Bohemian Rhapsody like never before

A (quasi) musical analysis of an unclassifiable masterpiece by Marianna Moioli

One million, one hundred and thirty-five thousand, eight hundred and nineteen… No, wait, I misread that. There are actually another three digits. As I write, that's one billion, one hundred and thirty-five million, eight hundred and nineteen thousand, eight hundred and twenty-four views on YouTube.

Fun fact: In 1975, the year the track was released, YouTube didn't exist. This means that these numbers, and a whole host of other mind-boggling figures, reflect a recent or even ongoing level of interest. If you're one of those people who has always admired the song and listened with interest, but without really understanding it, take a look at the truly unconventional structure of the rhapsody.

A song's musical structure—or form—is its skeleton. It is made up of interconnecting parts or sections that work together to support the expressive elements of melody and harmony.

The first great thing to note about Bohemian Rhapsody is that there is no chorus. That tried-and-tested, ultra-safe method of alternating between verses and chorus is blown completely out of the water. It's widely recognised that the whole thing can be broken down into five parts, but it's the difference between these parts that is truly astonishing. Let's take a look.

Here's the link to the video. Follow along, if you like.

The Intro (00.00 - 00.51)

Often short and with no delusions of grandeur, a song's introduction simply gives us a taste of things to come, much like a welcome mat outside a front door. That certainly isn't the case here. Fifty seconds is quite a long time, but not for this song. The voices launch an a cappella attack (i.e. with no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever) and the curtain is lifted on a stage filled with musical genres and references that range from the ordinary to the fantastic. We don't know it yet, but almost everything we hear here will be revisited and developed later, be that in the melodic vocal, the lyrics or the piano part that begins at a particularly unusual point (it doesn't wait for the natural end of the implied harmonic progression, an end that, among other things, is bravely and brilliantly postponed to the end of the intro itself).

The ballad (00:50–02:39)

Extremely powerful and yet sweet, both in intent and execution, this is the part where we really go for it (don't act like you've not tried at least once). We sing from the heart, without any real appreciation of who or what the lyrics are referring to. It doesn't really matter: The message arrives loud and clear. This is where the band's rock sound comes in and in the second verse, from "Mama, oooh, I don't want to die" onwards, there is a single crescendo that pushes us into the arms of the electric guitar.

Did I say five parts? Sorry, let's go for six. The guitar solo deserves its own.

The guitar solo (02:39–03:05)

After confessing "Sometimes I wish I'd never been born at all", there is certainly nothing left to say. At least, not immediately and not in words. The intensity of this solo is indescribable. As solos go, it's actually pretty short, but it has everything you need to get lost in it.

The so-called operatic part (03:05–04:09)

Here is the first real break, a clear line that awakens us from the dream (or maybe not?). The key is worlds apart from the previous one, with the landscape of these notes following a scale with few sounds in common. Then it's time for a costume change. The chorus of voices is back, now playing contrasting—almost caricatured—musical roles. The game is "call and response", as they switch from one voice to all. The numerous nods to opera would take quite some time to quote and explain. So, let's listen to the rhythm of the words "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me". It's a rhythm emphasised by everyone, but primarily the instruments, before the famous B-flat high note. We're at the peak of the song and on top of the world.

The hard rock concert (04:09–04:56)

Those with long hair, let it down now. There's no resisting the pull of the 4/4 time, which unapologetically moves anything in its path. We could call this part an interlude (inter- "between", ludus a "game" or "show"), but it has a soul of its own that by no means claims to be connected to the rest.

The outro (04:56–05:56)

Counterposing the intro and almost as long, so begins the descent to the "almost six minute" mark. We have travelled to many places, although we're not really sure where, but then it is only right and indeed sacrosanct that some of the choices and meanings remain a mystery. You cannot dissect something beautiful and claim to have found its essence.

"… And the harmony that governs her whole body is too lovely for impotent analysis to note its numerous accords", wrote Baudelaire in "All of Her" from The Flowers of Evil.

The sweetness of the finale is a much-needed caress. "Mama" is already so far away…