In this article, I’ll be looking back at the Joe Satriani Coldplay incident from the late 00s. Was this really that long ago? I’d just started guitar lessons. I remember walking into the local music store where my lessons were based and seeing a bunch of battle-hardened musicians gathered around an old CRT computer monitor that was hooked up to one of those white PC towers and a 4×12 cab. I wasn’t sure what they were doing but I soon discovered that they were comparing two songs.
The songs that they were comparing were the instrumental If I Could Fly by Joe Satriani and Viva la Vida by Coldplay. I hadn’t long embarked on my musical journey at that point. I’d heard the Coldplay song but despite being introduced to the wonders of Joe Satraini’s guitar playing, I hadn’t heard If I Could Fly.
There was debate amongst the store cronies, but it seemed a fairly straightforward case to me. The songs had melodies that sounded on the service level, very similar indeed. It was case closed as far as I was concerned. My newly found hero had been ripped off by that typical mundane 4 chords of pop amazing musician wanna be group. But was I correct? It seems that Joe Satriani thought so
The Joe Satriani Coldplay copyright saga – What the parties said
The Joe Satriani Coldplay saga wasn’t just a bunch of people online saying, “what a rip off” vs a bunch of other people saying “no, it’s not”. This matter resulted in a court case and the comments from Satriani suggest that he had strong feelings on the matter.
Joe Satriani told Music Radar the following.
“I felt like a dagger went right through my heart. It hurt so much.”
“The second I heard it; I knew it was If I Could Fly”.
“Almost immediately, from the minute their song came out, my email box flooded with people going, have you heard this song by Coldplay? They ripped you off man. I mean, I couldn’t tell you how many emails I received”.
Satriani is also quoted over at Rolling Stone Magazine as follows.
“I spent so long writing the song, thinking about it, loving it, nursing it and then finally recording it and standing on stages the world over playing it – and then somebody comes along and plays the exact same song and calls it their own.”
These comments from Joe are strong and emotive. You can tell that he legitimately feels like there was wrongdoing.
The response that I found from Coldplay simply stated that they’d never heard If I Could Fly which they described as a song that “lacked originality”.
I know little of music related law and copyright court cases, but I’d imagine that the “I’ve not even heard it” argument would be the first one that a defendant would go to. As for the last statement regarding a lack of originality, probably not the cleverest thing to say if you’re being accused of copying it, I guess. That said, they could have made the “I’ve never heard it” claim simply because it was true.
Satriani’s comments are passionate. The Coldplay comment comes across horribly in my opinion. It stinks of “we are the music overlords. You are some guy that nobody has heard of”.
All of this is irrelevant though I guess because it was to be settled in the court room.
The Joe Satriani Coldplay copyright saga – the court case
The Joe Satriani Coldplay copyright court case was inconclusive. Sort of. The case was dismissed with the suggestion that an out of court settlement was reached between the two parties.
It’s unknown what this settlement was but it seems Coldplay did not have to admit any wrongdoing and as far as I’m aware, a settlement has not been revealed. Again, I’m not expert in music law or any type of law but I’d imagine that some form of non-disclosure agreement would have been included in any settlement?
I guess we’ll have to wonder, did Coldplay offer a settlement to avoid being found guilty of plagiarism? Or, did Satriani accept, assuming the case would not go his way in the end?
If you ask me, I’d lean toward the former. If I were accused of stealing somebody else’s work, I would not settle. I wouldn’t let any person alive make the assumption that I just made but officially, the case was dismissed and Coldplay did no steal Joe Satriani’s work.
Making myself the judge
I’d like to enter a parallel universe now. In this universe, the case is just reaching the court room today. The court room is mine, I’m the judge, and here is what I’m looking to find.
I’m simply looking to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Coldplay knowingly and intentionally stole the work of Joe Satirani.
To me, this case is quite simple. Satriani’s If I Could Fly clearly predates the Coldplay track in question but as I mentioned earlier, Coldplay claim never to have heard Satriani’s instrumental song.
Is that an unreasonable claim? You could look at it in two ways. I mentioned at the start that I’d never heard the track prior to me starting guitar lessons. I’d never even heard of Joe Satriani until his work was introduced to me.
It’s therefore only fair to say that it’s reasonable that a casual music listener hasn’t heard of Satirani and if they had, they haven’t necessarily heard this particular track.
Joe Satriani is one of the greatest guitar players of all time, but I wouldn’t class him as a mainstream act.
Coldplay are not casual music listeners though. They’re professional musicians. They would have surely heard of Joe Satriani.
They never claimed to have never heard of Satriani though. They claim to have not heard If I Could Fly.
If you’ve heard of a band / music artist, but you aren’t particularly a fan, you won’t have listened to most of their discography. Even if you are a huge fan of a band / artist, the chances of you being familiar with everything they’ve recorded are slim to none. I’m a big Beatles fan. I’ve not heard even Beatles recording.
Coldplay’s claim is therefore reasonable, so we only really have one place to go in order to prove wrongdoing. The music.
The Joe Satriani Coldplay copyright saga – song vs song
It’s not for the first time that I now mention that I know nothing of how these cases are decided in the real world. Well, that doesn’t matter. This is my court and I’m the judge. I’m looking for multiple undeniable similarities that will convince me that Viva la Vida was a rip off. I’m not looking for coincidences.
