NEW YORK, NY: The “genre” of rock music criticism is rife with flops. Take the universal pronouncement that Led Zeppelin was an unwelcome aberration in rock ‘n’ roll. Just one in a long list of bad calls rivaling Decca Records’ declaration to the Beatles that “guitar bands are on their way out”.
When they patted them on the head and self-assuredly rejected their bid for a recording contract.
The magic of Bohemian Rhapsody
And sure enough, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” came out at the end of 1975. The critics lined up to add another horrible missed call to their oeuvre. One as egregious as the recent failure to flag a pass interference on Nickell Robey-Coleman for body-slamming Tommylee Lewis in what was supposed to be a championship-game-winning touchdown pass.
For how else could we mere mortals have ever learned the truth that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was actually a meandering, disjointed hodge-podge of meaningless, musically incoherent noise?
With the overwhelming success of the recent film Bohemian Rhapsody, we’ve gotten to take a renewed look at the band. And its indomitable lead figure Freddie Mercury.
Looking inside the song
So, how about we also take a deeper look now into the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself. The one that made many of us kids at the time not just sit up and take notice. But become ignited with a fire of excitement, unlike anything we had experienced before?
The Beatles had already broken up by the time my generation started getting into music. Why did we marvel at it while the critics tried to assure us there was actually nothing to marvel about?
I’ll leave it to another time to analyze the ancestral environment that produced our rock music critics’ apparent evolutionary adaptation for croaking like toads in unison.
As for “Bohemian Rhapsody” the case is clear: lazy dumbassery won the day. Pure and simple.
Critics of the day were lazy dumb asses
Lazy because no one attacking the song for being incongruous and disjointed. Or a contrived, incoherent pastiche. No one apparently bothered to actually analyze the music to see how wonderfully congruous and well-constructed it truly is.
And dumbass because for those who did stop to think about the song’s construction? They came up empty-handed anyway. Despite writing about music for a living they actually didn’t know zilch about music. And apparently weren’t able to figure out even a few basic things on the job.
So, let’s roll the clock back and take a new in-depth look at the song the way it should have been assessed. By at least some critics upon its releas. All with an eye towards structure, development of motifs, and historical context.
One of the smartest songs ever written
In other words, using some basic, fundamental knowledge about music and music history. (Layman’s stuff—no music theory training required.) Time to forget the dumbasses. Let’s find out why “Bohemian Rhapsody” was and remains one of the smartest songs ever written.
That “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an epic rock song is pretty universally acknowledged. One obvious way you could begin analyzing an epic rock song (like, perhaps, what a music critic could have done) would be to compare and contrast it to another well-known epic rock song.
Compared to “A Day in the Life”
Take, for example, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Which we can use as an epic rock song guide. We see that “Bohemian Rhapsody” follows a very similar pattern to it. Introduction, verses, fantasy bridge section. Another bridge section of new material that could have been a song unto itself. Transition back to main song, a recap, and the end.
See, that wasn’t so hard. Already, “Bohemian Rhapsody” becomes easier to wrap our heads around. Of course, as with any great work of art, it has its own unique aspects. But let’s get this one thing straight from the outset. The song has a general form that makes total sense and with which we are already familiar and appreciate.
Two songs with similarities
Hey, we also figured out in as long as it took to listen to the two songs that both have titles that are not found as lyrics in the song. Just as neither of them have distinctive well-repeated hooks. Even though they both have ample lyrical motifs. Short musical figures that appear multiple times within a song and are often developed and modified.
Congratulations, we just torpedoed some of the critics’ leading complaints. And we’ve barely gotten started.
The introduction section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is no mere vamping introduction, as we find in “A Day in the Life”. But one in which key musical and lyrical themes for the entire song are introduced.
Tin Pan Alley, and “Over the Rainbow”
Far from being unusual, this used to be the songwriting standard. Yes, the “standard” songs of Tin Pan Alley often had lengthy introductions before getting into the meat on the song’s bones. The “refrain” (what we now call the “verses”).
Check out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a great example. With its “When all the world’s a hopeless jumble . . .” extended introduction. This is as traditional in songwriting structure as it gets. Having grown out of the “strophic” form of classical music. Even the operatic tradition of bel canto opera’s cantabile/cabaletta format. Indeed, “Rhapsody” gives us pure cantabile (lit. “singable”) with its a capella (voice-only) opening, and slow, beautiful lyric phrases.
