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Theodore ‘Ted’ Sablay is an American guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist. He has completed two world tours with The Killers as a contracted touring musician, playing rhythm guitar and keyboards and singing during the band’s live concerts and TV appearances. In addition to touring, Sablay works as a music teacher, offering private online guitar, piano and bass lessons via Skype.

Asymmetric Balance in the Melody of David Bowie's "Life On Mars?"

Please watch and listen to this 4 minute video I made of a David Bowie song and tell me what patterns you recognize, if any.

DISCUSSION

Between this song and the choruses we've looked that, I'm beginning to suspect that a lot of good music is really just patterns of phrases arranged alongside other patterns of phrases X compression or elongation of those parts. 

For example, here's a graphic representation of Verse 1 for "Life In Mars":

Verse 1 is 16 measures long. We could consider Unit 1 to represent the two melodic phrases appearing side-by-side in measure 1 to measure 4 (by extension, unit 2 would be measures 5-8, unit 3 would be measures 9-12, and unit 4 would be measures 13 to 16). If you laid units 1, 2 and 3 on top of each other, you see that they line up almost identically. The only real difference occurs in the last note or two of each phrase. Unit 4 is the one that's a bit difference, but as we'll see, even that difference conforms to a pattern has been conformed for a long time.

Here is the same graphic marked up to highlight the patterns described above.The colored circles underscore the pattern in how each phrase ends--that is, the green circles denote identical phrase endings, while the different colored circles denote slightly different phrase endings.

Verse 1 of "Life On Mars?"

Verse 1 of "Life On Mars?"

ASYMMETRIC BALANCE

It's been noted in Berklee's "Melody in Songwriting" book that a lot of art, including music, usually has balance or symmetry but rarely has complete balance/symmetry. According to the book, "symmetry in all art forms tends to be boring, whereas balance is usually a sought-after ideal. (Symmetry, in this case, can be thought of as an absolute by which to measure the degrees of balance or imbalance in any section of music." The illustration below, taken from the "Melody in Songwriting" book, is good example of this. The first is symmetric; the second is not, but it's balanced. Which one is more interesting?

Back to"Life On Mars". Think of its 16-measure verse as split into two 8-measure segments. Segment #1 represents measures 1-8 (which is comprised of unit 1 and unit 2). Segment #2 represents measures 9-16 (which is comprised of unit 3 and 4). As the picture shows, the rhythm and relative pitch between segments #1 and #2 are vertically identical with the exception of the melodic phrase in 15 and 16. This small difference, along with the melody rising through the verse, really plays into the whole "asymmetric balance" ideal. Once this verse is followed by a pre-chorus, chorus, and interlude, the whole pattern of verse, pre-chorus, chorus and interlude is repeated again, but true to the "asymmetric balance" idea, the interlude the second time around starts deviating from the previous interlude before it's drastically asymmetric. Really, this "asymmetric balance" idea could be applied to an overarching song structure AND an individual song section like a verse, chorus, etc.!