Read all 5 events for 16 December at diary.QueenSongs.info
Queen gave us a great deal of melodious, harmonious, and unique songs. Some of these are rather melodic, some are rather unique, and many of them are strong at both which is a key achivement of the band. Average people and radio stations usually respect the "melodious" or dance-oriented quote: Killer Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, I Want To Break Free, A Kind Of Magic. The album-oriented listeners respect Queen for their uniqueness at least as much as for their catchy melodies.
On unconscious level people do percept many musical devices: e.g. a tasteful change of key or a special chord or rhythm pattern can enhance the beauty of a melody for many people. Listeners that are more into music tend to notice such tricks right on the spot, while little children and throwaway-music listeners are less affected by special compositional devices.
Most of the evergreen pop-songs do apply certain tricks on compositional level. On the other hand, the relation between success and the musical values built in is by far not direct in the pop/rock business. We can find flat songs even among the still circulating oldies as well as melodious clever numbers that failed to become successful or stay in the public's mind. Taking "average" Queen songs like '39 or Need Your Loving Tonight, we don't have to search long to find less valuable or less melodious songs among the songs of oldies-playing FM stations or among, say, even US No1 hits.
The "commercial" approach of songwriting in most of the times features extremely limited use of any special musical devices (harmony, form, and rhythm), but there's the omnipresence of cliches to "make up". On the other hand, on production level they may invest much more to get a fashionable sound.
Queen definitely wrote some less complex compositions, too, like We Will Rock You, but they usually added something (in this case: rock-hymn-like lyrics, a dynamically performed ostinato-rhythm, and a killer guitar solo). However, as we will see in the articles, there is a remarkable accumulation of musical devices in many Queen songs.
Many bands playing non-trendy or progressive music failed or didn't even try to become successful on the single market. Brian May himself also considered Queen to be an album-oriented band, but in fact they came out by many chart-hit songs. Many of these live longer than a big deal of the singles that charted better at the time.
What is valuable and what is disposable music? There's no ultimate rule to distinguish them. However, there is some relation between the "value" of a piece of music and the way the musical devices are used. Typical throwaway music lacks most of the aesthetic values listed below:
The following points that are mostly out of the analysis' scope:
Even disposable music can be enjoyable if the melody is catchy or the production is worked out well. Such songs eventually avoid getting thrown away. Using the points listed above, you can classify many different kinds of music from the classic genres to blues, from disco to punk, or from jazz to rap. On the other hand, all genres have different aesthetic systems. For example, the heavy repetition, the use of cliches, monotonous rhythm, narrow style-spectrum can be a positive factor in many dance-related styles. Modern riff-driven metal music also has different approach: high intensity, powerful rhythm section, "dark" lyrics, and adroit instrumentation. The list is long (jazz, progressive rock, classical music...), but the combination of criteria listed above creates a relatively general way of classification that can be adapted to Queen as well.
An interesting anomaly how Queen albums got numerous bad (sometimes even vicious) reviews through their carrier, especially in the US. The reviewers often failed to adpat the above described very general system of aesthetics, and preferred their own approach that was adjusted to certain subgenres or bands, and often overemphasised the role of lyrics. You can find many horrible reviews across the internet that put down Queen albums. These reviewers seem to have weak skill to recognise what is generic and what is creative songwriting wise.
Pop (and all other) songs are built out of sections. There are some standardized ways to arrange them. Like the two-bridge model:
(intro) | Verse (once or twice) | Bridge (or Refrain) |
| Verse (once or twice) | Bridge (or Refrain) | Verse or Outro |
The use of standard song forms itself is not bad, but a creative songwriter can apply many different ways to arrange the sections. The standard forms are expectable thus may become boring in a relitevly short while. Queen wrote many songs with complex way of repeating or varying sections and subsections. Hardly any pop-song reached the level of complexity of the more complex Queen songs like, say, Killer Queen. Queen applied some stand-alone complex structures (e.g. March Of The Black Queen, Don't Stop Me Now) of sections and subsections.
Pop songs usually consist of sections: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, outro... These sections are often either 4, 8, 12 or 16 measures long and can be parsed to phrases of even number and length. "Good" songwriters use both even and uneven phrasing, while throwaway (or rookie) songwriters rarely or simply never use uneven phrasing. If you want to know more about how big part of FM-pop uses strictly even phrasing, just switch on the radio! Related tricks to mention are the phrase shortening and the use of half measure. The avoidance of uneven phrasing and the use half measures are not a direct sign of "disposable" songwriting at all, but great musical minds can more easily (even unconsciously) break the four-squared metric and phrasing frames.
Most of the successful pop-songs have a section or longer (4-8 measures) phrase, which is repeated at least six to eight times. This is normal. But over this number of repetition we can talk about repetitive song. So are Queen songs In The Lap Of The Gods... Revisited and Father To Son. Queen, except a few examples, used section-repetition much less heavily than the FM-pop-genre.
Net melody content
With a stop clock one can measure more or less the amount of lead melody composed for a given song. The clock has to stop during instrumental phrases, repeated or just slightly varied phrases reaching the length of one measure, and during pauses reaching the length of one second. Low value (under 20 sec) can be caused by heavy use of section and phrase repetition. This measurement doesn't apply for instrumental dominated songs. Queen wrote many songs (including hits) being in the range where (successful) pop-songs rarely are.
