This record shows the chord progressions in Space Oddity. The y-axis of the record represents the chord root note, running from C on the outside to the B nearest the middle.
Major chords are represented by thick lines and minor chords by thin lines. Seventh chords are shown by rings added to the chord: one ring for a flattened or lowered seventh, and two rings for a raised seventh (as in F major 7).
INTERPRETING THE HARMONIES
The song opens with Bowie’s 12-string guitar alternating between F major 7 and E minor chords. It’s an unusual, uncertain-sounding chord sequence with which to begin a song and sets up the common note shared by these chords, E, as a kind of background drone.
The vocal enters and we hear the tonic chord C for the first time, as the chords alternate between C major and its relative minor, E. The pitch E continues to drone, acting as a point of continuity between them. This sets up a pattern of fluctuating between warm major and cool minor chords that occurs throughout much of Space Oddity. It’s a bittersweet song – both elated and deeply sad.
After the harmonic chaos of the liftoff section, the song kicks again into a confident C minor in the first verse as Major Tom is successfully launched into space. But this time we move to E7 instead of E minor. As Chris O’Leary writes in Rebel Rebel, this ‘brighten(s) the song, expand(s) it outwards’. It slightly destabilises its harmonic field. It’s the first hint that the vastness of space might be working its magic on Major Tom.
In the long-awaited chorus, which turns out not to be the hoped-for triumphant climax but something much darker, the F major 7 / E minor alternating chord pattern from the guitar intro resurfaces at ‘Here am I sitting in a tin can’. At ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’, there’s a rather dogmatic descending chord sequence in the rhythm guitar from B flat, through A minor, G and F, as if to reinforce the anti-moral of the song: you’re powerless, just give up. But the string parts extend these basic triads into more unusual seventh and ninth chords, particularly prominent on the second repetition of the chorus – it’s a moral lesson that comes warped by the strange beauty of space.
Bowie then clears the deck with an iconic (but somewhat glib) acoustic guitar break that rapidly alternates between C, F, G and A major chords – the harmonic equivalent of window cleaning – before the song launches back into a soaring guitar solo.
In the guitar solo, the E drone becomes more prominent, suspended by the strings over the underlying chord sequence. It’s as though the music already knows Major Tom will never come back. The lyrics reveal it when the verse returns: ‘And I think my spaceship knows which way to go / Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows’. Despite Ground Control’s frantic attempts to contact him (‘Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong / Can you hear me Major Tom?’), Major Tom cannot be reached.
The vocal ends with him floating round his tin can, far above the Moon. The music moves into an extended repetition of the guitar solo and becomes the instrumental outro.
Here the pitch E – which in true music-critical fashion we can surely by now identify with Major Tom’s will, or ego – first gets louder and louder and then is gradually destroyed, assaulted by sliding strings, random drum crashes and an untamed bassline as the astronaut is sucked into the entropy of space.
In this way, the central themes of the song – the destruction of its main character, the bittersweet nature of triumph, the smallness of humanity in a vast, extended universe – are embedded in its harmonic language.