For other uses, see Bohemian Rhapsody (disambiguation).
"Bohemian Rhapsody" is a song by the British rock band Queen. It was written by Freddie Mercury for the band's 1975 album A Night at the Opera. It is a six-minute suite, consisting of several sections without a chorus: an intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard rock part and a reflective coda. The song is a more accessible take on the 1970s progressive rock genre. It was reportedly the most expensive single ever made at the time of its release, although the exact cost of production cannot be determined.
When it was released as a single, "Bohemian Rhapsody" became a commercial success, staying at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks and selling more than a million copies by the end of January 1976. It reached number one again in 1991 for another five weeks when the same version was re-released following Mercury's death, eventually becoming the UK's third-best-selling single of all time. It is also the only song to be the UK Christmas number one twice by the same artist. It topped the charts in several other markets as well, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and The Netherlands, later becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time selling over 6 million copies worldwide. In the United States, the song originally peaked at number nine in 1976. It returned to the chart at number two in 1992, and also appeared in the film Wayne's World, which contributed to the revival of its American popularity.
Although critical reaction was initially mixed, "Bohemian Rhapsody" remains one of Queen's most popular songs and is frequently placed on modern lists of the greatest songs of all time. The single was accompanied by a promotional video, which many scholars consider ground-breaking.Rolling Stone stated that its influence "cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air."The Guardian ranked the music video for "Bohemian Rhapsody" number 31 on their list of the 50 key events in rock music history, adding it ensured "videos would henceforth be a mandatory tool in the marketing of music".
In 2004, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2012, the song topped the list on an ITV nationwide poll in the UK to find "The Nation's Favourite Number One" over 60 years of music, while Mercury's vocal performance was chosen as the greatest in rock history by readers of Rolling Stone.
History and recording
Freddie Mercury wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody" at his home in London. The song's producer, Roy Thomas Baker, related how Mercury once played the opening ballad section on the piano for him: "He played the beginning on the piano, then stopped and said, 'And this is where the opera section comes in!' Then we went out to eat dinner." Guitarist Brian May says the band thought that Mercury's blueprint for the song was "intriguing and original, and worthy of work". According to May, much of Queen's material was written in the studio, but this song "was all in Freddie's mind" before they started.
Music scholar Sheila Whiteley suggests that "the title draws strongly on contemporary rock ideology, the individualism of the bohemian artists' world, with rhapsody affirming the romantic ideals of art rock". Commenting on bohemianism, Judith Peraino said "Mercury intended ... [this song] to be a 'mock opera', something outside the norm of rock songs, and it does follow a certain operatic logic: choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with aria-like solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing."
According to Mercury's friend Chris Smith (a keyboard player in Smile), Mercury first started developing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the late 1960s; Mercury used to play parts of songs he was writing at the piano, and one of his pieces, known simply as "The Cowboy Song", contained lyrics that ended up in the completed version produced years later, in 1975, specifically, "Mama ... just killed a man." This echoes the opener of a 1962 b-side called Mama by Roy Orbison, which is also on Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits (1962).
Recording began on 24 August 1975 at Rockfield Studio 1 near Monmouth, South Wales, after a three-week rehearsal at Penrhos Court, near Kington, Herefordshire. During the making of the track, four additional studios (Roundhouse, Sarm East Studios, Scorpion, and Wessex Sound Studios) were used. According to some band members, Mercury mentally prepared the song beforehand and directed the band throughout. Mercury used a Bechstein "concert grand" piano, which he played in the promotional video and the UK tour. Due to the elaborate nature of the song, it was recorded in various sections.
May, Mercury, and drummer Roger Taylor reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day. The entire piece took three weeks to record, and in some sections featured 180 separate overdubs. Since the studios of the time only offered 24-track analog tape, it was necessary for the three to overdub themselves many times and "bounce" these down to successive sub-mixes. In the end, eighth-generation tapes were used. The various sections of tape containing the desired sub-mixes had to be spliced (cut and assembled in the correct sequence). May recalled placing a tape in front of the light and being able to see through it, as the tape had been used so many times.
Producer Baker recalls that May's solo was done on only one track, rather than recording multiple tracks. May stated that he wanted to compose "a little tune that would be a counterpart to the main melody; I didn't just want to play the melody". The guitarist said that his better material stems from this way of working: in which he thought of the tune before playing it: "the fingers tend to be predictable unless being led by the brain."
Composition and analysis
"Bohemian Rhapsody" has been affiliated to several genres of music, including progressive rock/symphonic rock,hard rock, and progressive pop. The song is highly unusual for a popular single in featuring no chorus, combining disparate musical styles and containing lyrics which eschew conventional love-based narratives for allusions to murder and nihilism. It consists of sections, beginning with an introduction, then a piano ballad, before a guitar solo leads to an operatic interlude. A hard rock part follows this and it concludes with a coda. The song is in the keys of B♭ major, E♭ major, A major and F major, and shifts from a 9
8 metre in the introduction to 4
4. This musical format of writing a song as a suite with changes in style, tone and tempo throughout was uncommon in most mainstream pop and rock music but common in progressive rock. The genre had reached its artistic and commercial zenith between 1970 and 1975 in the music of British bands such as Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator and Curved Air. The music of progressive rock was characterised by dramatic contrasts, frequent shifts in tempo and in rhythmic character from one section of a composition to the next. Bands from the genre had blended rock with classical music, its structural features and compositional practices, as well as using classical music instrumentation. Queen had embraced progressive rock as one of their many diverse influences. "Bohemian Rhapsody" parodies many different elements of opera by using bombastic choruses, sarcastic recitative and distorted Italian operatic phraseology. An embryonic version of this style had already been utilised in Mercury's earlier compositions for the band "My Fairy King" (1973) and "The March of the Black Queen" (1974).
The song begins with a close five-part harmony a cappella introduction in F major—entirely multi track recordings of Mercury although the video has all four members lip-syncing this part. The lyrics question whether life is "real" or "just fantasy caught in a landslide" before concluding that there can be "no escape from reality".
After 20 seconds, the grand piano enters, the key shifts to B♭ major and Mercury's voice alternates with the other vocal parts. The narrator introduces himself as "just a poor boy" but declares that he "needs no sympathy" because he is "easy come, easy go" and then "little high, little low" (if listening in stereo, the words "little high" come from the left speaker whereas the "little low" comes from the right); chromaticside-slipping on "easy come, easy go" highlights the dream-like atmosphere. The end of this section is marked by the bass entrance and the cross-handed piano vamp in B♭.
