10.10.2008

"Violet Hill," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:45 am

About the same time I fell in love with “Viva La Vida,” I also came to particularly enjoy “Violet Hill,” which is the track immediately following it (track eight). “Violet Hill” was the first single off the album, and also represents a departure from Coldplay’s past style into the brave new world of Viva La Vida. Again, I will make a quick mention of the lyrics, but say nothing besides “they’re really awesome.”

“Violet Hill” begins with 35 seconds of swirling atmospherics, again Brian Eno‘s ambient/electronic influence. At the 35-second mark, the voice enters, accompanied by a quarter-note-pounding piano in C-sharp minor. The rest of the band comes in a few lines later, with a similar pounding pulse feeling. The fun thing about this song is that based on the general feel of the music and the piano and melody, you might expect it to be a mellow piano ballad; but instead it’s a hard-hitting rock song that (again) I rock out to in the car all the time.

The quarter-note pulse pervades the song, particularly in the “interludes” after the refrain line “If you love me won’t you let me know?,” which consist of eight identical quarter hits–two measures–with nothing in between, just 1! 2! 3! 4! 5! 6! 7! 8! An excellent use of musical space, and a great use of musical energy as well.

The song ends with a quiet coda, the voice accompanied only by a soft, tender piano. (The lyrics to this coda are very good, as well–I love the rhyme of “Violet Hill” with “silent still.”) There is a chord progression detail here which perfectly indicates a musical principle I learned in college, though unfortunately I’m unable to attribute it to its source because I can’t recall its source. The principle is that when writing music, you set up expectations in the listener–based on what happens, the listener expects certain things to happen next. Then, you balance fulfilling those expectations with thwarting the expectations by doing something else. The refrain line mentioned above concludes, in all parts of the song except the coda, with the following progression: C-sharp minor – B major – C-sharp minor (which in the piece is i – VII – i*). Because of the way the rhythm and the melody frame this progression, it sets up the expectation of a deceptive cadence, following the progression C-sharp minor – B major – A major (the VI chord). But the song frustrates this expectation by resolving instead right back up to the C-sharp minor chord. This happens three times (it’s right before the “interludes” mentioned above; the second C-sharp minor chord is the one hammered on eight times). However, in the coda, with only the piano accompanying the voice, the expectation is finally met: the B chord resolves down to the A major, setting up a “tagged” repetition of the last line, ending on the C-sharp minor. I’m sorry if that was a bit technical–I think if you listen to the song, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Again, this song leaves me wanting more, since minus the 35-second introduction it’s really only three minutes long. But oh, what a rocking three minutes.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

* If there are any classically trained musicians who read this blog, they may object that the major flat seven chord doesn’t really exist in a minor key. But if we’re being honest, it’s used in pop music all the time, and it really does function as a VII, not as a V/III. Sometimes you just have to accept the way things really are, and not as they appear in music textbooks. (And sometimes you have to hope that at least one reader–just one!–actually knows what the heck you’re talking about.)

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