Off-beat accents and emphases. Meters.
The rhythms are often responsible for turning a melody interesting or generic. The pop/rock songwriters often write melodies and riffs feature off-beat accents; others contain non-emphasized or "empty" down-beats and hard syncopation. Throwaway-composers don't/can't really use such tricks in the department of rhythm.
Progressive bands and several pop songwriters sometimes made use of unusual meters. Pink Floyd: Money, (Verse alters 4/4 and 3/4), Beatles: All You Need Is Love (Verse: alternated 3/4-4/4), A. L. Webber: Everything's Alright (J.C. Superstar, 5/4), early Genesis compositions, etc.
Queen would make rare use such unusual meters, (e.g. Innuendo: 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4). Ternate meters (3/4, 6/8) are more common (e.g. We Are The Champions, One Year Of Love). On the other hand Queen frequently used disorienting rhythms and emphases beneath the catchy surface, keeping the frame of usual meters. Many times they don't sound strange at all until one tries to count the beats (Killer Queen, Bicycle Race, The Prophet's Song; a good non-Queen example is Stairway To Heaven). In many Queen songs (especially in the no-synth era including the Smile years) we can find something tricky in the department of rhythm: 1/8 drop-outs, half-measures, meter-changes, disorienting texture of backing rhythm.
Even good composers may stay in only one particular style for their entire career. Still it's a sign of extraordinary talent if a musician or a band can work in so many styles (even if just a section long) and so remarkably well as Queen could. Let's see:
|piano-ballad:||Love Of My Life|
|rock-ballad:||Sail Away Sweet Sister|
|folk-ballad:||Leaving Home Ain't Easy|
|bar-blues:||My Melancholy Blues|
|blues a'la Clapton||Sleeping On The Sidewalk|
|early heavy metal:||Son & Daughter|
|symphony:||The Kiss (only one minute)|
|gospel:||Somebody To Love (middle section)|
|hard rock:||Hammer To Fall|
|punk:||Sheer Heart Attack (so-so)|
|pop:||You're My Best Friend|
|soul:||One Year Of Love|
|motown a'la Diana Ross:||Pain Is So Close To Pleasure|
|canon:||The Prophet's Song (canon is rather a form than a style)|
|Latino:||Who Needs You|
|opera:||Bohemian Rhapsody (freestyle art-rock), Golden Boy (solo, Mercury)|
|psychedelic cacophony:||Get Down Make Love (Live Killers)|
|synth tune:||Football Fight|
|rockabilly:||Crazy Little Thing Called Love|
|black chart-oriented disco:||Another One Bites The Dust|
|reggae:||Cool Cat (so-so)|
|big-band:||Good Company (outro)|
And for most categories there are at least two more examples,! Since songwriters usually don't even try to cover "distant" styles, we don't know for sure whether, say, Buddy Holly or Dr. Dre or John Deacon himself would be able to write a short symphonic movement like The Kiss (F.M.) if they wanted to. This is not only a matter of talent, but also of willingness and practice. What is really remarkable on these diverse songs is that Queen showed a talent and craftmanship as if they had been into that subgenre for ages.
Arrangement & harmonies
This is something Queen were pretty strong at and famous for. They gained a remarkable craftsmanship right from the start while arranging their first albums. Take a look at the arrangement/orchestration of Good Company (arr. by May) or Bohemian Rhapsody (arr. by Mercury) and think over which pop/rock band, composer, or guitarist could have done such a job on such a level. Harmonizing a melody can be done simply with mostly parallel diatonic motions, like in Hammer To Fall. More clever harmony arrangements can apply non-standard chords, tight intervals in harmony, non-parallel counterparts, antiphony. On the other hand a good arrangement also makes clever use of the rule "less is more".
Keep in mind that harmonizing a major triad for a 100 piece orchestra or three guitar tracks or a strummed acoustic guitar takes mainly the same compositional cleverness, but the latter provides less freedom at applying the above listed devices.
This is a very important point and yet a strictly subjective one. Writing a catchy tune with a catchy chord progression can be the most difficult step in the compositional process. Even a very simple tune without clever harmonic and rhythmic design can be catchy. The repetitions and the frequent listening to also can enhance the "virtual" catchiness of a tune, sometimes extremly so. Many Queen songs are remarkably catchy, and this catchiness usually depends less on the repetitions than most of the FM-pop songs, especially the dance-oriented ones.
This point does not belong closely to the compositional values. The good music should be good even in sheet-music format. Still, the skillful performance effectively increases the enjoyment of the song, and moreover gets a lot of respect. Elvis Presley or Tina Turner gained great respect as performers without having written a single song ever. Freddie Mercury also got and still gets a great deal of praise among the rock-singers, but he also happens to have written and arranged some fantastic pop/rock songs. Moreover he played the piano in the band (usually). Roger was a talented drummer, John was an excellent bass player, Brian was a fabulous guitarist of his generation, and beside this all of them were great songwriters and multiinstrumentalist musicians.