The piano begins the vamp in B♭ major along with the entrance of John Deacon's bass guitar, marking the onset of this section. After it plays twice, Mercury's vocals enter. Over the course of the section, the vocals evolve from a softly sung harmony to an impassioned solo performance by Mercury. The narrator explains to his mother that he has "just killed a man," with "a gun against his head" and in doing so, has thrown his life away. This "confessional" section, Whiteley comments, is "affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution". The bassline brings about a modulation to E♭ major, underpinning the mood of desperation. It is at this point (1:19) that Taylor's drums enter (this features the 1-1-2 rhythm of "We Will Rock You" in ballad form), and the narrator makes the second of several invocations to his "mama" in the new key, reusing the original theme. The narrator explains his regret over "mak[ing] you cry" and urging mama to "carry on as if nothing really matters". A brief, descending variation of the piano vamp phrase connects to a two repeat of the vamp in B♭ major once again, ushering in the second verse.
As the ballad proceeds into its second verse, the narrator shows how tired and beaten down he is by his actions (as May enters on guitar and mimics the upper range of the piano at 1:50). May imitates a bell tree during the line "sends shivers down my spine", by playing the strings of his guitar on the other side of the bridge. The narrator bids the world goodbye announcing he has "got to go" and prepares to "face the truth" admitting "I don't want to die / I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all." This is where the guitar solo enters.
Guitar solo (2:40–3:05)
Towards the end of the ballad section, the band builds in intensity, incorporating a guitar solo (in E♭ major) played and composed by May. The intensity continues to build, but once the bass line completes its descent establishing modulation to the new key (A major), the entire band cuts out abruptly at 3:03 except for quiet, staccato A major quaver (eighth-note) chords on the piano, marking the start of the "Opera" section.
A rapid series of rhythmic and harmonic changes introduces a pseudo-operatic midsection, which contains the bulk of the elaborate vocal multi-tracking, depicting the narrator's descent into hell. While the underlying pulse of the song is maintained, the dynamics vary greatly from bar to bar, from only Mercury's voice accompanied by a piano to a multi-voice choir supported by drums, bass, piano and Timpani. The choir effect was created by having May, Mercury, and Taylor repeatedly sing their vocal parts, resulting in 180 separate overdubs. These overdubs were then combined into successive submixes. According to Roger Taylor, the voices of May, Mercury and himself combined created a wide vocal range: "Brian could get down quite low, Freddie had a powerful voice through the middle, and I was good at the high stuff." The band wanted to create "a wall of sound, that starts down and goes all the way up". The band used the bell effect for lyrics "Magnifico" and "Let me go". Also, on "Let him go", Taylor singing the top section carries his note on further after the rest of the "choir" have stopped singing.
Lyrical references in this passage include Scaramouche, the fandango, Galileo Galilei, Figaro, Beelzebub and Bismillah, as rival factions fight over the narrator's soul. The section concludes with a full choral treatment of the lyric "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me!", on a block B♭ major chord. Roger Taylor tops the final chord with a falsetto B♭ in the fifth octave (B♭5).
Using the 24-track technology available at the time, the "opera" section took about three weeks to finish. Producer Roy Thomas Baker said "Every time Freddie came up with another 'Galileo', I would add another piece of tape to the reel." Baker recalls that they kept wearing out the tape, which meant having to do transfers.
The operatic section leads into a rock interlude with a guitar riff written by Mercury. At 4:15, a quadruple-tracked Mercury (in stereo, the four parts are panned two on the left and two on the right) sings angry lyrics addressed to an unspecified "you", accusing them of betrayal and abuse and insisting "can't do this to me, baby". Three ascending guitar runs follow. Mercury then plays a similar B♭ run on the piano, as the song builds up to the finale with a ritardando.
After Mercury plays ascending octaves of notes from the B♭mixolydian mode (composed of the notes from the E♭ scale), the song then returns to the tempo and form of the introduction, initially in E♭ major, before quickly modulating to C minor, only to soon go through an abrupt short series of modulations, bringing it back to C minor again in time for the final "nothing really matters" section. A guitar accompanies the chorus "ooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah." A double-tracked twin guitar melody is played through an amplifier designed by John Deacon, affectionately nicknamed the "Deacy Amp". Mercury's line "Nothing really matters..." appears again, "cradled by light piano arpeggios suggesting both resignation (minor tonalities) and a new sense of freedom in the wide vocal span". After the line "nothing really matters" is repeated multiple times, the song finally concludes in the key of E♭ major, but then changes again to F major just before it ends. The final line, "Any way the wind blows", is followed by the quiet sound of a large tam-tam that finally expels the tension built up throughout the song.
The New York Times commented that "the song's most distinct feature is the fatalistic lyrics". Mercury refused to explain his composition other than saying it was about relationships; the band is still protective of the song's secret. Brian May supports suggestions that the song contained veiled references to Mercury's personal traumas. He recalls "Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song." May, though, says the band had agreed that the core of a lyric was a private issue for the composer. In a BBC Three documentary about the making of "Bohemian Rhapsody", Roger Taylor maintains that the true meaning of the song is "fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle".
It's one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them... "Bohemian Rhapsody" didn't just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?
When the band released a Greatest Hits cassette in Iran, a leaflet in Persian was included with translation and explanations (refers to a book published in Iran called The March of the Black Queen by Sarah Sefati and Farhad Arkani, which included the whole biography of the band and complete lyrics with Persian translation (2000)). In the explanation, Queen states that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is about a young man who has accidentally killed someone and, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil. On the night before his execution, he calls for God saying, "Bismillah" ("In the name of God" in Arabic), and with the help of angels, regains his soul from Shaitan (the devil in Islam).
Despite this, critics, both journalistic and academic, have speculated over the meaning behind the song's lyrics. Some believe the lyrics describe a suicidal murderer haunted by demons or depict events just preceding an execution. The latter explanation points to Albert Camus's novel The Stranger, in which a young man confesses to an impulsive murder and has an epiphany before he is executed, as probable inspiration. Others believe the lyrics were only written to fit with the music, and have no meaning; Kenny Everett quoted Mercury as claiming the lyrics were simply "random rhyming nonsense".
Still, others interpreted them as Mercury's way of dealing with personal issues. Music scholar Sheila Whiteley observes that Mercury reached a turning point in his personal life in the year he wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody". He had been living with Mary Austin for seven years but had just embarked on his first love affair with a man. She suggests that the song provides an insight into Mercury's emotional state at the time, "living with Mary ('Mamma', as in Mother Mary) and wanting to break away ('Mamma Mia let me go')".