The introduction elements
The introduction sets out four key topical themes right off the bat. 1) fantasy as avoidance/what is illusion? (“Is this the real life?/Is this just fantasy?”). 2. reality is overwhelming (“Caught in a landslide/No escape from reality”). 3. the lament (“I’m just a poor boy”); and 4. the need to let go (“Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me”).
Musically, while setting up the perfect mood for the verses that follow, we also get the very important “chromatic loop” motif. It appears first with the words “Easy come, easy go/Little high, little low.” (Chromatic means the music moves in the smallest musical steps possible in our 12-note system, in this instance, B to B flat to A natural to B flat and back to B.)
The intro also gives us a related figure. The downward chromatic bassline found under the introduction’s vocal. “Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me.” (We’ll see as we go along that this latter figure dominates much of the song.)
Now we’re all ready for the verses, and boy are they beautiful and moving. Each of the two verses has two parts. A subdued, lamenting first part and a fiery, passionate second.
In the first part of each verse, the piano plays very simple arpeggios. Thats the musical term for articulating the individual notes of a chord. These are made poignant and plaintive by ending them on high “passing” notes. Those are notes which are not part of the chord but which add color before they move back towards a note that is a part of the chord.
The central musical hook
This is a central musical hook that serves as a signature of the song. If someone sat down to the piano and just played the six basic notes of that piano line which comes before the first “Mama.” Even the least musically inclined person would immediately recognize “Hey, Bohemian Rhapsody!”
Indeed, in the film Bohemian Rhapsody, the first hint of the song comes when Freddie Mercury’s character plays this theme to his girlfriend. While lying underneath the piano and reaching his hands backwards onto the keyboard. Anyone remotely familiar with the song knew exactly what he was playing. It is the main theme of the piano accompaniment for the verses. So we’ll call this the “main accompaniment theme.”
Second half of each verse
The second half of each verse is modulated (i.e., “transitioned”). With a more extended version of the downward chromatic bass line that we first came across in the introduction. For the first verse, we’re talking about the line “But now I’ve gone and blown it all away.” And for the second verse it’s at “Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.”
What’s more, that same descending chromatic bass line comes a few bars later. Under the lines “Didn’t mean to make you cry” and “I don’t want to die.” Adding power by appearing higher in pitch than it did in the transitions that preceded.
The second half of each verse is totally integrated with the first half through the inclusion of a snippet of the main accompaniment theme. This appears right after “Mama, ooh ooh” each time. Emphasized in the second verse by the inclusion of the background vocal “Any way the wind blows”).
Transitions between verses
The transition between the two verses utilizes a beautiful piano figure that contains an ostinato (a repeated note—the E flat on top). Alternating with descending chromatic notes. We’ll call this the “chromatic piano motif.” It constitutes the third important chromatic motif of the song. Along with the chromatic loop found in multiple vocal phrases. And the descending chromatic bass which persistently gives power, tension, and movement to the song.
The chromatic piano motif connects the two verses. We’ll also see it appear in the middle section and at the end, where it ties the whole song together. Significantly, however, it’s not out of the blue here. Because Freddie already introduced this figure back in the introduction, where he played just the first half of it to join the phrases. “Look up at the skies and see” and “I’m just a poor boy.”
Go listen to both now. This transition between the two verses. Right after “Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters”, and the snippet portion that was teased in the introduction.
Are you starting to feel me? One of the smartest songs ever.
Brian May’s guitar solo
Time for a guitar solo now. And what better way to have the guitar take over from the wonderful vocal than to literally have it take over the last vocal line of the second verse?
When Brian May starts playing his inspiring, anthemic guitar lead—which is some of the best “singing” on guitar we’ve ever heard—he’s actually stepping in where we would have expected to hear the end of Freddie’s vocal phrase. (Compare to the end of the first verse, where Freddie sang “Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.”)
So here, the guitar carries on in place of the vocal. But instead of closing the verse May continues to play over what has morphed into a loop of the whole chord progression. For the latter half of the verses, in fact, he plays over two full repetitions of that progression.
