Chris Martin – The Nocturnal English Dream State Writer
Growing up in a part of rural Southwest England, near Exeter in Devon, Chris Martin spent much of his childhood in a religious environment singing christian hymnals. Later, as his span of influence went beyond the church, he drew heavily on the music of A-Ha, the Black Crowes, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Oasis, U2, Travis, Radiohead, and even Michael Jackson.
While Martin has often stated that his best songs arrive from someplace else that he cannot explain (often around 2 am), he has also stated that he’s learned his craft and studied his influences quite thoroughly. Some of the albums that he’s broken down to sharpen his songwriting skill include Blood on the Tracks and Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan; A-ha‘s Hunting High and Low;Oasis’Definitely Maybe; and Radiohead‘s OK Computer.
While at University College London, Martin ultimately formed the band Coldplay with Jonny Buckland (guitar) and later Guy Berryman (bass) and Will Champion (drums). As a band Coldplay has gone on to sell over 100 million records, while collecting up 7 grammy awards from 32 nominations. Much of that success can be attributed to Martin’s great songwriting, coupled with choice musical parts and arrangements contributed by his band mates, particularly the lead guitar lines of Jonny Buckland. Martin also has writing credits with some other acts, including Avicii, Nelly Furtado, and Natalie Imbruglia, among others.
In this article, we break down three of Chris Martin’s writing techniques to better understand the Coldplay sound. We’ll take a look at
- (1) “melody cycles” which Martin often uses in the way he pieces melodies together for verses and choruses in his songs,
- (2) “somnambulant” writing, which pertains to accessing more dream-like lyrics and music from the deeper parts of the mind (Martin has a few tricks for that), and
- (3) some alternate tuning concepts that Martin often uses on his guitar parts to create a more ethereal and hypnotic sound. Hopefully, these little tricks will stimulate your own creativity and allow you to write some cool new material in that dreamy Coldplay vein.
Our first technique pertains to writing melodies for entire sections (verses, choruses, etc). Coldplay’s melodic construction often has a symmetrical quality to it that feels like a type of “melody cycle.” The way this works is there are often an even set of lines of lyrics set to melody (usually four lines). In the first three lines the melody is the same each time; however, the fourth line finishes the “cycle” by providing an alternate variation on the melody with a payoff aspect to it.
This melodic structure has three main benefits:
- (1) Balance – sonically it sounds organized and balanced;
- (2) Catchiness – this structure is somewhat predictable to the listener so it’s easier to recall the song (i.e. it’s catchier); and
- (3) Payoff – the cycle allows for a “payoff” with the final line that stands out from the other lines. Often the most important lyric is placed in this final line so as to put it in the spotlight.
The structure often looks a bit like this (with variations available, as discussed below):
Line 1 – This is the first line and it sounds really nice
Line 2 – This is the second as the melody cycles twice
Line 3 – The third line is similar, so as to entice
Payoff Line – So that this last line sticks out and is so very catchy
The other nice thing about writing in this style, is that if you get stuck on one of the lines (i.e. you can’t think of any lyrics), just use a place holder “dummy line” until the right lyric pops into your head. There’s a funny conversation with Martin from an interview he did with Rolling Stone magazine, where he and co-producer Brian Eno had a dummy line in Death and All His Friends of “I don’t want to watch too many episodes of Friends?” until finally Eno suggested “I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge,” which stuck (it’s at approximately 2 minutes 50 seconds into the song, if you want to listen).
Let’s take a look at a few examples from the Coldplay catalog to see some “melody cycles” in action. In order to appreciate this technique fully, I’d recommend listening to the tracks themselves, or you can watch the video demo I’ve provided from YouTube. As you listen, try to take note of the three (sometimes two) line set ups, and the final line payoff. A sort of jab, jab, jab, right hook approach (that’s a boxing reference, in case you missed it).
This example comes from the first verse of Fix You. The payoff line explains the most prevalent sentiment, i.e. feeling stuck in reverse. Recall, the payoff line has a different melody than the first three set up lines.
Line 1 – When you try your best but you don’t succeed
Line 2 – When you get what you want but not what you need
Line 3 – When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep
Payoff Line (melody shift) – Stuck in reverse
A similar approach happens in Hymn for the Weekend, a more recent track. Martin again uses his signature melody cycle in the first verse.
Line 1 – Oh, angel sent from up above
Line 2 – You know you make my world light up
Line 3 – When I was down, when I was hurt
Payoff Line (melody shift) – You came to lift me up.
The melody cycle can also take place in the chorus. Check out Coldplay’s break out hit Yellow. The most poignant lyric “you know I love you so” is placed in the payoff line spot as an echo of the third line in the chorus.
Line 1 – Your skin, oh yeah, your skin and bones
Line 2 – Turn into something beautiful
Line 3 – You know, you know I love you so
Payoff line – You know I love you so.