When the band wanted to release the single in 1975, various executives suggested to them that, at 5 minutes and 55 seconds, it was too long and would never be a hit. The song was played to other musicians who commented the band had no hope of it ever being played on radio. According to producer Roy Thomas Baker, he and the band bypassed this corporate decision by playing the song for Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett: "we had a reel-to-reel copy but we told him he could only have it if he promised not to play it. 'I won't play it,' he said, winking..." Their plan worked – Everett teased his listeners by playing only parts of the song. Audience demand intensified when Everett played the full song on his show 14 times in two days. Hordes of fans attempted to buy the single the following Monday, only to be told by record stores that it had not yet been released. The same weekend, Paul Drew, who ran the RKO stations in the States, heard the track on Everett's show in London. Drew managed to get a copy of the tape and started to play it in the States, which forced the hand of Queen's US label, Elektra. In an interview with Sound on Sound, Baker reflects that "it was a strange situation where radio on both sides of the Atlantic was breaking a record that the record companies said would never get airplay!" Eventually the unedited single was released, with "I'm in Love with My Car" as the B-side. Following Everett's escapade in October 1975, Eric Hall, a well known record plugger, gave a copy to David "Diddy" Hamilton to play on his weekday Radio One show. Eric stated "Monster, Monster! This could be a hit!"
The song became the 1975 UK Christmas number one, holding the top position for nine weeks. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the first song ever to get to number one in the UK twice with the same version, and is also the only single to have been Christmas number one twice with the same version. The second was upon its re-release (as a double A-side single with "These Are the Days of Our Lives") in 1991 following Mercury's death, staying at number one for five weeks.
In the United States, the single was also a success, although to a lesser extent than in the UK. The single, released in December 1975, reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for sales of one million copies. A re-release in 1992 (popularized by the song's appearance in the hit film Wayne's World) reached number two. In a retrospective interview, Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone explains the song's relatively poor performance in the US charts by saying that it's "the quintessential example of the kind of thing that doesn't exactly go over well in America". Its chart run of 24 weeks, however, placed it at number 18 on Billboard's year-end chart, higher than some number ones of the year. In its 1992 chart resurgence, it lasted 17 weeks on the chart and peaked at number two, with a year-end chart position of 39. It was certified gold by the RIAA a second time on 8 August 2005 for digital download sales over 100,000, and quadruple platinum on 23 April 2014 for combined digital sales and streams. It has sold 4.4 million digital copies in the US as of September 2017[update]. With the Canadian record-buying public, the single fared better, reaching number one in the RPM national singles chart for the week ending 1 May 1976.
Though some artists had made video clips to accompany songs (including Queen themselves; for example, "Keep Yourself Alive", "Seven Seas of Rhye", "Killer Queen" and "Liar" already had "pop promos", as they were known at the time), it was only after the success of "Bohemian Rhapsody" that it became regular practice for record companies to produce promotional videos for artists' single releases. These videos could then be shown on television shows, such as the BBC's Top of the Pops, without the need for the artist to appear in person. A promo video also allowed the artist to have their music broadcast and accompanied by their own choice of visuals, rather than dancers such as Pan's People. According to May, the video was produced so that the band could avoid miming on Top of the Pops, since they would have looked off miming to such a complex song. He also said that the band knew they would be set to appear at Dundee's Caird Hall on tour and unable to appear on the programme anyway. The video has been hailed as launching the MTV age.
The band used Trillion, a subsidiary of Trident Studios, their former management Company and recording studio. They hired one of their trucks and got it to Elstree Studios, where the band were rehearsing for their tour. The video was directed by Bruce Gowers, who had directed a video of the band's 1974 performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and was recorded by cameraman Barry Dodd and assistant director/floor manager Jim McCutcheon. The video was recorded in just four hours on 10 November 1975, at a cost of £4,500. Gowers reported that the band was involved in the discussion of the video and the end result, and "was a co-operative to that extent, but there was only one leader."
The video opens with a shot of the four band members in near darkness as they sing the a cappella part. The lights fade up, and the shots cross-fade into close-ups of Freddie. The composition of the shot is the same as Mick Rock's cover photograph for their second album Queen II. The photo, inspired by a photograph of actress Marlene Dietrich, was the band's favourite image of themselves. The video then fades into them playing their instruments. In the opera section of the video, the scene reverts to the Queen II standing positions, after which they perform once again on stage during the hard rock segment. In the closing seconds of the video Roger Taylor is depicted stripped to the waist, striking the tam tam in the manner of the trademark of the Rank Organisation's Gongman, familiar in the UK as the opening of all Rank film productions.
All of the special effects were achieved during the recording, rather than editing. The visual effect of Mercury's face cascading away (during the echoed line "go") was accomplished by pointing the camera at a monitor, giving visual feedback, a glare analogous to audio feedback. The honeycomb illusion was created using a shaped lens. The video was edited within five hours because it was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was taped. The video was sent to the BBC as soon as it was completed and aired for the first time on Top of the Pops in November 1975. After a few weeks at number one, an edit of the video was created. The most obvious difference is the flames superimposed over the introduction as well as several alternate camera angles.
Although the song has become one of the most revered in popular music history, the initial critical reaction was mixed. The UK music papers reacted with bemusement, recognising that the song was original and technically accomplished, but they mostly remained indifferent. Pete Erskine of NME observed that, "It'll be interesting to see whether it'll be played in its entirety on the radio. It's performed extremely well, but more in terms of production than anything else... Someone somewhere has decided that the boys' next release must sound 'epic'. And it does. They sound extremely self-important."
Allan Jones of the Melody Maker was unimpressed, describing the song as "a superficially impressive pastiche of incongruous musical styles" and that Queen "contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance... 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is full of drama, passion and romance and sounds rather like one of those mini-opera affairs that Pete Townsend [sic] used to tack on to the end of Who albums", before concluding, "The significance of the composition eludes me totally, though I must admit to finding it horrifically fascinating. It's likely to be a hit of enormous proportions despite its length." Ray Fox-Cumming of Record Mirror was also left unmoved, saying, "It has no immediate selling point whatsoever: among its many parts. there's scarcely a shred of a tune and certainly no one line to latch onto. There's no denying that it's devilishly clever, encompassing everything from bits of operatic harmonies to snatches that sound like Sparks and David Cassidy, but, in the end the whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts." He did, however, admit that it was "unthinkable" that it wouldn't be a hit. The most positive review came from Sounds, which called it "impossibly disjointed and complex, but a dazzlingly clever epic from the fevered mind of Freddie Mercury".
In terms of execution, the song is preceded by the Beach Boys' 1966 single "Good Vibrations", which was also pieced together using various different sections. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was praised by Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, who in 1976 called it "the most competitive thing that's come along in ages" and "a fulfillment and an answer to a teenage prayer—of artistic music".Greg Lake, whose song "I Believe in Father Christmas" was kept from number one in the UK by "Bohemian Rhapsody" when it was released in 1975, acknowledged that he was "beaten by one of the greatest records ever made", describing it as "a once-in-a-lifetime recording".
