Music education always & always looking forward.

Changing the Mix: Mixolydian Mode in Coldplay's "Clocks"

One of the world's biggest bands got to be so big because of a song in Mixolydian mode.


I've been scouring guitar forums for years to find songs for this project. My daughter is three now, and I wonder what on earth I did before I spent entire Saturdays persuading her to use the toilet and entire Saturday nights folding her laundry. Then I remember: I made weird search inquiries and landed in old guitar forum posts that talked about modulations, modes, Picardy thirds, songs in 7/4, etc. I was going to force myself to come up with 200 songs (a number I've still not reached) to write about for my Directed Independent Study before I went off to London for my last semester of grad school. I spent hours, days, full nights up, sitting on our old CPU in what is now my daughter's room, writing wiki entries and finding songs with cool theory stuff in them. 

But this song didn't come up during my first searches. Only this past summer did I find myself searching for modal playlists on Spotify. And then this came up on a list of Mixolydian mode songs, and I said aloud to myself, "Of course it is!" When you've been familiarizing yourself with Mixolydian mode songs, then you merely think about this song -- which was omnipresent in my college years, and yes, I even owned A Rush of Blood to the Head and would put it on replay in my CD changer for days -- you hear the Mixolydianyness immediately. Don't you now?

Intro: Officially one of the biggest selling popular music acts of the modern recording era and holder of several UK sales records, Coldplay is a nearly inescapable band. Although they broke through in both the US & the UK with their debut album, 2000's Parachutes and its smash single, "Yellow", some would say that it was "Clocks" that cemented the band's legacy. Released as the second single in the US to the band's sophomore album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, "Clocks" won enormous acclaim by critics and received the 2004 Grammy for Record of the Year. (A Rush of Blood to the Head also won the BRIT award for Best British Album and a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2003.) The success of "Clocks", both abroad and at home, helped propel A Rush of Blood to the Head to stay on both the UK & US charts for two full years (2002-2004) and sell 12 million copies worldwide, making it the eighth biggest selling UK album of the twenty-first century and the 31st biggest selling UK album of all time. Coldplay has gone on to massive continued success, winning eight additional BRIT awards and five additional Grammys. They are still selling out arenas and putting out well-received & high-selling albums. 

Analysis: The opening arpeggiated piano chords of the song are unmistakable, and that may be partially due to the fact that the chord progression avoids traditional cadences. The song, which seems like it should be in Ab major, starts on an Eb chord, moving from Eb - Bb minor - F minor. In typical Ionian mode, this would make for a V-ii-vi chord progression. However, the song barely approaches the territory of the tonic chord, starting almost every single phrase on the V chord of Eb major, which is also the final chord of the song as well. The Ab major chord is only heard in the bridge (that section officially starts at 2:34 in the video recording linked above), and the remainder of the song returns to the Eb - Bb minor - F minor progression. Because of the empahasis on the V chord throughout the song and the harmonic movement based on the dominant, you can easily label this song as one in Mixolydian mode. 

Considerations for Teaching: This song contains no objectionable material or lyrics, is still quite well known in pop culture, and is an extraordinarily popular choice for any student just learning to play piano. I highly recommend it as a classroom listening (and possibly performing) example.

Nothing But Key Changes: Flattened Submediant & Direct Modulation in Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing"

Dark Magic in 6/8 Time: Symmetrical Compound Meter in Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You"