In the third record of the series, we chronicle which voices or instruments can be heard in each bar of the song. A symbol means the vocal part is singing or instrument is playing in that bar; no symbol means it’s silent.
Three vocal parts tell the story of Space Oddity – a main vocal and two backing vocals – accompanied by seven instruments and a string section. The rhythm section – bass, drums and Bowie’s 12-string guitar – play in almost every bar and provide the song’s skeleton. Paul Buckmaster’s string section plays for the first time during the tense liftoff section, then adds a kind of introspective spaciousness to Major Tom’s rather sad chorus (‘For here am I sitting in a tin can / Far above the world’) and to the guitar solo. (It’s interesting that strings do not accompany the sections sung by Ground Control, a more down-to-earth character.)
The strings become increasingly chaotic in the outro, where the players start sliding up and down the fingerboard. These slides are shown by continuous lines on our record. Space Oddity features several other unusual instruments. Now-vintage analogue synthesisers give the track a 1960s touch: a cranky old Mellotron huffs into life, paired with an out-of-tune Stylophone. The lead guitar adds singular observations before performing its obligatory solo. There’s also a flowery part for two flutes.
The data for this was gathered by ear, by listening to the recording and separate master tracks.
Sounds and symbols
When designing this record, we worked hard to develop a visual system that would be coherent and harmonious. Without being able to use colour to encode data, we focused instead on developing a unique graphic language based on symbols. These were developed around three basic shapes – square, circle and triangle.
We wanted each symbol to reflect the sound, or timbre, of each instrument. Research suggests people match sounds with shapes in a fairly consistent way across cultures. Percussive or harsh sounds seem to match with sharp-edged shapes, while softer, gradually unfolding sounds match more rounded shapes.
In our system, we followed this principle, using angular symbols for the rhythm and lead guitar and a circular symbol for the 'rounder' sounding flute and bass guitar parts. The string tracks are all represented by types of curved line. (Strings are grouped by track, since we could not pick out individual instruments here.)
For the vocals, the song's two fictional characters each get a separate symbol: a square for Ground Control (a straightforward, rather robotic character, representing a point of stability on Earth) and a circle for Major Tom (a more human character, who becomes ‘at one with the cosmos’ by the end of the song). Squares or circles surrounding the main symbol represent points where there's a backing vocal.