Addressing the song's enduring popularity, author and music lecturer Jochen Eisentraut wrote in 2012: "A year before punk made it unfashionable, progressive rock had an astounding success with the theoretically over-length (nearly 6-minute) single 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which bore many of the hallmarks of the 'prog' genre". He said it was "unique at this point to hear a hit single in this style", it was "more accessible than other music of the genre" and was "able to communicate beyond the usual confines of the style". Author and progressive rock historian Stephen Lambe called it a "remarkable" single and said it "provides a neat but coincidental bridge between prog in its prime and the move to more aggressive songwriting", suggesting the song "feels like a grotesque (although probably unintentional) parody of progressive rock".The New Rolling Stone Album Guide described it as "either a prog-rock benchmark or the most convoluted novelty song ever recorded". Writing for the BBC in 2015, the Chicago Tribune's music critic Greg Kot called it a "prog-rock pocket operetta" and said the song's "reign as a work of wigged-out genius rather than a dated gimmick testifies to its go-for-broke attitude – one that has resonated across generations".
In 2009, The Guardian's music critic, Tom Service, examined the song's relationship with the traditions of classical music, describing its popularity as "one of the strangest musical phenomena out there":
The precedents of Bohemian Rhapsody are as much in the 19th-century classical traditions of rhapsodic, quasi-improvisational reveries – like, say, the piano works of Schumann or Chopin or the tone-poems of Strauss or Liszt – as they are in prog-rock or the contemporary pop of 1975. That's because the song manages a sleight of musical hand that only a handful of real master-musicians have managed: the illusion that its huge variety of styles – from intro, to ballad, to operatic excess, to hard-rock, to reflective coda – are unified into a single statement, a drama that somehow makes sense. It's a classic example of the unity in diversity that high-minded musical commentators have heard in the symphonies of Beethoven or the operas of Mozart. And that's exactly what the piece is: a miniature operatic-rhapsodic-symphonic-tone-poem.
Comparison was also made between the song and Led Zeppelin's 1971 epic "Stairway to Heaven" by music writers Pete Prown and HP Newquist. They observed both songs were "a slow, introspective beginning and gradual climb to a raging metal jam and back again", with the notable distinction being "while Zeppelin meshed folk influences with heavy metal, Queen opted for the light grandeur of the operetta as part of its hard rock". They said "for sheer cleverness alone, not to mention May's riveting electric work, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' rightfully became one of the top singles of 1975 and established Queen in the elite of seventies rock bands".
In 2015, The Economist described it as "one of the most innovative pieces of the progressive rock era". It wrote "though Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and The Beatles' Paul McCartney had experimented with symphonic elements, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Pete Townshend of The Who had created narrative albums with distinct 'movements', none had had the audacity to import a miniature opera into rock music."
The song has won numerous awards, and has been covered and parodied by many artists. In 1977 "Bohemian Rhapsody" received two Grammy Award nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus and Best Arrangement for Voices. In 1977, only two years after its release, the British Phonographic Industry named "Bohemian Rhapsody" as the best British single of the period 1952–77. It is a regular entry in greatest-songs polls, and it was named by the Guinness Book of Records in 2002 as the top British single of all time. The song is also listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
The song also came in tenth in a BBC World Service poll to find the world's favourite song. In 2000 it came second to "Imagine" by John Lennon in a Channel 4 television poll of The 100 Best Number 1s. It has been in the top 5 of the Dutch annual "Top 100 Aller Tijden" ("All-Time Top 100 [Singles]") since 1977, reaching number one on eight occasions, more than any other artist. In 1999, the annual "Top 2000" poll commenced to find the best songs ever made, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" has been ranked number one in all but four years (2005, 2010, 2014 and 2015 when it was number two). In a 2012 readers poll conducted by Rolling Stone, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was voted the best vocal performance in rock history.
In 2004 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. As of 2004[update], "Bohemian Rhapsody" is the second most played song on British radio, in clubs and on jukeboxes collectively, after Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale". On 30 September 2007 on the Radio 1 Chart Show, for BBC Radio 1's 40th birthday, it was revealed that "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the most played song since Radio 1's launch. In 2004, BBC Three featured the song as part of their The Story of... series of documentaries dedicated to specific songs. First broadcast in December 2004, the programme charted the history of the song, discussed its credentials, and took Roger Taylor and Brian May of Queen back to one of the studios in which it was recorded. In 2012, the song topped an ITV poll in the UK to find "The Nation's Favourite Number One" over 60 years of music, ahead of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" (No. 2), Adele's "Someone like You" (No. 3), Oasis' "Don't Look Back in Anger" (No. 4) and The Beatles' "Hey Jude" (No. 5). The song was also ranked #5 in RadioMafia's list of "Top 500 Songs". The song was also included in the music video gamesGuitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3. The song was featured in the second trailer and the ending of the 2016 film Suicide Squad, and appears on the soundtrack album for the film, covered by American band Panic! at the Disco.
The song enjoyed renewed popularity in 1992 due to its inclusion in the soundtrack to the film Wayne's World. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was re-released as a double A-side cassette single with "The Show Must Go On" in January 1992 to commemorate the death of Freddie Mercury, with proceeds going to the Magic Johnson Foundation for AIDS research. Following the release of the film and soundtrack album in February, "Bohemian Rhapsody" re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart after 16 years, reaching number two.
The film's director, Penelope Spheeris, was hesitant to use the song, as it did not entirely fit with the lead characters, who were fans of less flamboyant hard rock and heavy metal. Mike Myers insisted that the song fit the scene.
According to music scholar Theodore Gracyk, by 1992, when the film was released, even "classic rock" stations had stopped playing the almost-six-minute song. Gracyk suggests that beginning the tape in the middle of the song after "the lyrics which provide the song's narrative ... forces the film's audience to respond to its presence in the scene without the 'commentary' of the lyrics". Helped by the song, the soundtrack album of the film was a major hit.
In connection with this, a new video was released, intercutting excerpts from the film with footage from the original Queen video, along with some live footage of the band. Myers was horrified that the record company had mixed clips from Wayne's World with Queen's original video, fearing that this would upset the band. He said, "they've just whizzed on a Picasso." He asked the record company to tell Queen that the video was not his idea, and that he apologised to them. The band, though, sent a reply simply saying, "Thank you for using our song." This shocked Myers, who said it should be more like him telling Queen, "Thank you for even letting me touch the hem of your garments!"
