What an Average ‘Hit’ looks like
Before we break the song down, let us have a brief analysis of what the greatest hits of all time had in common. I have picked 1500 songs ( charting hits ) right from the ’50s to the’10s, spread across all the popular genres ( Find the Spotify playlist here ).
To keep things simple, let’s focus only on one key attribute: The Tempo
We can infer that most tracks fall in the 100–130 BMP range. However, it is still fairly spread out to draw any homogeneity. let’s see how the tempo varies while playing these tracks.
Tempo Changes in the Playback
Every track is broken down into sections. Each line represents a track and how its tempo changes over its sections. We can see that almost all the tracks make a fairly straight line — i.e, the tempo remains constant throughout the track.
Only 5 Tracks ( 0.4 % / plot in red ) were observed to have a standard deviation of more than 30 BPM — i.e They have significant tempo variation. These tracks are:
- Forever Now, Green Day
- I Can’t Stop Loving You, Ray Charles
- I Hate U, I Love U, Gnash
- Isn’t She Lovely, Stevie Wonder
- Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen ( Surprise Surprise )
Breaking these tracks down
Let’s briefly look at the structure of the first 4 tracks using:
- Waveplot — Plots the amplitude over time.
- Spectrogram — Displays signal strength over time at the various frequencies present in a track.
We can observe a fair amount of repetition in the pattern. This accounts for the generic verse/chorus format most songs follow. Before we address that, let’s take a look at the spectrograms.
We can draw a very similar observation here. Apart from the repeating patterns, the spread of frequencies remains almost consistent throughout the timescale, which also means that each track can be conclusively classified into one genre.
Almost all songs that reach the top of the charts use some variety of the verse/chorus format. A verse part leads into a repeating, climactic chorus with some kind of a build and release (the loud/quiet/loud idea).
Take a few seconds and think of a song — — — — That one section that you started humming, the same part you sing to your friends when they ask “how does that song go again?” is called the Hook (Because it quite literally ‘hooks’ into your memory). All these elements carefully put together are a safe bet for a track to be a hit.
How is Bohemian Rhapsody Different?
The Waveplot shows little to no signs of pattern repetition, the Spectrogram also displays a divergent spread of frequency distribution — which doesn’t follow the ‘generic hit formula’ of a verse/chorus format. This goes to uncover a rather unfamiliar structure that Bohemian Rhapsody carries, and that is exactly what makes it a masterpiece, the fact that it not a song but indeed a rhapsody.
A Rhapsody is a piece of music that is meant to express different kinds of emotions and does not have a regular form. It is often classical and through-composed. Which means it has got no repeating sections.
We can break it down into 5 distinct sections, each can be classified into a genre and posses its corresponding audio features.
Queen takes musical genres and analogies the audience is already familiar with and adapts them to the narrative of their songs. They also do the same with the structure, by taking the well-known format of the Hero’s Journey and adapt it into a song unlike anything else in the history of rock music. This combination is what makes the song instantly approachable, yet still exciting even after all these years. This is how a song as weird and disjointed as Bohemian Rhapsody became a huge charting hit and also proves to be emotionally resonant for decades to come.