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

Bowie’s new single “Where Are We Now?” reveals that power and profoundness often come wrapped in simplicity.


David Bowie - The Next Day: "Where Are We Now?"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 official YouTube video, 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.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs.

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18 Comments

  1. Bowie is one of a kind because of his unique voice, his wonderful melodies, and exquisite taste for tone color/quality. Chords are a result and not a source to composing. Bowie does good in not getting into “popular” music theory and just uses chords as a support to develop the songs, as a platform. There’s no way a student can get to similar quality results going this direction because Bowie’s construction is composed from a completely different angle.MELODY AND TONE.Harmony classes kill composer´s creativity.

    • Hi John:

      Thanks very much for writing. Bowie is indeed one of a kind, and like most good musicians, uses a combination of the tried & true, mixed with a certain dose of unique style. To your last sentence, I have to say that the belief that harmony classes kill composers’ creativity is generally a myth. Since harmony classes are meant only to describe theories as to how chords generally work, it makes no demand on the composer to use chords in any particular way. It should have no effect on a composer’s sense of creativity.

      Thanks again,
      -Gary

      • After 4 years at Berklee had to start all over again to get anywhere near academic composition and manage large scale forms (6 more years). To find chords do not exist, and that I was closer to composing the day I entered Berklee than the day I left. It killed my melodical and form instinct, replacing it with scale modes, chords, “improvisation”, etc. These abstractions determine the way you end up “speaking/composing”, they make up your vocabulary, your language. Just my 2 cents.

  2. fantastic analysis absolutely brilliant, however i always thought the lyrics were more connected to Berlin’s brutal past, and the lingering fear and despair faced by those who lived through it. (“just walking the dead” “finger crossed just in case”)

  3. Wonderful analysis! If the song doesn’t know what key it’s supposed to be in, then Bowie has done a pretty good job of translated that somewhat disorienting feeling of returning to a city after many years, and finding it almost unrecognizable. In this case he is obviously referencing not only the Berlin of the past that flashes across the screen in the background, ( a former Berlin art colony is shown that was recently razed to make way for a shopping center) he is also commenting on the type of gentrification that is turning cities worldwide into Disneyfied playgrounds for the wealthy, making them nearly impossible for struggling artists and musicians to live. That’s why it’s so funny to see him towards the end of the video standing next to an overstuffed shopping bag, wearing an ironic t-shirt (Song of Norway!), while self-consciously holding a notebook and posing haughtily for the camera, like so many artist poseurs currently inhabiting cities everywhere – Lots of style on display, but no originality, and not much talent. As he and another (real) artist slip away from the confines of their tiny, diminished bodies, he gives the viewer one last angry look, then disappears while leaving two gaping holes. It’s really quite brilliant.

  4. Pingback: Song Analysis: David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” | Exploring David Bowie

  5. I loved the video and the song, the video carries a lot of emotional content. I listened without the video and was suitably unimpressed. Now, that’s coming from a Bowie fan since The World Of…. Yes, nice chords but those progressions have always been Bowie’s trademark. So nothing Major Tom about it! I hated the drums that were added to give the dying track more momentum. I still love him though! My 0.02.

  6. This song would have recieved zero attention were it not for the fame of the author. It is musically uninteresting and the lyrics are idioyncratically obscure, sometimes not even a loose fit with the music, and — as regards the chorus — so unremarkable as to be banal.

    • Hi Steve:

      I think fame almost always is a large contributing factor to any pop song’s success, where the performer has had a long career. But I have to say that in this particular case, I had a very positive reaction to it when I heard it. I think your point is a very good one though, because I found myself wondering if I liked it simply because I expected to like it. Compare this song to the compositionally weak rubbish that frequents the Billboard Hot 100, and I still think it’s better than most. But that’s music for you. One person’s treasure is another person’s trash.

      Thanks for your comment,
      -Gary

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  8. Great blog (as always!). This is a great song to analyze and really glad you posted this. I love ambiguous chord progressions and am always interested about how they can be articulated from a theory perspective.

    I’m curious about why Gsus2 could be considered a “secondary dominant” of C, wouldn’t it need an F (making it a G7add9) to be considered a secondary “dominant”? Or is a sus2 chord essentially substituting for the G7 and still theoretically allowed to be called a secondary dominant?

    This has always confused me about secondary dominants as I thought you needed to have at least the 3 ‘and’ the 7 to make for it to be considered as dominant.

    Would love your help to clarify for me.

    Thanks! Big fan of your blog!

    • Hi Alex – Thanks for writing, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. Regarding that G chord (Gadd9), it’s a secondary dominant of F, not of C, since the progression at that point sounds very much to be in F major.

      Regarding the added 7th to chords, the only time a 7th is required to make a secondary dominant function is when you want to make a tonic chord function as a secondary dominant. That’s because without the 7th, a tonic chord will always sound like a tonic chord. In order to change its function and make it sound like a secondary dominant of IV, you need to add a minor 7th to it.

      The Gadd9 will sound like a secondary dominant because in F major, we expect a chord built on G to be minor (ii-chords are always minor in major keys). But in this song, as we see, its function as a secondary dominant never gets to resolve to the C chord, except in a round-about way.

      Hope that helps,
      -Gary

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  10. Hello Gary, great analysis of a very well crafted song ! I do believe in your two keys theory, the outro by the way is also in key C. The chords are the basically the same as in the chorus, the second and the third chord are simply changed around which results in a more circular chord progression -> the end of the song gets a new dynamic, becomes more lifted, still keeping its melancholy. sorry for my not so good english.

  11. Good analysis.

    I understand Em7 doesn’t fit in the key of F but the chorus only makes me feel like it is in the key of F, and never in the key of C. Maybe call it F lydian?

    • Hi Tom- I thought about F Lydian, but none of the melodic shapes emphasize or use Lydian shapes, and the chords don’t really sound Lydian either. I think it’s just an interesting mixture of two keys. I agree with you that F feels like the key, where other key centres, including C, are just hinted at through the use of altered chords (Em7 and Db/Eb, for example).

      Thanks very much for writing,
      Gary

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