So josh and i were having an interesting conversation about Satch suing Coldplay for copying his song If I Could Fly with their song Viva La Vida. Now this post isn’t a personal attack against josh and neither is this me saying that all Coldplay fans should die. I just thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to put forth some opinions that i believe everyone should take a second look at. I hope i don’t come across as overly confrontational or elitist.
Firstly, to establish the context of this post i have to talk about whether Coldplay did or did not copy Satch. Many people admit that okay fine the songs sound a tad similar, so why is Satch suing Coldplay? I think that similarities are fine, but it becomes an issue if two songs are uncannily similar. Sure, there are many songs out there that have been ripped off one another, but in this case, the similarities speak for themselves. What then, is so similar about both songs? Since this involved a lawsuit there has to be some kind of evidence to back up Satch’s claim doesn’t there? And the evidence can be found in the music theory. (for those who think that music theory is a bore and waste of time, just skip the following part)
The essential similarity lies in the chord progression of the chorus of Satch’s song with the verse of Coldplay’s song. Sure, both songs are in different keys. But the thing about transposing songs from one key to another is that the song in actuality still sounds the same.
Eg. Dm7 Cmaj7 Fmaj7 in the key of C sounds almost identical to Fm7 Ebmaj7 Abmaj7 in the key of Eb. (try it yourself)
This also means that while the songs are in different keys, they are in actuality not different at all.
With regards to harmonic structure, both chord progressions are identical. What exactly is harmonic structure? Within each diatonic key, each chord has its own name. The first (root) chord is known as the I chord, the second chord the II chord, the third chord the III chord and so on.
The most common structure of chord progressions is the I IV V progression. So in C, this would be C F G. The I IV V progression is important to know because it establishes the tonality of the key that you’re in. In layman terms, it is what makes the key of C sound like the key of C.
Moving on, these are the harmonic structures of the two songs.
Viva La Vida: VI VII III I
If I Could Fly: IV VII III I
Now, you’ll notice that there’s a difference between the first chord in both progressions. While this looks like a difference, it is actually not, because both the VI chord and the IV chord perform the same function and are perfectly substitutable. What this means that if you have a progression of Dm F G in the key of C, it would sound almost identical if you played Dm Am G instead, substituting the IV chord F with the VI chord Am. Why is this so?
Diatonic Chord Substitution in music theory states that within each diatonic key, the 7 chords can each be divided into 3 different families.
For minor keys (since both songs are in minor keys Fm and Bm),
i) Tonic: I chord & III chord
ii) Subdominant: IV chord, II chord & VI chord
iii) Dominant family: V chord & VII
The chords that appear in each family can be substituted for one another to subtly change the sound of the progression. In essence, the progression has not changed at all.
This means that all Coldplay has done is to substitue a IV chord for a VI chord, hence the uncanny similarities in sound. And this is just the start. The melody itself is almost identical when transposed to the same key, but there is a video of it on youtube if you’re interested. And i’ve tried to put this in a way that even a lay person would be able to understand.
But that’s not really the point of this post. What has irked me the most about this entire fiasco is the amount of prejudice that has been unearthed against instrumental music. People say things like, who the hell is this Joe Satriani guy? The ones making real music is Coldplay. Why? Because their songs have lyrics?
The truth of the matter is that the fact that Coldplay’s song Viva La Vida has topped music charts is evidence enough of Satch’s genius (given my belief that Coldplay copied Satch). So why then isn’t he famous? Because mainstream listeners dismiss instrumental music as not proper music, or unworthy of a listen. Prejudice.
People claim that instrumental rock is just one long guitar solo. Now that’s just nonsense. Sure the whole song is played with guitar, but does that make it one long guitar solo? Satch has been credited for re-injecting life into instrumental rock because his songs actually sound like songs. That is to say that his songs contain Verses, a Chorus, a Bridge, a Solo etc. Anyone who has given his music a chance will know that. And that goes for every other instrumental musician out there. So why the prejudice? A melody is still a melody regardless of whether there are lyrics put to it.