The Wayne's World video version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" won Queen its only MTV Video Music Award for "Best Video from a Film". When remaining members Brian May and Roger Taylor took the stage to accept the award, Brian May was overcome with emotion and said that "Freddie would be tickled." In the final scene of said video, a pose of the band from the video from the original "Bohemian Rhapsody" clip morphs into an identically posed 1985 photo, first featured in the "One Vision" video.
The song was also featured in the movie Loaded Weapon 1 in a scene parodying Wayne's World.
To mark the 40th anniversary of "Bohemian Rhapsody", the song was released on a limited edition 12" vinyl with the original B-side "I'm In Love With My Car" on 27 November 2015 for Record Store Day 2015. Queen also released A Night At The Odeon, Live At Hammersmith 75, on CD, DVD & Blu-ray. This includes the first live "professionally" recorded performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody". However, the very first recording and live performance of Bohemian Rhapsody was the performance on 14 November 1975 in Liverpool.
The a cappella opening was too complex to perform live, so Mercury tried various ways of introducing the song. When the song "Mustapha" became a live favourite, Mercury would often sub in that song's a cappella opening, which was easier to reproduce live as it was only one voice. During the Hot Space Tour, and occasionally at other times, Mercury would do a piano improvisation (generally the introduction to "Death on Two Legs") that ended with the first notes of the song. Often, the preceding song would end, and Mercury would sit at the piano, say a quick word and start playing the ballad section.
Initially following the song's release, the operatic middle section proved a problem for the band. Because of extensive multi-tracking, it could not be performed on stage. The band did not have enough of a break between the Sheer Heart Attack and A Night at the Opera tours to find a way to make it work live, so they split the song into three sections that were played throughout the night. The opening and closing ballads were played as part of a medley, with "Killer Queen" and "March of the Black Queen" taking the place of the operatic and hard rock sections. In 1976 concerts where the same medley was played, the operatic section from the album would be played from tape as the introduction to the setlist. During this playback, Mercury would appear briefly to sing live for the line, "I see a little sillhouetto of a man". As the song segued into the hard rock section, the band would emerge on the smoke filled stage – the playback would end at this point, and the hard rock section would be performed live (without the final ballad section, which appeared later in the set).
Starting with the A Day at the Races Tour
Queen and the Hero’s Journey
For my first in-depth look, I wanted to tackle a popular song that I feel has become part of our musical canon. No, not because I think it’ll get me more blog hits. If you think I’m not typing this while clinging to a ceiling fan as blog hits slowly fill up my room, you are sorely mistaken (not really). The more people that are familiar with the song, the more effective I think this article will be at demonstrating my take on the idea of Musical Analysis.
The fact is, Bohemian Rhapsody is the 3rd best selling UK single of all time. It was on the top of the charts all around the world, including the Netherlands, Australia, United States, and plenty of other countries. I don’t want to make this all about sales, though. It’s not just about numbers on a chart. The figures represent how many people felt some kind of connection to the song. It has entertained people for a long time. It’s a ubiquitous song that seems to stay relevant as it ages.
But looking at other songs of this stature, Bohemian Rhapsody seems to stand apart. Not in instrumentation, but in arrangement and structure. When you think about it, it’s a pretty unpredictable and bizarre song. The big question is: how did Bohemian Rhapsody seem to gain such widespread public approval while still taking so many risks? Let’s take a look.
Part 0: Structure and Repetition
This is a huge idea that could probably be discussed and debated forever, but this article is based on the idea that most music that gains worldwide success does so through the use of a familiar formula. I’d like to go more in-depth, but for now, I’ll just say that the majority (if not ALL) songs that reach the top of the charts use some variation of the verse/chorus format. By that I mean a verse portion leads into a repeating, climactic chorus. Most of the time, songs utilize some kind of build and release, loud/quiet/loud idea. Not that using this formula is necessarily a good or bad thing, it’s just that music is much easier to get into when you’re familiar with the basic conventions a song utilizes.
Songs can be huge hits by alienating as few people as possible. Check out my stuff on musical tropes for many many more words on that particular subject. Here’s the idea: the verse/chorus format is the familiar building block that most popular music is based on. Verse/chorus is kind of a vague concept, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a song that’s gotten decent radio-play that doesn’t have some sort of hook. You know, that one section of a song that you find yourself humming throughout the day? The part of the song you sing to your friend when she asks “how does that song go again?” The part that literally “hooks” into your memory.
Let’s look at some other songs that surpass “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the best selling singles list. Ignoring the holiday classics that get a boost in sales every year, we have songs like “My Heart Will Go On,” I’m a Believer,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Regardless of your opinion of those songs, I’d be willing to bet that just reading the titles of these pieces immediately put their hook in your head. You might be humming one of these the rest of today just because of some words I typed into a window. That’s the verse/chorus format at work. The verse builds into the catchy hook of the song. It’s tried and true, and is the one defining feature that binds together every song on the best seller list.
Think about it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But instead of talking about psychology, we’re talking about music. I believe that there is a similar hierarchy that we all go through when listening to music. For many people, song structure one of the most important factors in their enjoyment of a song, even though they might not realize it. People want to hear a song that approaches songwriting in a familiar way that they can innately understand. Once a listener feels comfortable with a song’s structure, then they can focus on the details like melody and harmony. When a song provides an easy to follow and almost universally recognizable format like verse/chorus, then the listener is open to appreciate what the song is doing melodically. Then add repetition on top of that and you have a song that feels familiar on the very first listen. The verse/chorus format is definitely the most valuable tool a pop song has to make someone enjoy it right away.
So. Assuming a verse/chorus format is the building block to popular music, where does Bohemian Rhapsody fit in? It has nothing near a verse or a chorus. In fact, there’s no repeated section at all, other than the “anywhere the wind blows” refrain at the end, which is definitely nothing close to a hook. There’s no catchy chorus to sing along to. No section repeats or stays constant. It’s a pretty bold single for Queen to release when the album it comes from has many other radio-friendly tracks. It’s bold and seemingly radio un-friendly, so how did it become so iconic?
The key is this: Bohemian Rhapsody’s structure isn’t as unfamiliar you’d think. In fact, it uses the most well-known structure there is, one that predates the verse/chorus format or even written music by millennia: Bohemian Rhapsody follows Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” almost beat for beat.
Queen was able to successfully adapt the monomyth into a song, and by doing so, they created something new, but incredibly familiar at the same time.
We’ll get into it in a lot more detail later, but if you’re not familiar, Joseph Campell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces describes a story structure called The Hero’s Journey or the Monomyth. As the title implies, this pattern is found in narratives all over the world. From the story of Jesus (and many other characters in the Bible) to Star Wars, the structure is found in stories old and new. Here’s a basic outline of the structure that you can refer back to.
Part 1: “Is This the Real Life?”