Groove and Tempo
The first thing that becomes apparent when you listen to the two tracks in question is that there’s an immediately obvious similarity in two fundamental areas. The groove and the tempo.
They both share an almost identical tempo at what seems to be around 135 beats per minute and they both share a similar groove or feel.
These elements are similar, but without further similarities, there’s not much point in them being here. Oceans of music is composed with this feel / groove and galaxies of music is composed with this tempo.
But are these elements just an Ace of Spades in a bigger tower of cards?
Satriani’s chorus vs Coldplay’s verse
Let’s dive deeper into these songs. Let me get this out there. This is not a music theory lesson so huge explanations and analytics the length of a dictionary won’t be found here. What I’m trying to establish is whether there are similarities in what we hear and in the compositions generally and whether those similarities add up so much that they suggest theft.
The contention seems to be between the Viva la Vida verse and the If I Could Fly chorus parts. At least, that’s what caught my ear. We’ve looked at groove and tempo so for me, there’s two elements left. The rhythm and the melody. Let’s start with the rhythm.
Coldplay’s Viva la Vida is in the key of A flat major. Joe Satriani’s If I Could Fly is in the key of D major. The chords therefore won’t match up as such, but we can still see if there’s a pattern.
Notes of the A flat major scale
Ab Bb c Db Eb F G
Notes of the D major scale
D E F# G A B C#
The chords to the passage in question for the Coldplay song are Db Eb Ab Fm. The chords from the Satriani song are Em7 A Dmaj7sus2 Bm.
There is no pattern there on the surface but the musically educated amongst you may have spotted something. Maybe even two things.
For the musicians who haven’t spotted it, use your Roman numeral system (applying a Roman numeral to each degree of the scale). For those who don’t have that knowledge don’t worry. I’m going to show you now anyway.
When we disregard the keys and focus on the chord progressions, the two sets of chords start to look rather similar.
Coldplay’s chord progression is IV V I vi and Satriani’s chord progression is ii V I vi.
The songs are in different keys, but 3 of the 4 chords effectively match. They’re flavoured differently, and they’re in different keys, but if you play them, they’ll sound the same and if you transposed one of the tracks to the key of the other, they’d sound even more similar. I’ve just done it. Try it yourself.
It doesn’t end there though
Look at the chords that are different. It’s the chords at the start. The ii and the IV. Substituting the II and the IV chord is not exactly unheard of. The chords share common tones. They’re relatives.
Granted, it’s not as simple as “swap chord X for chord Y”, but the evidence is beginning to pile up.
Or is it?
I certainly think that the two progressions sound the same, but it’s hardly like anyone can claim that these two songs are the first to feature a sequence of chords like this. Perhaps the chord progression or progressions depending on how you see it, isn’t (or aren’t) unique enough for this evidence to be considered strong.
Joe Satriani Coldplay – showdown of the melodies
I think that the melodies can be judged with your ears. There are differences between the two but what sticks out to me is the bits that are the same. If you were to transpose the songs into the same key, you’ll find that at times, the melody notes and also the rhythm of those notes are the same.
This isn’t the case on a note by note basis, it isn’t a carbon copy, but there is enough there to warrant the original court case and the truth is, it was never going to be a carbon copy. Satriani’s piece is instrumental guitar and the Coldplay melody is vocal. The phrasing was always going to be different but the parts that are the same are spooky.
Could these melody similarities just be coincidence though? I love the melody of the Satriani song, but it’s not insanely distinctive but are the similarities too close for comfort? I think it’s about time we wrapped this up.
Apologies for not breaking this down as I did with the chord part. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the chords aren’t as easy to hear as the melody and secondly, there’s not much to say regarding the melody other than, this note is the same as that note. You can hear when that’s the case despite the tracks being in different keys.
So, did Coldplay rip off Joe Satriani? What’s my verdict?
I’d suggest that we have to completely disregard the first two points. This appears to come down to one word against another, so we’ll rely on the music as stated earlier.
You as a reader can ultimately draw your own conclusion from this article but I won’t sit on the fence. That’s no fun.
With the admittedly small amount of analysis I’ve undertaken, I have found that the later song matches elements of the earlier one in every test to some degree.
Yes, this could all be complete coincidence and to be honest, I hope that it is. That said, I simply can’t ignore the fact that there’s matches in tempo, groove, rhythm and melody. I’ve looked at 4 major elements of what makes up a song and on all 4 occasions, there’s something fishy.
I’m not saying more than that as I may very well be wrong on this. I hope I’m wrong. What do you think?
That about wraps things up for the Joe Satriani Coldplay saga. I know, I’m a big Satch mark. Even my last guitar lesson was a Joe Satriani song. Click here for the Tears in the Rain TAB and guitar lesson. Something else you may find interesting is the first article in a series of articles which provides guitar tips and advice based on questions from the guitar community. Be sure to check that out.
Hello. My name is Ryan J Mellor and I play the guitar. I’m also the creator of Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat. I’ve ben a guitarist for many years and my guitar playing has been described as “above average”. My guitar and music knowledge is somewhat impressive but most importantly, I have a passion for creating great guitar and music related content.