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,