Where did all the songwriters go?
I'm sitting here noodling on my guitar, playing Bowie's Life on Mars and it occurred to me how nobody actually writes music anymore.
This is subtly different from saying 'music sucks these days', since that isn't really true. There's loads of great tunes out there. But the dumbing down of music is widely prevalent in ALL styles. It's most obvious in mainstream genres of pop and R&B etc, but it's happening everywhere.
When I actually pay attention to the harmony of Life on Mars, I'm blown away at just how perfect it is. Bowie made a catchy-ass song that has prevailed through decades as a song even my teenage students in faraway China recognise, and yet the song is veritably littered with complex songwriting mechanics.
And now, songs which are desperately trying to simplify in order to be as catchy as humanly possible, don't really achieve this at all. Sure, I get that stupid Latin rhythm stuck in my head that's in 90% of all music nowadays, but that's not the same thing. That's an annoyance (Bum.. DAbum. DA. Bum.. DAbum. DA... ugh)
In pop music, you get some of the greatest singers out there. Production skills in EDM is far beyond anything of the past. But there simply is no style left that has the raw capacity to actually create in one's own way. Each individual writing music nowadays are told to make something based on a single formula, made not to deviate from it, and repeat ad nauseum.
Allow me to compare the music theory that's going on behind music today compared to Life on Mars. This song is not the only one, just a great representation of the incredible richness that once existed in music.
Pop music Theory
You can choose either a 4-chord vamp using chords I-V-vi-IV in any order (So, C - G - Am - F). OR you can choose a 1-chord vamp where you sing triplet notes about making money:
That's pretty much it.
You get variations I guess, some things are a blend of the two options, but that's really the entirety of all music being made around the Western Hemisphere in the modern day.
Now let's take a look at Bowie's song:
Life on Mars
Look at this frickin' JOURNEY of a chord progression:
Verse: F --> Am --> Cm/Eb --> D7 --> Gm --> Bb --> C7
Pre-chorus: Ab --> E Augmented --> Fm --> Ab7 --> Db --> A augmented --> Bm --> Db7
Chorus: Bb --> Eb --> Gm --> Gb Augmented --> F --> Fm --> Cm7 --> Ebm7 --> Gm7 --> Gb augmented --> Bb/F --> C/E
Bridge: F --> Gb diminished --> Gm --> D diminished --> Am --> Bb --> Bbm
You might think that's just too much and you'd get lost... but clearly, the song life of mars doesn't do that to anyone. It's a catchy, globally recognised tune everybody can easily sing along to.
The theory behind it isn't the main focus, but it gives the song... something, an essence of life, passion and creativity. It's unique. People say we'll run out of different music, and artists are constantly going to court lately for accidental copyright infringement, but that's only because we only seem to dabble in a thin sliver of what music has to offer us. Let's see a musician 'accidentally' copy this progression by sheer coincidence. Hah.
And it's not just the number of chords, it's the mechanisms taking place that make every single chord fit perfectly around all the others. Let me give a beginner's explanation:
How it works
A lot of the beauty and fun about making music is about creating tension, and then releasing the tension. That's kinda what makes music GOOD.
Without that, you just get a blob of... sound. We humans LOVE to hear tension when we know it's getting released to something pleasant. That sense of relief is powerful and satisfying.
Bowie has a bunch of different techniques to do this.
Notice in the list above, we have Am, Ab, Ab7, A augmented. They're all A.. but they're all different A's. This might seem a bit unusual given that any key a music is in tends to have only one of each. In F major, which is the key of this song: F G A Bb C D E.
Since the song is in F, long story short the only A in that key is Am. Everything else is outside of the key. That basically just means they sound a bit weird in context. This is a perfect example of tension.
Ab is right next to A, so it sounds really dissonant, but the Ab chord has the note C in it (Ab, C, Eb). C is also in the chord C. This shared note helps our ears anchor onto it, so when we go from C7 --> Ab, it's not just some random, sudden jerk of sound. It's actually quite smooth.
Sometimes if you stay in the same key for the whole song, it just feels like it's not going anywhere. This is why you often used to get the endings of songs jumping up to a higher key, think 'Woahhh we're halfway there WOAAAAH livin' on a prayer!!!' shifting higher and higher to bring more excitement. This is one way, but a bit cliche at this point.
A hell of a journey
Another way is to extend your journey using these aforementioned other chords to kind of pivot the song into different keys temporarily. That first Ab almost feels like we've changed to a totally new key, and it makes it absolutely clear we're in a new section. The Verse was clearly in F, now the pre-chorus is clearly something else. Ab.
But it's just a brief moment. Before long we come to Fm, slightly different to F, and immediately go to Ab7.
The 7 is important here. 7 chords are basically chords that make us feel like it's going to move to a new key, and indeed the Ab which is now an Ab7 takes us to the new key, Db.
But merely 3 chords later we're hitting Db7, another 7 chord indicating a jump elsewhere and... we go to Bb. NOT the chord your ears expect at all. But it works! We are now in Bb for the chorus. which is a step away from the Verse original key of F.
The more steps away you get from a key (not alphabetically but differences in notes), the harder it is to slide back into it if you want to return. 1 step is a good amount, especially given how we've already visited Gm (also 1 step), Ab (3 steps) and Db (4 steps).
The chorus goes on to explore different keys in very short moments that we don't need to go into, but the use of different types of chords nearby such as Gb augmented and Ebm7 sees to it that we're hearing freshness every few seconds.
the Bridge starts on F and the entire journey here is chromatic, which means you're going in tiny half-steps in one direction. In this case, the order is F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb - That's a LOT of chromatic movement and it's hard to make such a long string of small movements sound good. But it does. It's basically like going up one fret of the guitar over and over, or these notes on the piano:
That final Bb chord is a great chord to take you right back to F, where the verse begins anew almost as if nothing happened. Magical.
Which do you prefer?
Don't get me wrong, there is legitimately a lot of times and places where a simple vamp or drone or loop can take my head to great places. Daft Punk is a sampling beast and one of my favourite artists of all time (RIP). But it seems there's almost a taboo or a fear preventing musicians from exploring harmonically at all.
Coldplay have, in a few non-single songs taken it upon themselves to try, and of course a lot of progressive rock does this like it's just another tuesday (although not to the eloquent level of bowie).
But for the music that we listen to 96.9% of the time, you just aren't being fed even a pixel's-worth of what music actually has to offer.
Makes me sad. Where do we go from here on out? even fewer chords? Even more triplets? Just a massive bass drop extended over 3 minutes? Or does music cater towards the new Tiktok mindset, down to 15-seconds a pop? That's already a thing so why not?
If you ever watch Star Trek, you'd notice that they always refer back culturally to 21st century earth. They always show music and famous artists and writers from those days. But now with more knowledge of what was to follow up to 2023, what else would they even refer back to in the 24th century? Kanye west? Taylor Swift?
Come on. It seems cultural relevance of earth does seem to have cut off at a certain point after Bowie and before Taylor Swift.