On The Trickle-Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics V: Coldplay’s “A Sky Full Of Stars”

Though it has been fashionable to criticize the English band Coldplay for one reason or another–they’ve been too popular, their music is too sentimental, their singer Chris Martin overuses his falsetto voice–they do what they do well. Their music uses pop materials precisely, and for many listeners, Martin’s concise and catchy vocal melodies are worth the price of admission. As my wife pointed out the other night as we watched the band play two new songs on SNL, while publicly disliking Coldplay has become a kind of meme (see here and here), the band is tight. They do what they do well.

Like other guitar-bass-keyboard-drums bands, Coldplay is also not immune to the changing fashions of popular music. In fact, their recent single, “A Sky Full Of Stars” could be mistaken for a bona fide piece of electronic dance music. A few observations in this regard. First, the tempo of the song is a sprightly 122 bpm–just a few clicks below dance music’s optimal pace range. Second, the song’s harmonic glue is a syncopated, repeating keyboard ostinato that cycles through four chords, each for one measure. (In fact, the ostinato is identical to a well-known African bell timeline pattern: long-short-long-long-short.) Third, the keyboard part undergoes a series of filter sweeps that alter its timbre and adds a sense of tension and forward motion. Fourth, the drumset part is reduced down to a four-on-the-flour kick drum that seems designed for DJ sound systems. (Good luck finding tom-tom fills and cymbal crashes on this track.) Finally, the guitar and bass parts are relegated to secondary roles, effectively decorating that pulsating keyboard part and floating above the kick drum. And the vocals? They’re pared down too–emphasizing a few short, repeated phrases. All in all, there’s constant variation that makes the song build and build.

What I find interesting here is how rock band instrumentation is adapting to the different aesthetic needs of electronic dance music. Coldplay do their adapting well enough that one hardly notices it happening. Still though, there are concessions to the exigencies of pop songwriting. “A Sky Full Of Stars” ends with the band moving to four new chords, as if to provide a sense of song going finally somewhere, at least for its rousing conclusion–in effect saying, We’re not completely dance music yet!


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