The first section of the monomyth is called the “call to adventure” portion. “Adventure,” however, representing the journey the hero is about to begin, and “call” meaning whatever incites the journey. Just thought I should clarify, because “call to adventure” to me kind of sounds like an outside force has to incite the journey like a guy blowing on a conch shell or something. Often, this isn’t the case. Like in one of the most famous uses of the Hero’s Journey, The Odyssey, Odysseus’ own mistakes and flaws incite the journey.
The same is true of Bohemian Rhapsody. The hero of the song begins his “adventure” by screwing up big time. The song isn’t specific about what exactly he screws up, however. He then spends the rest of the song finding redemption for his actions. It’s the skeleton for many classic stories, but not often the skeleton for a song.
What’s special about music as a genre is that it can tell a story like this on a more emotional level. Instead of having to rely on plotting or visuals, music can take a listener through a series of connected emotions that form a story of sorts. Bohemian Rhapsody is a perfect example of this. No lyrics sheet is needed to feel what is going on in the hero’s mind. Music can step in and represent base, inner emotions–a subject where words often fail us. I believe this is why music isn’t often analyzed like one a movie or a novel. Music seems to exist on a deeper level, and in this way it does, but that does not mean music can’t be discussed and explored with themes and emotional response in mind.
The song’s very first line of “is this the real life?” sums up the beginning section perfectly. It captures that surreal moment when you make a mistake and it feels like the whole world is falling apart around you. The song creates that eerie stillness through vocal harmony and wind-like studio effects.
What sets vocal harmony apart from instrumental harmony is that through practice and a musical understanding, singers can create an effect not possible with many instruments.
Take a look at this guitar.
Yeah, those things are supposed to be straight lines.
This isn’t some sort of novelty wacky guitar you can give as a gag gift. This guitar’s messed up fretboard compensates for the slightly flawed way guitars are designed. Guitars play almost every note slightly out of tune just by nature of their straight frets. Most other instruments have similar issues, either through design on fretted or fixed note instruments like a guitar, or through slight human error on instruments such as the violin or cello that require the player to find the correct note by ear. Normally, these natural discrepancies would not make a difference. The errors are so slight they are imperceptible to the untrained (or often trained) ear. But when playing a chord, the more notes and intervals that are added, these small errors add up and can cause an ugly sounding chord.
With harmonies, if the singers have enough control over their voice, and if they are familiar enough with one another, they can blend their voices and create a chord with less tonal imperfections. It really is a case where the relationship between musicians can have a noticeable effect on the music’s sound. Vocal blending can create an interesting washed out, phase-y effect. It’s hard to explain exactly what a phase effect sounds like, but you might notice it when you hear it. It’s especially noticeable in a-cappella genres such as barbershop. Listen for a warbly, washed-out kind of sound.
Check out this group. Sound reminiscent of the beginning of Bohemian Rhapsody? That’s vocal blending at work.
Although Queen only had 3 singers in the group (Guitarist Brian May, Drummer Roger Taylor, and Freddie Mercury), they were able to use studio overdubbing to create the thick, phased-out a-cappella that can be heard at the beginning of the song. Studio effects were then added to enhance this feeling as well.
By starting with no instruments and using vocal blending, the song establishes the hero’s stupor following his mistake. The hero is “caught in a landslide” of his own doing, and his reality is washed away. The quietness of the introduction and the otherworldly sounding harmonies that are pushed to the forefront serve to reinforce the emotion of this initiating moment.
In the context of a pop song, removing most of the instruments (save some sparse piano and drumming) in the introduction gives an appropriately empty feeling. Popular music is all about a wall of sound, with the music filling in as many frequencies as possible to keep things exciting. Bohemian Rhapsody’s vocals-only introduction not only lets the listener immediately know this song will be an atypical experience, but it also creates a slightly uneasy and otherworldly atmosphere. A perfect atmosphere for a story about someone who has just lost it all.
Part 2: “Mama” and the Piano Ballad
In this next section, the hero now must come to terms with his mistake.
Although the first section of the song shares some characteristics with the Barbershop genre, the second section has our first use of a real-deal musical trope. A trope I call the “piano ballad.” It’s such a widely used trope, I probably don’t even have to explain it. I’m sure just reading the words “piano ballad” evokes an image of some kind of contemplative person hunched over a piano, working out his or her feelings through a song. Maybe it’s some kind of cowboy? Whatever kind of person you picture, that is exactly what the piano ballad trope is. Queen and countless other bands have used a piano and a sole, emotional voice as shorthand for this type of emotion.
As soon as the piano kicks in, and Mercury sings “mama,” we understand on a base level that our hero (as well as the song) has transitioned from a moment of stillness and shock to a moment of contemplation and introspection. This is done through the listener’s knowledge of the piano ballad trope and through Freddie Mercury’s powerful voice channeling the emotions of the song. Again, this follows the monomyth second act’s structure. At this point in the hero’s journey, he must face whatever challenges arise as a result of his call to action. In a journey of introspection, like the one in Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s fitting that these challenges are not from an outside source, but personal challenges. The line, “Mama, just killed a man / put a gun against his head / pulled my trigger, now he’s dead” could be taken as a representation of the hero’s confessions. He’s coming clean with the things he’s done in the past.
Much like the structure of a movie script or a basic storytelling format, this section of Bohemian Rhapsody builds using conflict. It’s a rising action. Each instrument is layered, starting with piano and vocals, and building until the entire band is playing at full volume. These instruments enter as the conflict in the hero’s head grows. Take a look at the lyrics again, they slowly reveal the hero’s troubled past as he confesses all that he’s done. The drums come in at 1:24 right at the line “now I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” Or the guitar enters at 2:25 just as the hero realizes he has to face the reality of his mistake. The instruments stack on top of each other just as the hero’s insecurities do. Or even disregarding lyrics, one can easily hear Freddie Mercury’s voice getting louder and more desperate as he channels the emotions of the song.
Side Note: Speaking of lyrics, this section’s lyrics seem to point towards the song being about a murderer on death row. The many references to death, the line “just killed a man,” and the cries of “let me go” later on in the song all point to this interpretation. A reasonable argument could definitely be made, but I want to avoid simply analyzing the lyrics. Lyrics can absolutely strengthen the themes of a song, but are only one factor among many others in determining how a song is successful. I believe Bohemian Rhapsody’s success is more due to its use of structure and musical themes rather than its lyrics. Lyrics are an important tool when analyzing a song completely, but they are not what makes you connect with a song emotionally. Okay. Cool, just wanted to get that out of the way.
Regardless of the purpose or meaning of the lyrics, this section of the song still has the same emotional impact. It’s a man crying for his mommy. The piano ballad feel that the listener is instantly familiar with only reinforces the pensive atmosphere. The music and structure all come together to represent the hero coming to terms with what he’s done.
