The recent commotion over whether or not Coldplay ripped off guitar whiz Joe Satriani is nothing less than surprising and mystifying. My bewilderment has nothing to do with Coldplay however, but with Satriani, the guitar teacher-turned instrumental rock god.
Last week, after months of not hearing back from Coldplay (who are in the midst of a major world tour), he went to a federal court in Los Angeles and filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against them, claiming that the English rock stars’ #1 2008 hit song “Viva La Vida” lifted material from his own 2004 instrumental “If I Could Fly.”
Both are great, midtempo songs, no question. I have listened to both countless times. But one is an orchestral, grandiose pop song with relatively little guitar work (“Viva”) while the other is straight up steady bass, drums, and wailing guitar-based instrumental rocker (“If I Could Fly”).
More to the point: there is practically no basis for this rather frivolous lawsuit. And coming from someone who knows the ins and outs of musical composition in rock better than most, it boggles the mind why Satriani thinks the Coldplay song sounds so much like his work.
There are brief patterns of similarity in both songs too be sure, so without boring you (musicians or non-musicians) with a lot of advanced musical theory jargon and notation, I will try and breakdown the few similarities and big differences these two great songs have, differences that should’ve convinced Satch right away that there was nothing major to make a fuss about, let alone go to federal court over.
For Coldplay to be successfully sued, Satriani would have to prove the band had access to his work and that the band’s song in question sounds “substantially” similar to Satch’s composition, among other criteria. I (and Coldplay) would argue that even if on repeated occasions, the Coldplay song has a couple of note progressions that sound similar to a a couple of note progressions in Satch’s song, that they are not “substantial” enough to constitute plagiarism.
Here’s how they are substantially different. “Viva” is in the key of F minor, while “Fly” is in B minor (as best I can tell). “Viva’s” verse and chorus music stays in the same key, while “Fly’s” verses and choruses are noticeably different in notes and chords (verses: G-F#, G-F#-B; chorus:E-A-D-B; post-chorus/outro bass notes: G-A, A-F#-G).
But even if one were to do what a YouTube user did–deceptively speed up “Viva La Vida” one half step and lower the original pitch of Satch’s song by six half steps to make them unnaturally sound alike–you would still hear that no more than 3 consecutive notes in Satch’s expressive riffs in “Fly” (starting at the :49-second mark and again at the 2-minute mark) and Coldplay leader Chris Martin’s vocals in “Viva” seem to match up note-for-note, beat-for-beat at any time. And here is the key: that is ONLY if you cut out Martin’s repeating the first note multiple times with different lyrics at the start of each verse line and ignore any notes Martin sings to continue the melody after hitting those three common notes.
The truth is, you have to evaluate someone’s ENTIRE melodic progression, from start to finish, to fairly judge it as a ripoff or not of another’s work.
So maybe you (or Joe) are thinking, it’s not just Martin’s vocals allegedly mimicking Satch’s guitar licks that I hear, it’s the song’s chord progressions that are similar. Well, let’s look at that too.
First of all, Coldplay’s and Satch’s rhythm sections are constructed differently. While Satriani has a regular drummer laying down a steady beat on “Fly,” Coldplay has a constant, almost techno-like beat going throughout “Viva.”
On bass, Satriani’s song has a deeper sound, courtesy of a five-string, while Coldplay uses a standard four-string bass, which lays down considerably lighter notes on its tunes. And as far as guitar is concerned, there are no guitar chord progressions in “Viva” to mimic Satriani’s, as Coldplay’s Johnny Buckland uses bright riffs and melodies to compliment the orchestral sound of his band’s hit. Satriani, on the other hand, uses acoustic guitar chords to compliment his electrifying electric guitar solos on “Fly.”
So where do the two songs’ non-vocal similarities begin and end? Perhaps “Viva’s” most used four consecutive bass notes sound similar to the four-part melodic progression in the two choruses of “If I Could Fly.” But even then, the actual bass notes on both tunes don’t come close to matching up, even if a couple of their intervals look similar..
“Viva’s” main bass line is Db-Eb-Ab-F. The intervals would then be up a major 2nd (Db-Eb), down a perfect 5th (Eb-Ab) and down a minor third (Ab-F). “Fly’s” relevant and repetitive (chorus) bass line around the :49 mark to about the 1:14 mark is E-A-D-B. The intervals would be up a perfect 4th (E-A), down a perfect fifth (A-D), and down a minor third (D-B).
Speaking of intervals, what people (and Satch) are hearing that they think is a ripoff is a common occurrence: two artists using the same consecutive interval steps as part of a melody. For Satch, at the :49 second mark and again at the 2-minute mark of “Fly,” he hits and rests an F# for 6 sixteenth notes/3 eighth notes long (on guitar) and then goes up one half step to G (a minor second interval), then down a minor third (1 and 1/2 steps) to E.
For Chris Martin and Coldplay, after repetitively singing C# anywhere from four to six times throughout “Viva,” he hits and rests a C# for 6 sixteenth notes/3 eighth notes long and then also goes up a half step (to D) and then down a minor third (to B) before singing other words and notes to finish his verse lines (aka his melodies). But again, you can’t separate that note progression (C#-D-B by Coldplay) from the rest of the melody. Context is everything, even in music.
There are probably hundreds if not thousands of pop, punk rock and blues-based songs out there that sound so much alike and that have many more consecutive notes and chords than these two. Musicians in those groups could reasonably accuse each other of being rip-off artists if they took the time to listen closely enough and think it’s worth it financially to go to court over.
Why Joe Satriani feels the need to seek a jury trial and recover profits over this one song that one could reasonably prove did not copy his material only he knows. Perhaps he lost patience with Coldplay and his legal team after not having his calls returned? Maybe he thinks the band’s silence on this issue proves they are guilty of stealing from him? Whatever the reason, it’s hardly justifiable. But hey, at least it’s not as laughable as little known band Creaky Boards’ similar claim from earlier this year that “Viva” rips one of their songs off. But they, unlike Satriani were wise enough not to sue.
So, that said, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the Satriani and Coldplay tracks and then compare them yourself – don’t evaluate them based on that highly misleading YouTube clip. I guarantee you’ll feel the same way I do that whatever brief similarities you’ll find, there is no copyright infringement to be found regarding “Viva La Vida.” This isn’t Vanilla Ice ripping off Queen/David Bowie we’re talking about.
In closing, it is my opinion that this lawsuit by Satriani is the biggest mistake he’s made in years, and he ought to be ashamed of himself for it, the same way The Rolling Stones ought to be ashamed of not allowing The Verve to make a penny on “Bittersweet Symphony” based on the younger band’s use of a sample of some obscure orchestral mix of the Stones song “The Last Time” that had little input from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
But it was also a mistake for Coldplay to wait so long to respond to Satch’s charges. They finally did the other day and not only rejected these plagiarism charges but called any similarities between their works as “surprising” to them as they were to the instrumentalist and “entirely coincidental.” You can read Coldplay’s full statement on the band’s website. Now, Satriani ought to directly talk to the members of Coldplay about the charges and come to an understanding of each other’s work. Hopefully then, Joe Satriani will finally come to his senses and drop this ridiculous lawsuit altogether.
UPDATE: The case was dismissed from court and settled confidentially between the two parties, with Coldplay not being required to admit any wrongdoing.