Coldplay vs. Joe Satriani :: Who Owns the Descending Melody?

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Say what you will about Coldplay, they know how to write a good melody.  In the middle of 2008, they released “Viva la Vida”, a tune so catchy it made its way to the number one slot of both the U.S. and U.K. charts, a first for the band.  When you find yourself dancing in silhouette in an Apple commercial, you have achieved something notable.

There is a rub, though.  That opening melody was catchy enough to attract the attention of guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani who, hearing a striking similarity to a riff in his earlier composition “If I Could Fly”, decided to sue Coldplay for plagiarism.  Here is the part alleged to have been stolen:

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But why stop with Coldplay?  If Mr. Satriani would cast his net a bit wider, he might have the potential for an even larger payout.  To begin with, he might take a hard listen to Brooklyn indie band Creaky Boards’ “The Song I Didn’t Write”.  As if the title weren’t damning enough, here’s an excerpt:

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And while Satriani is at it, isn’t Euro-satirist Gunther just asking for trouble with his “Teeny Weeny String Bikini”?

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But I would not suggest he delve too deeply into the musical archives or he might discover “Frances Limon” from Argentine rock group Los Enanitos Verdes which – oops! – predates Satriani’s own noodling by a few years:

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It gets worse for Satriani’s case.  Digging back to 1981, we find “Hearts” by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin:

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And a decade earlier, Cat Stevens released “Love/Heaven”:

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I will not burden you with the music-theoretical details, but the fact is the vast majority of Western music relies on chord progressions that make ascending and descending melodies all but inevitable.  One can quibble about similarities of ornamentation and rhythm, but these all boil down to variations on one of the most common melodic structures in music.   And lest we think this pattern is unique to recent pop music, I give you a jazz standard with the same general idea, “Everything Happens to Me” written by Matt Davis in 1940 and performed here by Chet Baker:

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Perhaps there is a Renaissance music scholar out there who knows of an eerily similar lute melody?  Fortunately for Mr. Satriani, any copyright on that one will have long since expired.

UPDATE: Commenter Tim points out another similar tune, “Pounding” by Doves (circa 2002):

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UPDATE 2: Still convinced the melodies are the same?  Check out the transcribed melodies and a stereo overlay of the phrases in question.

January 31, 2009 9:14 pm