Learn to Play: David Bowie's "Life on Mars" on Piano

Today, in honor of what would have been David Bowie’s 71st birthday, we’re taking a deep dive into the compositional theory behind one of the legend’s most enduring songs, "Life on Mars?"

As Joe demonstrates in the lesson above, there’s a lot that one can learn from this seemingly simple song: direction of progression, bass movement, and voice leading.

The easy triads—as used by Bowie’s forebears, like George Harrison—contain unexpected tension, almost wistfully leading the listener along before the verse’s first twist and ascending bass notes lead the ear to a climactic peak.

In this second video, we pick up where the pre-chorus’ constant buildup left us. But the instantly recognizable chords of the chorus also contain near-constant movement. With right-hand harmonies and six chromatic bass notes, Bowie and Hunky Dory piano player, Rick Wakeman, create a turbulent world, befitting the song’s themes of displacement and alienation.

As Joe leads us through the song’s final interlude, he tells us that it sounds "like we’ve arrived somewhere, but we’re still on the journey."


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