Here’s another variation on the melody cycle from the track Paradise. This is my favorite one. It’s an interesting spin on the technique because the cycle is located in the verse (with a 2 line set up, instead of 3), but the payoff line is a preview of the main hook of the song (“Para, para, paradise”). Not only that, the payoff line itself has a four part melodic structure/cycle with it’s own pay off line! Wait, what? It’s like a cycle within a cycle. Check it out:
Line 1 – When she was just a girl, she expected the world
Line 2 – But it flew away from her reach, so she ran away in her sleep (and dreamed of)
Payoff line (with built in second cycle!) – (1) Para-para-paradise, (2) para-para-paradise, (3) para-para-paradise . . . (4, payoff:) every time she closed her eyes.
Sky Full of Stars illustrates another way to create the cycle. This one has a little different structure (AABBA). It has two lines that match (AA), then two more lines that are different but match each other (BB), and then the payoff line returns to the original melody to spotlight the final line (A). Even though the hook is arguable “you’re a sky full of stars”, the last line “I think I saw you” really pops given the way it’s placed as the payoff and serves as a secondary hook.
Line 1 (A) – ‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars, I’m gonna give you my heart
Line 2 (A) – ‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars, ’cause you light up the dark
Line 3 (B) – I don’t care, go on and tear me apart Line 4 (B) – I don’t care if you do ooh ooh
Payoff Line (A) – ‘Cause in a sky, ’cause in a sky full of stars, I think I saw you
Here’s a final example, from my favorite Coldplay song Clocks. This variation is a little different too, since it has 4 set up lines, which then feed into the main hook “You are”.
Line 1 – The lights go out and I can’t be saved, tides that I tried to swim against
Line 2 – Have brought me down upon my knees, oh I beg, I beg and plead (singing)
Line 3 – Come out of the things unsaid, shoot an apple off my head (and a)
Line 4 – Trouble that can’t be named; a tiger’s waiting to be tamed (singing)
Hook – You are, you are
Summary & Exercise
Melody cycles provide a highly musical approach to writing songs. If you are having a hard time writing lyrics, but are very adept musically, consider using melody cycles in your writing to create some really solid infrastructure to write words. Basically, just write 2 or 3 lines that are the same and rhyme (but have different lyrics, of course), followed by a closing payoff line that has a different melody. You can even put dummy lines in the places where you can’t think of a good line, until something acceptable pops into your head. Melody cycles are great for co-writing too, because if you can create a cycle that sounds good (even just humming the melody), two or three people can take turns trying to fill in the lyrics one line at a time. You can also write several variations and then pick the ones you like the best.
One the most interesting characteristics of Martin’s writing is the dream-like nature of his lyrics. That is to say, many of his songs contain a sort of non-literal, image and emotion-driven approach to language that captures general and fragmented sentiments (rather than literal and linear story lines). This style is reminiscent of dream sequences where visuals can bounce from scene to scene and none of the ordinary rules of reality apply as our minds sort through the randomness of our psyches.
Similarly, Martin’s lyrics sometimes bounce from image to image in a non-linear way, drawing on all sorts of poetic, literary, and even religious imagery. However, notwithstanding the dreaminess of the lyric, the language is not so poetic as to lose total grip with reality. There always seems to be some key placement of lyrics that are more grounded in a specific underlying message or feeling, so that listeners can relate to the feeling underpinning the song.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of the lyric-writing to examine Martin’s style to see this dynamic in action. One benefit of this style is that it’s effective in allowing listeners to fill in the story with their own life experience while soaking up the imagery from Martin’s imagination.
Clocks for instance, has the following lyrics, which seem to capture a frantic and racing mind that ultimately accedes to the somewhat reverent phrase “You are”:
The lights go out and I can’t be saved
Tides that I tried to swim against
Have brought me down upon my knees
Oh I beg, I beg and plead, singing
Come out of the things unsaid
Shoot an apple off my head and a
Trouble that can’t be named
A tiger’s waiting to be tamed, singing
You are, You are
The lyrics jump from image to image, but also all seem to fit the mood of the song, i.e. one of contradictions and urgency. The lyrics are a bit cryptic in terms of what they mean. According to Jon Wiederhon of MTV News, the song is about the “helplessness of being in a dysfunctional relationship . . . [Martin] doesn’t necessarily want to escape.” However, the “You are” almost could be interpreted as being a reference to the omnipresence of a higher power, which brings relief from the chaotic collage of images, maybe harkening to Martin’s religious roots. In other words, the song has the capacity to be received and interpreted differently by listeners filling in their own meanings.
Here’s another example, from Spies, which has the following lyrics:
I awake to find no peace of mind
I said how do you live as a fugitive
Down here where I cannot see so clear
I said, what do I know
Show me the right way to go
And the spies came out of the water
But you’re feeling so bad ’cause you know
But the spies hide out in every corner
But you can’t touch them no, ’cause they’re all spies
They’re all spies
The lyrics are reminiscent of a bad dream having these odd references to spies coming out of the water. However, they seem to capture an aching sense of being a fugitive in ordinary society and not knowing the right way to live, and the imagery used really creates that sense of tension well. These, again, are not the types of things that are necessarily on a person’s mind in their ordinary everyday waking state. There’s a quasi-dreaminess about them.