Quick—name another song that ever did such a thing. Time’s up. You failed.
Flourishes and fantasy
The guitar solo wraps up with some glorious scale flourishes. And yet another novel descending chromatic bass line stomp. That lands us in a completely bizarre and new key. A major, which is as remote from the E flatmajor we were just in as you can get. A “tritone” apart, for you music theory junkies).
Together with the sudden hard stop, it gives a quite jarring feeling for the beginning of this new portion of the song. Which I refer to as the “fantasy section”. In the film, Freddie’s character calls it the “operatic section”.
If “Bohemian Rhapsody” was King Lear, the fantasy section would be the Storm scene. Except instead of Lear raging at the storm and the world, the song’s protagonist experiences an internal raging that careens around tragedy and comedy. With the world pulling in a thousand different directions while he tries to find and maintain his sense of self.
“A Day in the Life” has the intense, ascending crescendo of cacophony. And “Rhapsody” has this rapid-fire psychological tug-of-war. That we all love to try to sing along to (often poorly) whenever the opportunity presents itself, with its “Figaros,” “Galileos,” and “Magnificos.”
Musically, the fantasy section is all centered around the “chromatic loop”. From the introduction. “I see a little silhouetto of a man” is the same melodic figure as “Easy come, easy go,” etc. from the beginning.
The chromatic loop
This chromatic loop appears essentially four times in the fantasy section, but in several different forms. The “silhouetto” phrase is a unique form that only appears once in the song. Then there’s the “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me,” which is in the original form from the introduction. Followed immediately by a slightly modified form as the “choir” responds. “He’s just a poor boy from a poor family.” And then finally again in the original form on “Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?”
For the music theory buffs, note that the first use in the fantasy section is on the A Major chord. Where the melody circumambulates around the major 3rd of the chord—C sharp. Whereas the second use is a repeat of the introduction’s oscillation around a B flat with full chord voicing.
The third form
The third form is slightly modified from the second in that it raises the top note from B to C and maintains a E flat bass throughout (making it oscillate around the chord’s 5th). And the fourth form is a repeat of the second. In which the full underlying chords move in the chromatic steps with the melody.
Also, by the way, stop and listen to the song just after “Spare him his life from this monstrosity.” What do you hear? That’s right! It’s the chromatic piano motif. That chromatic figure in which notes of a descending chromatic harmony are alternated with a repeated note at the top.
But that’s not all. Listen back to the line “Spare him his life from this monstrosity” itself. Did you notice that that is actually a vocalized version of the same chromatic piano motif?!! The one and only appearance of it in the song. But damn if he didn’t put it in there for us to find!
Gee, that’s like something you would see in one of the smartest songs ever written, isn’t it?
The Chromatic loop melody
The astute will have already noted that the predominance of the chromatic loop melody in the vocals. It not only ties the entire fantasy section musically to the introduction. And by extension, the rest of the song, which relies heavily on the three different chromatic motifs. But its corresponding lyrics return us to the exact same expressions of the “poor boy” and “easy come, easy go”—both the lament and the letting go—of the introduction.
And it’s that letting go. Which our poor boy seems so ready to do if not for all the forces of the world lined up against him. And striving intensely to prevent him from doing so. Which emerges here as the clear central struggle of the entire song.
“Will you let me go?” “Bismillah” (in the name of God) “We will not yet you go.” “Let him go!” “No!” “Let me go!” “No! Never Let you go!!!” “Oh mama . . . let me go!!” Yes, Satan has a special devil dedicated just to making sure you are not let go. So, screw you!
Oh, and before we move on, a brief sidebar to point out that “Mama mia, mama mia” is a development of the “Galileo, Galileo” motif, thus adding musical symmetry. Bookending the entire fantasy section!
(Say it with me now . . . “Smartest song. . .”)
The buildup on the line “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me” serves as the climax of the song. Leading us to the “defiant section.” Here, the protagonist finds the strength to break through the madness and obstructions and find out what’s right for himself.
It is new material that could have very well been a song on its own. Like McCartney’s “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” in “A Day in the Life”. Which also appeared right after the intense climax of that song.
