Timing at the start of Bohemian Rhapsody

13th November, 2018

There's a lot to say about the iconic opening of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody (or indeed about the entire song) but a recent observation by Twitter-friend Eric Fischer sent me down the path of a rather interesting analysis.

At issue is where the first downbeat, the so-called "one", is.

Without thinking about it too much, I'd always assumed the first word "is" was a pickup (what's more traditionally called an anacrusis), thus placing the downbeat on "this".



This is not, as I discovered, how the sheet music handles it. Every instance I could find of sheet music online has the downbeat before the "is", almost in imitation of the famous motif in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony:


This has a ripple-on effect on how the next three bars are thought of and notated.

But this is not the most interesting part. What Eric observed was that neither of the above interpretations are correct based on the count-in Freddie Mercury did while recording the song.

* * *

Back in August, I discovered and tweeted about a segment from a documentary about the song:

But then, three months later, Eric tweeted the following:

This shocked me, but as I listened to the video, there's no other way to take it: the first word is on the downbeat.


This means that, rather unexpectedly, "real" and "life" are syncopated.

It also potentially changes the interpretation as "is this the real life?" is a subtly different question from "is this the real life?".

What effect does this have on the next three bars, which are normally notated with a time signature change anyway?

* * *

To better get a grip on what's actually going on, I brought the audio track into Logic Pro and added a click track, making one adjustment to the tempo to keep the clicks lined up with the onsets of the words.

Before I describe exactly what I found, here's a typical example of how (just) the rhythm of the first four bars is typically notated in sheet music for the song:

Given Freddie's count-in, this must be wrong!

Dropping the first eighth-note rest would shift everything over and we wouldn't need the rests at the start of the next two bars either. This would, however, screw up the fourth bar where the downbeat must be on the second syllable of "escape". So there's clearly something else going wrong.

But even before we get to "escape", there's another mistake. The notation above has the second "is" occurring exactly a whole note after the first. But, as my click-track experiment made clear to me (and now it's obvious listening to the recording), the onset of the second "is" is actually NINE eighth-notes after the first.

So the first bar is almost certainly best thought of as being nine eighth-notes long. Actually calling it 9/8 (i.e. grouping it into 3+3+3) solves the odd syncopated notatation on "real" (which doesn't sound anticipatory) but leaves it on the "life" (which also doesn't sound anticipatory). The metre of the lyrics suggests a 3+2+2+2 grouping (which is really more like a 3/8 followed by a 3/4).

Incidentally, if not for Freddie's count-in, this would make an excellent argument for my original interpretation of the opening "is" as a pickup against the sheet music. If a pickup were involved, it would explain the nine eighth-note distance between the two "is" onsets while allowing a simple 4/4 for the first measure.

But moving on...

Based on the onsets of the second "is" and "caught", the second line actually is just a whole note long although there's a slight ritardando during "fantasy". The metre of the lyrics suggests the eighth-notes group as 3+3+2 although this need not be reflected in the notation.

The third line is another one with nine eighth-notes which reflects the 5/4 commonly found in the sheet music once you don't have to worry about the initial eighth-note rest. Metrically, this follows the same 3+2+2+2 grouping of the first line.

The final line could go two ways. It could be thought of as 3+2+2+2 (=9) eighth-notes, just like the first and third lines, leading directly into the entrance of the piano. It could also be thought of as a regular 4/4 measure (albeit thought of as 3+2+3) with a pause. A pause certainly makes sense in context however, the fact the pause is exactly an eighth-note suggests a clear continuation of the pulse.

* * *

So where does that leave us? The common sheet music is clearly incorrect. There are a couple of notation decisions that could go either way and there's an open question of whether to bother conveying something like a 3+2+3 explicitly or just leave it implicit in a 4/4 measure.

Probably the simplest notation that reflects the recording (and count-in) would be something like:

Although if we wanted to be explicit about grouping within the measure (especially for the 9/8 measures) we could do something like:

One of the nice things about this little adventure is it's brought up some interesting questions about modelling time in music that we can come back to in future posts.

There is, however, one thing that still has me slightly puzzled. Freddie counts-in using quarter notes. This is counterintuitive for an opening measure in a compound time! Part of me still wants to believe the first "is" is a pickup. This keeps the notation of the recorded opening clean and simple, with the only rhythmic anomaly cleverly being the lengthened second syllable in "landslide". If Eric had never pointed out the count-in evidence, I might have made a strong argument for this analysis. But the count-in captured in the documentary suggests otherwise.

Either way, count-in or no count-in, the standard sheet music does not reflect the timing of the start of Bohemian Rhapsody as recorded.