I think that people seek solace in lyrics because sometimes when you don’t know how you feel, you look to songs to tell you how you’re feeling. But that’s not to say that instrumental music has no emotional dimension to it. You have to admit it, people dismiss unconventional forms of music too quickly. They don’t give it a chance. What has pissed me off about the incident is not only the fact that Satch is getting the credit that he so rightly deserves, but that it has unearthed and made clear the prejudice that society holds against music. That’s why i dislike mainstream music so much. It appeals to the close minded.
I’m actually running a fever right now so i’ve kinda forgotten half the other things that i want to talk about so forgive the abrupt end.
Now if i’ve made any harsh judgments, please feel free to clarify them with me. If you have questions about the theoretical aspects of this post, i’ll be happy to explain them to you. Some of you skeptics at this point may say, so what the chord progression is identical? If you think that this is not proof enough, please be reminded that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The lawsuit has been settled out of court not because Satch does not have the evidence, but only because the outcomes of such lawsuits are ruled with a jury. How the hell are you supposed to explain all this to an non-musically educated, not to mentioned prejudiced jury of lay people?
No hard feelings Julian. A well written argument with solid theory based evidence for Satriani. Firstly, I must say I definitely do not look down on Satriani. I have a lot of respect for him. I think he is the best guitarist out there in terms of creativity and playing. He knows that speed is not all that determines how good a guitarist is, which I fully agree. I have bought a CD (yes I actually spend money of music) of his, fully instrumental and every song from start to end is fantastic and creative. He truly can make the guitar sing with his effects and flawless playing.
Secondly, I also detest people, ok detest is a very strong word, who look down on instrumental music. These people cannot fully appreciate music and what it entails: that is to be able to appreciate a wide range of genre’s of music. Nonetheless, I myself struggle to appreciate techno, Chinese/Korean/Japanese and hard core metal aka death metal. However, I try my very best to see the creativity in every piece of music I listen to. Thus, you will find that my iTunes library has almost all kinds of music in it.
Ok back to main argument, I agree wholeheartedly that BOTH Coldplay’s Viva la Vida and Satriani’s If I could fly are similar as what you say above. However, I must say one thing first. Coldplay has no qualms whatsoever giving credit where credit is due. They have in fact credited Kraftwerk for their riff that is used in their song Talk, on the album X&Y. That riff is repeated throughout the song and is what makes the song. Without it, Talk simply cannot Talk. Coldplay thus has absolutely no issues with giving credit where it is due.
I, or nobody except Coldplay themselves can say whether they consciously or unconsciously copied from Satriani. For everybody’s info, the judge ruled in favour of The Chiffons who claimed that George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord” was a copy of their song “He’s so fine”. The judge said that plagiarism, consciously or unconsciously was still plagiarism. So why am I shooting myself in the foot for by quoting this piece of evidence? I am making a point that Satriani had all right to sue Coldplay for plagiarism. However, I can only speculate that the discussion between Coldplay and Satriani has made him realise that Coldplay has indeed unconsciously copied him and it was just a big misunderstanding. I hardly think that Coldplay would pull a stunt like this hoping that nobody would notice. Nonetheless, this thus not absolve Coldplay for their sins, but Satriani realised that the music industry and him had more to gain from dropping the lawsuit.
Firstly, imagined if Satriani had decided to push through with the lawsuit and actually won, the whole music industry is going to come down with musicians suing each other left, right and centre. Secondly, Satriani does not need the money neither does he need the recognition. He is already well respected in the industry and I’m pretty sure he has enough money. Thirdly, doing this will probably bring down the reputation of Coldplay and I don’t think Satriani would want to have that on his conscience.
Also, there was another relatively unknown band that claimed that Coldplay copied their song. Why didn’t Satriani sue them as well since he was going to sue Coldplay?
I believe that Coldplay and Satriani have come to a compromise on this issue and decided that continuing the lawsuit would be ugly for both of them. Time maybe can tell what the exact terms of the settlement is.
Like Julian, if I have said anything that you strongly disagree on or have grossly misinterpreted or made any harsh judgements, please leave a comment.
Anyway Julian, no hard feelings,just a good discussion with you. BTW, good work on the theoretical explanation, even though I’m struggling to fully comprehend it. :)
EDIT: I forgot to add. I hope that in time to come, Coldplay would admit that they have copied from Satriani, whether consciously ( I hardly think so though) or unconsciously. It’s only gentlemanly to do that.