Part 3: Guitar Soloooo
Imagine you have never heard this song before. Until after the guitar solo with the operatic section, nothing would have been out of the ordinary for a Queen song or really even a pop song for the time. It would only need to repeat a single section for things to take on a much more familiar feel. Imagine if the “is this the real life” section came back as the song’s chorus. Maybe with guitars and drums behind it the second time. We’d be having a much different discussion. It would still be a good song, but to repeat any section would be to backtrack on our hero’s journey. We’d lose the momentum and that feeling of completion you feel at the end of the track. Queen made the right choice to keep the song pushing forward rather than utilize repetition.
Nothing on this song pushes things forward better than the guitar solo section. Brian May is able to start the solo in one place, continuing the emotion we left off with in the previous section, and end up in a much darker place. The solo marks the point in the monomyth where the hero’s challenges become too much for him.
In the first half of the solo, Brian May continues the song’s previous section’s emotional tone. It’s a big rock solo for a big rock ballad. The band behind him supports him as any rock band would.
The solo only takes a turn out of the rock ballad realm and into something slightly more unstable when the guitar does a descending run at around 2:49. Here we reach the point in the hero’s journey where the hero is hitting his lowest point. cool
In the emotional progression of Bohemian Rhapsody, this is the time where the hero fully realizes what he has done. The weight of his mistake has now finally come down on top of him. He’s hit rock bottom.
Listen to the solo again with this in mind. It begins with a mournful, almost bluesy kind of sound as the hero contemplates, but soon, his thoughts begin to consume him with that first syncopated descending run. The guitar recreates a falling kind of sound, then it gives one last push at 2:52 as the hero fights for his sanity, but he gives in, and the solo takes on a more sinister turn.
But while the guitar solo is obviously the focal point of this section, the rest of the band’s contribution can’t be ignored. As the guitar shifts into the more ominous section of the song, so does the rest of the band, anticipating the shift into the operatic section to follow. Listen to how the bass and piano hit an ominous sounding chord at 2:54 as the tone of the solo is changing. Or listen to how the band punctuates the guitar’s final notes at the end of the solo with cymbal crashes and loud chords.
Overall, this section demonstrates how a guitar solo can fit into a song structurally. It can push forward the emotional narrative just as well as vocals if the band treats the solo as a songwriting tool, not as a way to take a little break while the guitarist shows off his chops.
Brian May’s skill as a guitarist and an overall musician is put on display here as he successfully takes the song from A to B. And A being about as far away from B as you could imagine. The solo bridges a piano power ballad and an operatic abyss in about 25 seconds. Not an easy task. But its significance can definitely be heard and felt in the context of the song.
PS for more words about solos and musicianship, you can read this other article I did at this link here.
Part 4: “I See a Little Silhouette” and the Abyss
When looking at the monomyth structure, we see that after the hero is introduced to the challenges and tribulations of the journey (the piano ballad and solo section), he must then enter the abyss.
Let’s be honest here for a moment. Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t cover many new thematic ideas in its first half. The whole “I’ve been through some things and done some things I shouldn’t have” angle has been heard in many different ways throughout the history of music. Heck, Freddie Mercury even seemed aware of this, calling the piano ballad section of the song his “oldcowboy song.”
But what few songs do is take that next step. Sure, plenty of ballads have featured someone singing about his mistakes, but Queen took it that next step past self-reflection and regret into depression and the abyss. This section actually puts you in the abyss right along with the hero. It surrounds you with his demons. This is the portion where Bohemian Rhapsody really sets itself apart.
Opera seems like an odd choice to portray a section that is supposed to reflect horror and confusion; it’s not something you’d normally think of when trying to convey such extreme emotions. On top of that, opera isn’t exactly a “cool” genre, and I doubt anyone thought rock music with opera influences could possibly work. I’m sure there were plenty of executives begging to cut this portion of the song in order to make it more radio friendly. Luckily Freddie Mercury and the rest of Queen stood their ground.
No other genre has the theatricality to convey that emotion while still keeping the song’s somewhat playful tone. Opera also has the bombast to allow you to imagine a giant demon pointing right in your face, saying he “will not let you go” without making it seem too scary, but it’s serious enough to not be a joke. It feels like a larger-than-life stage play. And if you’re going to have your hero confront demons, why bother holding back? Opera is no stranger to demons. The Beelzebub character mentioned in the song recalls Mephistopheles of Faust, the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil for youth. Eventually, demons come for him and he is full of regret. So there are definitely some similar themes going on here.
The song uses our base knowledge of operas such as these as a trope. It takes the conventions associated with the genre (theatricality, bombast, heightened characterization) and fits them into our particular hero’s journey.
Originally going into this song, I wasn’t going to discuss the video. The video was shot in about a day in a single studio for a next-to-nothing budget. It was done in a time long before MTV when videos were rarely seen by a wide audience. It’s fun to watch, and it’s better than having nothing at all, but I didn’t think it had much relevance to the song and its emotional impact.
Until I thought about the most iconic image associated with this song, and the band as a whole. The image of the band with surprised faces, resting their hands on their chests, with a spotlight in their face, which was used previously for the cover of their album Queen II.
I realized this image is of our hero personified. It’s the abyss section of this song shown visually.
The hero enters the abyss, and is immediately unwelcome. The “I see a little silhouette of a man” seems to be his inner demon’s version of “I smell the blood of an Englishman.” The opening line immediately makes one feel like an outsider. His terror continues as thunderbolts and lightning crash around him. Even if you didn’t understand English or if you didn’t pay particular attention to the lyrics (which many listeners do not), Roger Taylor’s piercing “very very frightening me” high notes are more than enough to convey the message. It’s scary down there in the abyss.
The song reinforces the feeling of being surrounded in a dark room by the use of stereo mixing of different voices. High and low calls and responses jump from ear-to-ear, creating a feeling of disorientation. You’re not sure what kind of voice is going to come into what ear next.
They’re able to keep this theatricality feeling authentic though. It might be over-the-top, but it’s never cheesy. It’s because these demons represent the very real guilt and fear people must overcome to put something behind themselves. The song has earned these moments with the half of the song that has come before it.
The fear and anxiety is increased even more when the hero of the song pleads to be let out of the abyss he’s entered. For all the lighthearted theatricality and ultimately positive message of this song, it’s a really desperate moment. But, much like the mistake that started this whole ordeal, the hero has made a decision that can’t be taken back. Getting out isn’t going to be that easy.
He continues begging until an inner Greek chorus of sorts enters, commenting on the situation. It almost becomes a demon courtroom, with one side pleading for the hero, and the other trying to convict him.
