Song Analysis: David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?”

by Gary Ewer / The Essential Secrets of Songwriting, Blog: http://garyewer.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/song-analysis-david-bowies-where-are-we-now/

9th January 2013

David Bowie’s new album, “The Next Day”, is due to be released March 8 (Australia) to March 12 (USA). With great excitement, the lead single from the album, “Where Are We Now?“, was released Tuesday, January 8.

According to producer Tony Visconti, the gorgeous, melancholy track bears little resemblance to what we can expect from the rest of the album when we finally get to hear it. With its clever mix of melodic simplicity and interesting harmonic twists, it’s well worth the time for serious study by songwriters at all levels.

So let’s see what secrets we can discover.

FORM

First, here’s a map of the formal design. (The timings come from the video on Bowie’s site, with the song starting at 0’05″:

Intro: 0’05″  –  Verse 1: 0’21″  –  Chorus: 1’21″  –

Verse 2: 1’46″  –  Chorus: 2’15″  – Outro: 2’40″

CHORDS and HARMONIES

The verse gets pulled in two different harmonic directions, between F and C, with a brief nod toward Ab major. After the first chord (Fmaj9), we start to get pulled in a new direction:

Fmaj9  Gadd9  Db/Eb  Eb/Db  F/C  Bø7/C  Bbm/C  C

Here’s a brief description of what’s going on. The first two chords act as a tonic (Fmaj9) moving to a secondary dominant of C (Gadd9). The Db/Eb and Eb/Db pull the listener’s ear toward Ab major, but F major gets reestablished with F/C. The two chords that follow (Bø7/C  Bbm/C) are simply passing chords that fill the space between F/C and C.

The effect is mesmerizing, because it results in music that never sits comfortably in any key, and yet never pulls you too far from the home key of F major. Whenever the F chord happens, you feel a tremendous sense of musical resolution.

The term harmonic rhythm is what we use to describe how frequently chords change in a song, and it’s common for this pattern to remain more-or-less the same throughout the duration of a song. In “Where Are We Now?”, the verse features a harmonic rhythm that fluctuates between 8 beats (“Had to get the train/ From Potzdamer Platz”). The harmonic rhythm then quickens to a chord change every 4 beats (“You never knew that, that I could do that…”). It remains at 4 beats for the chorus.

It’s always an interesting study to consider what happens to the energy of a song when the harmonic rhythm changes in this way. For this song, you tend to hear a slight intensifying of the momentum of the music, as if the tune is trying to move forward with a bit more purpose.

As we see in a lot of music in the pop genre, the chorus progression becomes shorter, reinforcing the key. But in this song, there’s a twist: while you’d think that the progression should firmly plant you in F major, the chords are actually taken from C major:

Fmaj7  Em7  Dm7  C

It further reinforces the tonal ambiguity we see in the verse progression.

MELODY

As is typical of most songs in verse-chorus format, the verse melody sits generally lower in pitch than the chorus. It’s common to use verse melodies that avoid hitting the tonic note too much, saving that for the chorus. But in this case, Bowie’s verse melody borrows heavily from the notes found in the tonic chord. So lots of F, A and C as landing notes for the melodic phrases. It works well in partnership with the chord progressions: in this song, it’s the chords that work to push you toward, but then pull you away from, the F chord as a tonic.

While the verse melody is comprised mainly of small leaps derived from the tonic chord (F), the chorus melody switches to being primarily stepwise. But just as the verse and chorus constantly work to obscure the line between the keys of F major and C major, the melody starts and ends in C major, while the progression starts on F. Throughout the entirety of the song, you are left often wondering what key you’re really in!

LYRICS

There will be lots of time to analyze the lyric to determine its true meaning, but without getting into what the song really means (it’s an obvious nostalgic look at Bowie’s time in Berlin in the later 70s), it reaffirms the duties of verse and chorus lyrics. With the verse, you get a narrative-style “I did this, then I did that” sort of text. The chorus lyrics become much more melancholy, dripping with emotion and feeling, even if we may not be sure on first listen what’s being described: “Where are we now, Where are we now?/ The moment you know you know you know.” The long outro serves to intensify the emotional impact: “As long as there’s sun…/ As long as there’s fire/ As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you.

“Where Are We Now?” is a fantastic tune that shows us as composers that a little bit of complexity goes a long, long way. It’s a song that uses simple harmonic/melodic devices (moving back and forth between two different keys, for example) to keep things interesting. When all is said and done, listeners with no music analysis skills will love this tune without knowing all the little structural elements that make it so engaging.

The full album will be available on iTunes March 8 – 12. (Deluxe version with 3 extra tracks).

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