go to this much "trouble" in their pop songwriting nowadays. Perhaps 60's music was generally more harmonically complex? I don't feel the modern music era invites people to push into such interesting territory. So much stuff is 4 chords.
I'm glad you enjoyed!!

In conclusion we have The Secondary Leading-Tone Chords..

www.gottrypercussion.com/musictheory/handoutpdf/SecondaryLeadingToneChords.pdf

musictheoryteacher.com - secondary chords II

______________________________________________________________

I have a Bowie "songbook' somewhere in the house, gotta find it.

Peace,
~HW
Old 27th June 2016
  #19
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

@HarryDelmarva;

Two more links for your consideration:

Backcycling

Music Theory: Chord Substitution

I'm a firm believer that different points of view ensures a concrete assimilation. The more the merrier.


Cheers,
~HW
Old 27th June 2016
  #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Muser View Post
His early compositional style is very similar to Ron Davies imo, who sounds like He's very Dylan influenced. Bowie was also very very eclectic so his influences change quite dramatically. I'm not sure any kind of rule sets will get you very far but they could be of some use.
Did some research - were you aware he covered a Ron Davies song on his Ziggy album???

Herr Weiss, thanks for the new resources. I need to play around more with interesting harmonies!
Old 27th June 2016
  #21
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Muser's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryDelmarva View Post
Did some research - were you aware he covered a Ron Davies song on his Ziggy album???
yes it's on the album the track I posted is on. in fact Ziggy almost sounds like a kind of re imagining of that album.
Old 27th June 2016
  #22
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Phil Cibley's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Herr Weiss View Post
Check this out!


Looks like a series of secondary dominants in sequence. Nothing special.
Been going on since about 1700 or so.
Old 27th June 2016
  #23
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Phil Cibley View Post
Looks like a series of secondary dominants in sequence. Nothing special.
Been going on since about 1700 or so.

Yet, we must acknowledge the existence of neophytes.


~HW
Old 29th June 2016
  #24
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

@HarryDelmarva;

Secondary Dominant: An Ode to David Bowie


https://popmusictheory.com/secondary-dominant/


~HW
Old 2nd July 2016
  #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Herr Weiss View Post
@HarryDelmarva;

Secondary Dominant: An Ode to David Bowie


https://popmusictheory.com/secondary-dominant/


~HW
Great link thanks!

I wish artist interviews included these sorts of questions - how exactly did you decide on the chords/melody of this song
Old 2nd July 2016
  #26
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryDelmarva View Post
[...] - how exactly did you decide on the chords/melody of this song
I think you answered your own question.

Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryDelmarva View Post
At the end of the day, you need a spark of inspiration and I think is a trigger for it.

~HW
Old 26th July 2016
  #27
Registered User
I love songs with chord changes that surprise me, and Bowie was a master of that. In the context of British pop history, Bowie was following in the footsteps of Lennon and McCartney and many other 60's legends who had re-invented music with wildly different chord changes. I really think they were trying to be different and avoid the boring cliches. I really hope music will come around to this again ... getting really tired of the simple four chord songs that all sound the same.

I think music fashion tends to go around in circles, and even The Beatles went through a cycle of fashions in their time. When music starts to get too complex, often a 'new' musical revolution brings us back to simple, raw, high energy stuff. Early rock n' roll, punk, grunge, etc ... in between, music get's more and more sophisticated and polished, and then the cycle starts again.

These complicated/surprising chord changes are often called Beatle-eque and every generation tends to have writers who explore this territory. For example, in the 90's I think Radiohead and Blur and Nirvana and Soundgarden had some extremely interesting chord progressions.

In the 2000's I look to artists like Tim and Neil Finn (Crowded House and solo projects). There is a New Zealand artist Don Mcglashan who wrote/writes highly meloddic songs with amazing unexpected chord changes.

There are always new songs with strange chord sequences that I adore. Mark Ronson's Bang Bang Bang has a chord sequence that is highly unusual that I love.

I love songs that modulate between keys - not the old truck driver gear change modulation, but clever ones that modulate between two or more key centres and return. It keeps it fresh and interesting, and introduces a lot of accidental notes and harmonic shifts.

A simple trick that works for me is simply this: if you have say a four bar loop that is turning into a song - at the point where you feel it is becoming predictable and anyone can guess what chord comes next - intentionally choose another chord. Try any other chord at all - it is surprising how many other chords can be used and where they will take you. There are only 12 notes, so it's not hard to try all possible major chords, all possible minor chords - and don't forget how useful diminished and augmented chords can be. I think modern song writers tend to forget dim and aug chords - but some of these outrageous chord changes by Bowie and Lennon/McCartney etc were made possible with the use of these to modulate.

This kind of wild experimenting comes naturally to guitar players who learnt by strumming chords. It may not come naturally to keyboard players, or to players who are stuck on learning theory and rules. It helps to be a bit of a rebel.
Old 30th July 2016
  #28
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Great thoughts on this! Some questions:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kiwi View Post
For example, in the 90's I think Radiohead and Blur and Nirvana and Soundgarden had some extremely interesting chord progressions.

In the 2000's I look to artists like Tim and Neil Finn (Crowded House and solo projects). There is a New Zealand artist Don Mcglashan who wrote/writes highly meloddic songs with amazing unexpected chord changes.
Do you have particular songs/albums you recommend?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kiwi View Post
I love songs that modulate between keys - not the old truck driver gear change modulation
Do you mean kicking the last chorus up a note or semi-tone?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kiwi View Post
A simple trick that works for me is simply this: if you have say a four bar loop that is turning into a song - at the point where you feel it is becoming predictable and anyone can guess what chord comes next - intentionally choose another chord

and don't forget how useful diminished and augmented chords can be.
Do you mean to use diminished and augmented to lead into the next "predictable" chord? Or to trail off into some entirely new structure and eventually back to the predicted sequence?
Old 30th July 2016
  #29
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brockorama's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kiwi View Post

In the 2000's I look to artists like Tim and Neil Finn (Crowded House and solo projects).
I'm probably older, but in the 80's and 90's Split Endz and Crowded House were staples, and served up regular. The arrangements, even on simple progressions were very interesting. Love those guys.
Old 30th July 2016
  #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by brockorama View Post
I'm probably older, but in the 80's and 90's Split Endz and Crowded House were staples, and served up regular. The arrangements, even on simple progressions were very interesting. Love those guys.
Totally! 'Together Alone' from Crowded House is an all time favourite. Great songwriting, lyrics and performances of depth and passion and those wonderful key changes which never seem gratuitous but always further the emotional impact of the songs. Recommended listening!
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