This is the part that teenagers have banged their heads to while driving in cars ever since it first came out. When we saw Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and the other guys banging their heads to it in Wayne’s World it was a moment of pure joy. So many of us recalled our own numerous head-banging moments to the exact same relatively brief portion of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The meaning of it all
But would Queen have been better served by taking that great, raucous riff and using it as the basis for an entirely different song? Would that separate song have been as powerful if they had done so? No and No.
If I may speak to the dumbasses once again. Instead of complaining that this came from out of nowhere. And muddles the song’s already supposed non-existent structure. Why didn’t you simply acknowledge that this part follows the template found in “A Day in the Life”.
And that the element that heightens its intensity and power is the very fact that it comes in the song after so much turmoil was overcome? If you suddenly appear at the top of the mountain, it just ain’t the same as reaching it after having struggled to get there. Musical 101. “Can’t do this to me, baby!”
Scale flourishes and singing guitar parts
So, how to get right out of this powerful defiant section. With its new material, and on to the ending of “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Because, unlike “A Day in the Life” we don’t need or want a 3rd verse. Which would have made the song unnecessarily too long.
How about take the idea of the scale flourishes found at the end of the first guitar solo. And introduce similar ones that transition us back to the chords of the latter half of the verses, From which sprung . . . the first guitar solo!!.
Then, put some more “singing guitar” parts and simple arpeggios over those chords. Until we fade into a quasi-reprise of the introduction? Brilliant. And that’s exactly what they did.
Putting together the puzzle
Indeed, if the song never had a fantasy section and subsequent defiant section, this transition could have been seamlessly sewn onto the end of the first guitar solo. And it would have flowed right to the ending as it does here. Boom. Done. Thus, it is the perfect piece of the puzzle, and always belonged precisely where it is found.
All the different song sections, or “odes,” are nicely stitched together. Hey, gee, that’s exactly what “rhapsody” means. From the Greek word rhapsode. One who sews together lines of poetry and music. Especially an epic tale of heroism. Hmmm.
“Nothing Really Matters”
The music of the ending comes in peaceful and resolved, and the lyrics repeat that “Nothing really matters,” i.e., he has learned to let go. The piano here mirrors the mood of the introduction.
And after the final “Nothing really matters to me” we get several different versions of the chromatic piano motif played. They are brilliantly placed on top of a slowly descending chromatic bass line. The first and only instance of such. Fusing those two fundamental building blocks of the song together in a brilliant display of cohesion.
The descending chromatic bass supports the progression of the final cadence. But although we have come to rest comfortably on the final F major chord, the piano gives us just one more chromatic piano motif. While the vocal delivers the afterthought line “Any way the wind blows”. Poetically driving home that the letting go is complete and final.
Pretty. Damn. Smart.
What does it all mean
“Yeah, but what does it all mean?” many have asked. Seriously? “What do you mean ‘What does it all mean?’!?!” I would have shouted back in response. How is that a question? As if these critics spent the greater part of the previous ten years trying to discern what “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower” meant. And damnit, they sure as hell were not going to put themselves through THAT ever again.
As Brian May’s character responds in the film Bohemian Rhapsody to this age-old question of what does it mean? It’s not much of a mystery if it’s all spelled out for you, is it? Art is largely about the meaning that the one experiencing it puts into it.
Dylan, Lennon, and Lewis Carroll
Ever listen to a guy named Bob Dylan? But let’s be clear, whereas Lennon explicitly stated that “Walrus” was full of Lewis Carroll-inspired gobbledygook. “Rhapsody” by comparison has relatively little nonsense. And its nonsense is used for effect within a larger structure that is steeped in deep meaning.
So, who cares what the critics understood or didn’t understand? After all, anyone can see that nothing that they wrote really matters. Right? Well, nothing really matters to me.
Bohemian Rhapsody – One of the smartest songs ever written
This song is marvelously constructed. Contains numerous motivic developments that more than satisfactorily sustain its length. And has a clear layer of self-evident meaning within its veils of mystery. It is, after all, not a jumble but a finely woven tapestry of thoughtful artistic design.
By taking just some basic analytical steps, we were easily able to substantiate what we felt all along. That “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the smartest songs ever written. And no amount of misunderstanding or failure to try to understand can ever change that.