How Does He Do It?
Chris Martin has been quoted as stating that he has two ways of entering into this sort of “somnambulant” state (sleep wake) to write songs. His first technique is to utilize a process he calls free-form writing, “where you take a pen and paper, and you just write anything for twelve minutes and then burn it. And it cleans your brain out. I got it from Einstein — not personally, of course. But that’s what I got told he used to do just to kind of free his brain up.” (C. Martin interview on Sirius XM). According to Martin, this process allows him to better access his creativity.
The second thing Martin does is to write for long periods of time, particularly writing late into the night (upwards of 2 and 3am). In one interview Martin with Rolling Stone Magazine, he stated that his “bad songs come from me and my knowledge of how to write songs” but the “good ones come from somewhere – I have no idea where. And they tend to be sort of flying around at about 2:00 in the morning . . . [y]ou just have to be there to catch it”. That’s not to say that the process is just some fleeting magical undertaking that happens in darkness of the night. To Martin, “craft is [still] really essential . . . that’s why most good musicians know a lot about other people’s music,” but you can’t design the best of ideas, those are just inspired from somewhere else that artist’s have to access.
Summary & Exercise
For Martin, he seems to stumble onto his best material in the middle of the night in a semi-sleep state (somnambulant) after playing and exploring music and words for extended periods of time. Whether you too will have success with your writing by entering into a sleep/wake state in unknown, but could be worth exploring if you really like Coldplay’s vibe. Maybe one night before bed try combining the free-form exercise of writing random stream of consciousness material for 12 minutes, tear it up, and then start writing a song letting your imagination drift with the images flowing through your consciousness.
Alternate Guitar Tunings
Another element that adds to some of the dream-like nature of Coldplay songs (especially their early stuff) is the role of alternate guitar tunings. In particular, if you’re a fan of Coldplay’s first record Parachutes, it features several different tracks with alternate tunings, Yellow, Shiver, Spies, and Sparks. To get the most out of this section, please be sure to watch the video. It’s difficult to communicate these guitar concepts with just text.
Yellow, which was written in the studio while Coldplay was tracking parts for Shiver, has the following tuning (as does Shiver): EABGBD#. The bold/underlined notes are the strings tuned to different notes. One thing to note about this particular tuning is that the lower strings, E and A are still in standard, and so are the G and B strings (strings 2 and 3). If you know how to play major and minor barre chords (with an E string root), then you’ll notice that these are the essential chord tones in a barre chord (the root, third, and fifth), with the E string, G string, and B string.
As a result, many of the shapes Martin uses are familiar to guitar players. The only difference is that he lets the alternately tuned strings ring out against the chords he plays to create that more interesting nuanced, and etherial sound. Please see the video demos to hear what that sounds like.
As the chord shapes shift about, the open strings create all kinds of cool accenting tones relative to each new chord shape. The added color really gives the songs more feeling and sells the underlying emotion of the song.
Sparks employs a similar approach, but has the following tuning: EADGBD, where only the high E string is tuned differently. This allows for the last three strings (GBD) to make a little G triad chord that pretty much rings out the whole time as Martin changes the low sounding strings into other chord shapes. This allows for some beautiful extension harmony in the upper register of the guitar, against the movement of the bass sounds. It adds this open, airy sound that matches the pensive vibe of the track.
Another great alternate tuning song comes from the album X&Y, titles ‘Til Kingdom Come. This one employs a little different strategy, that has the following tuning: CACGBE. This open sounding tuning has a drone-like sound that allows the lowest string to serve as a pedal point bass note. All the chords ring against this lower bass note to allow for a more melodic approach to playing chords. Martin also uses some interesting shapes to accommodate some of the chord changes that move away from the pedal point C note. When he shifts to Am, he plays the open A string as the bass note. He plays the F and G chords on the 5th and 7th frets of the E string (now tuned down to C, of course).
Summary & Exercise
You don’t have to use these specific alternate tunings exactly the way Chris Martin does, but maybe try them out and see if anything cool happens. You can also make up your own alternate tunings and see what happens. Alternate tunings are a great way to open up your creativity on the instrument if you feel stuck playing the same thing all the time on guitar, without resorting to more advanced guitar technique per se.
Hopefully these tips will give you some ideas to try out with your writing. You can use one or more of them at the same time and see what works best for you. Don’t worry if you don’t assimilate all of this material into your process, it’s just meant to stimulate your creativeness. Ultimately, you will need to determine what works best for your own writing.
Also, remember not to overthink things and have fun with this stuff. In the words of Chris Martin himself, “[m]usic to me comes from somewhere that I can’t really explain . . . sometimes songs come through, and you’re like, ‘where did that come from.’ And, you’re blessed if that happens.” Best of luck to you in your writing!
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