The record

Space Oddity is an intricate story whose often-simple lyrics belie a complex musical structure. Here we illustrate the grammatical structure of the lyrics as a series of trees. Each line of the song forms a single tree.

The branches represent the structural relationships between words and symbols on the ends of the branches indicate word type.

The base of each tree covers the line duration and its anchoring point denotes which of four categories of utterance the line falls into – transmission, description, command or action / feeling. The lines are then coded by the character in the song who sings them – a square for Ground Control and a circle for Major Tom.

At the beginning of the song the lines are short. The complexity of the grammar then increases, but the language remains simple, informal and memorable (countdown, liftoff, tin can). We could be listening in on a dialogue between two children on walkie talkies.

You can also see small differences in the way lyrics are repeated. For example, the rather ironic line ‘Here am I sitting in a tin can’ becomes ‘Here am I floating round my tin can’ when it’s repeated – even more cutesy, but also more unnerving.

 

Data collection – and false leads

Valentina collected the data for this record. Having actually learned grammar at school (she didn’t grow up in England!) she was able to code every word in the lyrics by its word class and create trees based on its grammatical function within each sentence. She tested the results using a free online parsing tool, Enju.


Thanks to the wonders of copyright, we could not reproduce the lyrics of the song, so we experimented with various ways of processing and classifying them that would allow us to communicate some of their features without having to present them in full form.

One option we tried was running the lyrics through this free sentiment analysis tool. (The code’s on GitHub). Sentiment analysis tools categorise chunks of text by the predominant mood inherent in the words – in this case positive, neutral or negative. Analysing Space Oddity line by line gave rather interesting results. The sentiment tool didn’t quite match up with what we thought about the song (the compliment ‘you’ve really made the grade’ comes out negative, for example) but it came close. Overall, the tool judged the song to have a negative sentiment, with 75% confidence. There was only one section – the second verse – where the sentiment came out positive. This verse corresponds to the moment where Major Tom steps out into space (‘I’m stepping through the door’).

 

Another false lead we never quite got round to exploring relates to an obscure Italian version of Space Oddity that Bowie released in 1970 called Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola, which translates as ‘Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl’. Same song, completely different lyrics. It’s pretty surreal. Have a listen.

 
 

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