Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsA big part of what makes Bohemian Rhapsody great is the very clever way that it plays with our expectations about what happens next in pop songs. So it starts with a lengthy introduction. (SINGING) Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Skip to 0 minutes and 22 secondsBefore the first verse then kicks in. (SINGING) Mama, just killed a man--

Skip to 0 minutes and 34 secondsSo this verse orients you after that slightly confusing introduction. However, instead of going to a chorus at the end of the verse, like you'd expecting in the standard pop song, it simply repeats the verse again. (SINGING) Too late. My time has come.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 secondsAnd so this does sometimes happen in pop ballads, especially when they're building to a big chorus. It's giving you a bit of a tease. You know what's going to happen, but it's not happening just yet. And this second verse builds magnificently. The drums get louder, and the loud guitars kick in about halfway through. And then as you're expecting the chorus to hit, there's a guitar solo, which is a bit of an anticlimax. And this guitar solo starts to feel like a middle 8 section. It's presence sort of means that you expect Bohemian Rhapsody is about to go back to a third verse, with Freddie singing more about his mama killing a man.

Skip to 1 minute and 24 secondsAnd here's where Queen pull off a brilliant masterstroke. Instead of that third verse, there's an opera section.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds(SINGING) I see a little silhouetto of a man. So that section, the crazy opera section. And this is completely unexpected in the course of a pop song. Pop songs just don't usually go to opera sections. And we no longer know what's going to happen next in the song. And this cleverly makes the opera section feel anxious. We really don't know what's going to happen next, and this builds up a feeling of tension. But of course, because Queen are at heart a rock band, they eventually resolve this tension after the end of that opera section but transforming from opera into what rock bands usually do, getting loud and fast and rocking.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsAnd so when Mercury sings the lines-- (SINGING) So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 secondsIt's the first part of the song that finally feels like a chorus. And so when Queen finally sing this loud rock and roll chorus after four minutes of teasing, it really feels like release. So no wonder the section makes many people want to headbang, Wayne's World style. And so after this tension is released by that chorus, the song by nature sort of peters out, bringing us full circle to a section reminiscent of how the song originally started. (SINGING) Nothing really matters. Anyone can see. And there's way more to this masterpiece, of course. But this structure and the way the different sections work out plays a really big part in how we feel when we listen to the song.

Bohemian expectations

Now we will look at how the way the different sections of Bohemian Rhapsody are ordered, to explain just how Queen make different parts of the song feel really good.

Some of you may know all of this stuff I’m about to tell you about pop song structure already, but if you don’t following is an explanation of what’s going on in the average pop song.

Usually pop songs are divided into different sections:

  • a repeating verse (which usually has different lyrics every time),

  • a repeating chorus (which usually is catchier and more repetitive than the verse, with the same lyrics every time), and

  • a middle 8 (which is a new section which goes somewhere different to the verse and chorus in some way, in order to somewhat break up the repetition).

We expect that, usually, a pop song to have a structure like this:

Intro - Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Middle 8/Bridge - Chorus Chorus Chorus - Outro

Listen to this popular song ‘Africa’ by Toto

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

If we look at the structure of ‘Africa’, it follows pop song structure pretty straightforwardly:

  • Intro (0:00-0:24): The bit with two synthesizers doing a ‘call and response’ - you hear a warm synth doing chords as a ‘call’, and then another synth that sounds a bit like steel drums which is a ‘response’.

  • Verse 1 (0:25-1:09): ‘I hear the drums echoing tonight…’

  • Chorus 1 (1:09-1:33): ‘It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you…’ - this is the bit of the song you hear the title of the song in, usually.

  • Verse 2 (1:33-2:16): ‘The wild dogs cry out in the night…’

  • Chorus 2 (2:16-2:41): ‘It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you…’ - choruses in a pop song are usually repeats

  • Middle 8/Bridge (2:41-3:13): This is a new section that’s different to the verse: in the case of ‘Africa’, the new section is a synthesiser solo over the verse chords.

  • Chorus 3 (3:13-3:59): This chorus is a little different to the previous choruses - in Chorus 1 and Chorus 2, Toto only sing the line ‘I bless the rains down in Africa’ once, but in this chorus, they repeat it five times in a row.

  • Outro (3:59-4:34): This repeats the intro, but fades out.

This is the kind of structure that most pop songs have, from The Beatles to Lady Gaga, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In contrast, in Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the structure is more like:

  • Intro (0:00-1:00)
  • Verse (1:00-2:00)
  • Verse (2:00-2:41)
  • Middle 8 Guitar Solo (2:41-3:08)
  • Opera Section (3:08-4:12)
  • Rock Section (4:12-5:16)
  • Outro (5:16-6:00)

As Tim explained in the video, Queen set up your expectations by making you think you’ve gone through a couple of verses (lots of ballads have a long verse rather than a verse and a chorus), and then a middle 8.

This is a big part of the appeal of the song. It lulls you into a false sense of security that your expectations about a rock ballad will continue to be met. And then…opera! The opera section sets up a tension which is then resolved with the rock section going back to our expectations of them while still doing something new in the context of the song. It shows that the opera section was leading somewhere.

Is that everything?

Of course, the structure of the song isn’t the only reason why it might feel good to us. What’s in those different sections of the song matter a lot too. Queen are expertly playing with our expectations in other parts of the song, such as:

  • the way they use chords,
  • the way they use rhythms,
  • the way the melody goes, and
  • the interplay of arrangement i.e. where instruments come in and out and where it gets loud and soft.

However, in a two week course we cannot possibly cover all aspects of why this song feels good, particularly given our different backgrounds.

But the kinds of things that Queen do with the structure of the song to play with your expectations, they also do with other parts of the music, to different extents. And so the chords, the rhythms, and the sounds, all play a role in why the song makes you feel emotions. Of course.

Your task

Can you identify the structure of the different sections in another pop song you like, apart from Africa or Bohemian Rhapsody? And if so, can you see ways in which that structure contributes to the feeling you get from the song?

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This video is from the free online course:

Music Psychology: Why Does "Bohemian Rhapsody" Feel so Good?

Griffith University