In this portion of the song, the instrumentation drops out almost entirely, with bits of piano and drums popping in occasionally to add to dynamics. Again, this decision serves the song and the dark and lonely emotional tone that’s present in this section. The vocals of the song carry this section, with the different voices and overdubs creating the chaos and unpredictability, while the lack of guitar and bass add to its stark feel.
In the monomyth structure, the hero is only able to escape the abyss through self-reflection, and the hero of this song is no different. He faces his demons and deals with his confliction, leading to the climax of the song…
Part 5: Climax
Our hero is finally able to reach redemption. And like in the hero’s journey, he finds his goal near the end of the story. Seriously, for a song considered to be pretty upbeat and uplifting, Bohemian Rhapsody spends a majority of its time focused on depression and despair.
What keeps it feeling positive, though, is this particular moment. The vocals in the abyss section build, and suddenly the whole band kicks in with a heavy drumbeat and guitar riff. This section feels cathartic because of the song that preceded it. Queen earned this moment of release by building the emotion and tension over the past few minutes.
Let’s talk for a bit about the actual crescendo of the song with the line “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.” Drummer Roger Taylor seems to be at the forefront here, with both his piercing high voice, and with his drums providing the necessary dynamics to create an intense crescendo. Taylor’s voice keeps getting higher and higher as if it’s going to go on forever, until he finally hits the final “for me” and holds it for a moment as the drums swell and the entire band busts back in. It’s a moment that is still effective even if you see it coming.
The reason for that being, the audience feels the same sense of weight being lifted that the hero does. The listener moves from the unpredictable opera section to the comfort of a repeating guitar and drum line. The contrast of the empty and unpredictable abyss to the loud and predictable pattern of the guitar line puts us in the same emotional state as the song’s subject. This song is full of little tricks like that where Queen takes musical tropes and things we are familiar with, and bends them to their own purposes and fits them into the larger emotional progression of the song.
This moment marks the part of the story where the hero can finally put whatever issue or mistake that occurred behind him. The ascending guitar riff in this section also reinforces the feeling of freedom that the listener shares with the hero of the story. And here we come across another musical trope, what I call “rock riffin’” because these things don’t have names so I get to name it whatever I want even if the name is very dumb. But I think “rock riffin’” recalls the kind of feeling this section gives; it’s a repeating guitar melody over a loud drum pattern. Queen utilizes this fist-pumping kind of feel to reflect the song’s newfound empowerment.
Freddie Mercury’s vocal line that follows this riff reflects the character’s newfound self-respect very clearly. The lyrics mention of needing need to “get out” and move on, as well as his unwillingness to lie down and die just shows how much the character has grown. A huge departure from defeatist lines like “sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” line at the beginning. And even if you have never listened to the lyrics or don’t speak English, the tone of the music and the way these lyrics are sung convey this transformation just as well, if not better, than language can.
Part 6: The Return
Though the story has taken us all the way from mistake to redemption in a hero’s story, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t end there. There is closure that needs to be made. The hero has to return back to where he started. And what do you know, the song does exactly that. They reprise the “anywhere the wind blows” line all the way from the first section of the song. But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves. The song has to first transition from its triumphant climax to the falling action of the concluding segment.
Much like the guitar solo before, this transition is done through an instrumental section. Using an ascending scale, the guitar and piano is able to keep that upbeat feeling of triumph, while still allowing the song to wind down.
We finally reach the conclusion with the song’s “nothing really matters…” line. The words might be the same, but in this context seem to be more of a feeling of contentment or at least a reflection on the hero’s state when the lines were sung at the beginning of the song. Either way, the repetition causes the listener to reflect on how far the hero, and in turn, the audience, has come. That sense journey is really what gives a song like this an “epic” feel. Sometimes epic is confused with length, but Bohemian Rhapsody proves how successful one can be at navigating a multi-section song in just under 6 minutes. Again, these sections being somewhat disparate can make some think that the key to creating a song like Bohemian Rhapsody is to quickly change genre and emotional tone as the song progresses. But as I hopefully have demonstrated, Queen earned their transitions by making the next section feel inevitable. If a song changes feels at the drop of a hat and has no progression, it can feel random. No emotional connection can be made to the song if it continuously shifts what emotion it’s trying to convey.
Bohemian Rhapsody as a whole is about a journey. It takes you from point A to point B, only to finally return back to point A at the end, making you realize just how far you’ve come. With this in mind, it’s fitting to have the song end with the line “anywhere the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me.” We’ve followed along as the singer of the song runs the gamut of emotions. The listener has been blown all around, caught up in the wind of this song, and finally, as signified by the final descending guitar line of the song, it seems as if the wind has died down.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen has created, in some ways, an homage to different popular musical genres. They did it, however, not through a cover song or by sampling as is common in music; they did it in a way that a movie or show will do homage. Fitting, as the song’s structure also seems to reflect a more visual style of storytelling used often by movies and TV. Take a look at homage in something like Shaun of the Dead or Community. They are not parodies. They reference movies, shows, and pop culture tropes in order to reflect emotions in the character. These films/shows take the core emotions of the original work/trope and adapt it to the story. They do not parody specific scenes or characters. Think of how Shaun of the Dead used zombies. They were used to reflect the main character’s laziness and how he seems to sleepwalk through life. Or another example is how Community used action movie tropes in the episode “Modern Warfare” to highlight the turmoil in the group’s dynamics. The creators used well-known pop culture ideas as emotional short-hands for their storytelling.
Queen does the same. Not only does it take musical genres and tropes the audience is already familiar with and adapt them to the narrative of their songs, it does the same thing with the song’s structure. It takes the well-known and used format of the Hero’s Journey, and adapts it into a song unlike anything else in pop music. It takes all these things we’re familiar with and understand, and uses them as tools to tell a classic story in a brand new format.
That combination is what makes the song instantly accessible, yet still exciting and fresh sounding even after all these years. So for anyone wondering how a song as weird and seemingly unfamiliar and disjointed as Bohemian Rhapsody can be a huge charting hit, as well as prove to be emotionally resonant for decades to come, it turns out the song is not only much more familiar than it seems, it is much more cohesive as well.
Okay. So that’s just an example of what I’m hoping to do with my Music Analysis kinds of articles. This is just a rough example with a lot of ideas being thrown out at once, but hopefully this gives anyone who read this a better idea of what is not being discussed about music. Music is art, everyone. It’s expression. It’s not just math and vibrations. It has something to say.
Thank you very much if you got it this far, and feel free to contribute any thoughts you might have about the article, music in general, or just any old bullshit. Yes, you! I wanna talk about music with you. That’s why I wrote this thing in the first place you dope!
Lots of Love,
Go to hell,