Friday, December 12, 2008

Joe Satriani Vs. Coldplay: A Tale Of Two Songs

Note: First published on this morning

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, but no more than a few seconds worth. 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 “Viva” and “Fly” are “substantially” different tunes, and one of the first ways you can tell is that these two songs are written in totally different keys and ways. 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 3-4 consecutive notes (C#-to-D-to-B flat-to-B flat) in Satch’s expressive riffs in “Fly” and Coldplay leader Chris Martin’s vocals in “Viva” seem to match up note-for-note at any time.

The truth is, at no point do any notes from either composition in its original form match up note-for-note and only on a couple of occasions do you hear similarities between Coldplay’s vocals and Satch’s guitar work, starting at the :49-second mark of “If I Could Fly” (which is effectively the tune’s chorus) and later at around the 2-minute mark, where briefly Satriani’s riffs sound similar to but not exactly like what Coldplay singer Chris Martin sings during “Viva’s” verses.

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 songs’ 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 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” four consecutive bass notes on its chorus 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.

There are probably hundreds if not thousands of punk rock and blues-based songs out there that sound so much alike that musicians in those groups could reasonably accuse each other of being rip-off artists if they took the time to listen closely enough. 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.


Dawn said...

Listen to 'Hearts' by Marty Balin (released in the early 80's). He should sue Satriani.

ex-employee said...

Great analysis of the issue and complete agree with your logic. There's so many things UNSIMILAR with each piece that I find it very hard to believe that Chris Martin even LISTENs to Joe Satriani to even begin with.

Charlie D. said...

Thanks Dawn and ex-employee. But Dawn, I've listened to the Balin track on YouTube and i have to say, after the beginning of it, (after a few seconds actually), "Hearts" trails off to a different set of melodies than what Satriani writes on "If I Could Fly."

Remember, plagiarism charges mean one artist intentionally copies from another artist "substantially" and has access to the original artists' work. As ex-employee says, it's hard to believe Coldplay even listened to Joe Satriani, let alone copied his work in any way, whether intentional or not.

Blake Simpson said...

Copyright law is pretty straightforward: If you lift seven or more notes of a melody (the best legally-protected part of a song), then you're running afoul. It has nothing, repeat: NOTHING to do with arrangement, instrumentation, or even chord progressions. (Try A/B'ing "Let It Be" with The Who's "905" and see how the two greatest English bassists think alike.) Chris Martin very possibly overheard Satch somewhere than his own iPod, but clearly never intended to plagiarize. It's even intrinsically possible that he and Satch came up with the melody independently. Still, Coldplay is at a decided disadvantage, their legal team notwithstanding. If Gloria and Emilio Estefan ever hear a certain song I wrote for Jaime Murrell, my publisher could be in trouble, since I used nine notes of one of their songs due to my own carelessness. But please, let's forget all this nonsense about style, arrangements, etc. As a highly successful songwriter friend of mine once said, "In the jungle of songwriting, melody is king!"

Charlie D. said...

Sorry Blake, but you are wrong in saying arrangement has nothing to do with melody. Here's the definition of it from "A pleasing succession or arrangement of sounds." How else would you get a succession of notes to make a melody with an "arrangement"?

Also, explain how Coldplay is at a "disadvantage" here. They wrote "Viva" in Eb standard tuning, while Satriani wrote "Fly" in standard E tuning. Which means it is nearly impossible for both songs to mimic any succession of notes, let alone seven.

As I stated in my article, I found only a 3-4 succession of notes that sounded similar at any point, but they never match up note for note.

Example: Chris Martin sings C#(x4)-D-Bb when his vocals come in at the start of "Viva" (then repeats Bb before trailing off to a lower vocal register). Satriani's guitar sound at :49 seconds of "If I Could Fly" has this succession of notes: F#-G-E (then plays a D-E riff before playing other notes).

There aren't any other successions of notes between the two songs anywhere near close to copying each other. As I explained elsewhere, Satriani's bass parts for the two 26-seconds-long choruses of "Fly," starting at :49 seconds and 1:45 seconds are: E-G-A-D-B, while Coldplay's "Viva" bass goes like this for much of the song: Db-Eb-Ab-F.

Thus, there is nothing there even remotely close to copyright infringement. I don't know what Joe Satriani was smoking or thinking when he filed this lawsuit, but he's going to lose it big time. And that's a shame because I love the guy's work.