Satriani vs. Coldplay – I’m Unconvinced

10 Dec

As you may or may not be aware, there is currently a copyright dust-up going on between shred king Joe Satriani and foppy poppers Coldplay. Satriani has filed a lawsuit against Chris Martin and company for allegedly stealing the melodic line from his song If I Could Fly and using it in their tune Viva la Vida. I looked into it a bit today, took a listen to the two tunes, and I gotta say – I don’t see it.  I was ready to be on Satriani’s side, but the material doesn’t support a charge of outright plagiarism.

The chord progression in question is just IV/V/I/Vi in Ab, like so:

example-1 Chord Progression

It’s a progression that has been in thousands of songs.  It may be the most common pop chord progression of all time, actually.  And unless you go way outside of the harmony, any melody that you come up with over that progression is going to have a lot of similarities with other melodies.  And Coldplay, God love ’em, lives in a musical world that is just about anything but “outside the harmony.”

The melody in question is no exception; it follows a descending line of chord tones straight down the major scale of the parent key (Ab) like so:

example-2 Melody

It’s kinda tasty; the major seventh of the four chord is a very nice place to start a line. But one non-triadic note choice does not a unique melody make. The opening three notes actually remind me of that song “Lovin’ You,” which I really only know from that episode of South Park where the cow explodes.

Anyway, it just doesn’t seem distinctive enough. If we were talking about something with a more defined rhythmic aspect, perhaps there would be more to talk about, but the melodic content alone seems too harmonically inside to be considered the intellectual property of any one person.

That said, this is a pretty sensitive thing, and I totally respect Satriani’s right to challenge Coldplay on it. I also might be missing something – perhaps there is a bit later on where things get more similar, or something. There’s certainly enough similarity there to make a case for plagiarism, even if it was inadvertent, and it’ll be up to a judge to decide if Joe’s case holds water.  But in my opinion, while it may be debatable, I don’t think it does.

On a random personal note, it is my secret nightmare to be in Coldplay’s position – assuming that they wrote the tune in good faith and didn’t consciously steal the melody, they may or may not have heard Satch’s tune at some point or another, and it may or may not have lodged itself in Chris Martin or whoever’s subconscious… what I’m saying is, there’s a wide world of music out there, and I know that when I’m writing, and it’s really popping, I get this feeling like I already know the music I’m writing, almost like it’s writing itself.  I’ve known plenty of other composers and writers who say the same thing – it’s like they didn’t write the tune, more like they discovered it.  It’s a really great feeling.

But: I’ve also had the experience of sitting at the piano, searching for that melodic passage that will connect two disparate sections, when I think “Aha!  I’ve got it!”  And I work out the idea, and then I realize…. no, no, this is actually a U2 song.  Or a song from Fiddler on the Roof.  Or an old Chevy commercial.

Music is a constantly shifting universe of ideas and echoes; no idea pops into the world as a fully-formed and unique snowflake. Without the influences of our predecessors (not so much our ancestors, just people whose ideas preceded our own) giving our own ideas a common thread, no matter how small or hard that thread is to detect, our creations would just be chaos and sound, mere noise.

And sure, sometimes that unifying thread is a bit too unifying, and becomes obvious plagiarism (Vanilla Ice’s stealing of Bowie’s bassline for Ice, Ice, Baby comes to mind), but by and large, the melodies people hear and write fall on the fair side of the line.  Easy though it may be to hate on such a successful musical juggernaut, I give Chris Martin and Coldplay the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Besides, I sorta dig their song.

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