Written by Freddie Mercury
Album: Jazz (November, 1978) 4th track
Single: October, 1978
Meter: 4/4, 3/4, (plus occassional anomalies)
Keys: Ab-Major, bb-minor, (Bb-major), F-major, C-major, D-major, (B-major)
| Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Bridge |
| Chorus'(first half) | "Race" (including solo)|
| Verse | Chorus |
In respect of rhythm and harmony, this song is maybe the most sophisticated 3-minute pop-rock hit song. This is maybe a too brave thing to claim, but I challange you to find a close contest (preferably non Queen. This piece provides a lesson of how to connect sections of different key and meter together. The number of 5-7 keys in a radio-hit song is extremly rare, the meter change is less rare, but still unusual.
The song starts with an intro-like Chorus section (see also Fat Bottomed Girls and I Want It All (single version)). There are two long sections that are not repeated at all. Each section can be divided to subsections. Queen performed this song live several times, but just an extract version (Chorus + Verse) as a part of a medley.
There are four Choruses in the song. Except the third one, they can be divided into two big parts. Each chorus consists of two triplets of "bicycle" phrases (upon two triplets of different chords) intervened by the phrase "I want to ride my..." which is curiously taken from the second half of the chorus. The last syllable of this subphrase ("my") is a half-step lower (Db) and in next beat is resolved to D.
The "bicycle" phrases are backed by five-part harmonies: two static and three moving parallel one upon the other. The highest part is the leading one and goes downward on the three notes of the actual chord, similarly to the other two.
chords: | Eb | Daug | Bbm | Ab Bbm7| D | B | Ab |
bottom: | Ab | Ab | Ab | | D | B | Ab |
bass: | Eb | D | Db | Ab | D | B | Ab |
Bb/bb:| IV | "I" | i |VII...
Ab:| ii | I ii | ? | ? | I |
Figuring out the key is trcky becuase we have two havily non-diatonic chord progressions. Later in the song this Chorus is preceded with a Verse which closes with the phrase ("all I wanna do is") backed with an F note with strong dominant (V of Bb-major) flavor created by the F1>G1>A1 motion converging to Bb and the nearby Eb7 chord. The first three measures of the intro don't make it clear whether it is a major or minor key, as the progression is driven by a chromatic double line-cliche. Similar can be found in Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon, too. The last three measures feature a very interesting chord progression: a downward chain of flat-3 steps: D > B > Ab. We can find a similar chord progression upwards in The March Of The Black Queen (1974). This progression creates an exciting feeling of continuous modulation because they are all "alien" chords in each-others harmonic territorry.
The second half of the chorus shows a AA'A"A form.
/-------------------- x2 -------------------\
Ab "Bbm7" | Ab | Ab Bbm7-5 | Ab | "Bbm7" = B+Ab+Db
I ii | I | I ii | I |
The intro-chorus starts "a capella" (without instrumental backing), which makes it sound more powerful and brings out the beauty of human voices in harmony. The bombastic effect is strengthened by stereo mixing.
Variants: as it was mentioned, the first chorus lacks the instrumental parts in its first three measures. In the second chorus the first three "bicycle" phrases go unisono (octave-parallel). During the second three "bicycle"-s the bottom part gets an ornament. The last note of this second chorus is overlapped by the upbeat of the bridge. The fourth and final chorus is "regular" except a scale up on the guitar that nicely reprises the motif of the guitar solo. The third chorus is the most different:
1) It lacks the second half.
2) The first three (two) measures go with different chords: F, C/E, Ab/Eb, so at last we arrive at the same Ab chord as in the "normal" choruses. This clever solution is hardly noticeable unless you take a closer look at the song. Note the chromatic descent in the bass-line.
3) The second block of three "bicycle"-s ends differently: it slows down and the last "bicycle" chord is G7 (instead of Ab). It is resolved to a C, with a strong tonic flavor (of a short lived key of C-major). This ritardando aims to picture the bicycles stopping before they give the concert with their rings.
There are two verses in the song, both of them followed by a chorus section. The form of the verses is ABAB' with 3+2+3+3 phrasing. Let's see first the A prhase. One can very quickly recognize there's something tricky going on with the rhythm even though neither the meter nor the tempo change(!). The first verse is preceded by a half measure of pause to give place for the upbeat. Both bass and drums apply some off-beat accents. In the third measure of the A phrase the drum beats the 6th eighth (three-and). It sounds simple but it's enough for most of us to lose the beat.
The spare harmony material of this phrase is only a Bbm, that's the actual key here. The economic arrangement and the tight rhythm remind me of Get Down Make Love (1977). In the second half of the second verse we can find a few bass extravaganzas featuring a double-string picking (2:20), which is a lick used by John very rarely. The vocal arrangement is antiphonal. The harmonic map of the B phrase:
|Gb7 | Eb7/G A1 ("F")|| Bb1 Bbm...
| VI | ? "V-of-i"|| i
The B' phrase:
|Gb7 | Eb7/G | F1... || Eb
| VI | IV | V ||
Bb:| IV | V || IV
At the end of the second measure the piano and the bass play A unisono, which can be easily interpreted as the major third of an F mostly because in the B' segment the third chord is an F (the actual tonic). The Gb7 > Eb7 progression features double cross-relation: (F >) E > E-flat and G-flat > G. The last notes of the B' phrase (F, G A) have a dominant flavor, and the way they converge to Bb results in a vague feel of Bb-major key.
In the first verse these last notes are backed by the piano; in the second verse the guitar takes over this role (in the first verse there's no guitar).
There is only one bridge section in the song, and it is built of three subsections:
1) the first one is 2x8 measures long has got a AA form, and the key is F-major. The meter is 3/4 throughout the whole Bridge. Half of the phrases in this segment are backed with four-part harmonies.
/------------- 2x -------------\
| Gm7 | C7 (D1)| F | Bb (A1)|
| ii | V | I | IV |
2) this segment is almost instrumental except some phrases shouted.
| Bb | A | Dm |C1 F | Dm .. |..Dm | Bb... |
| IV |V/vi | vi | I | vi | - | IV |
This is rather a harmonized melody (with thirds) than a real chain of chords. The guitar, however, plays the roots along the piano part, which also features the thirds. The rhythm is tricky again: just try to pick up and hold the beat: 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-... etc. The first three measures are OK, but from the fourth on you'd likely loose the beat for first attempt unless you have a strong sense of rhythm. The beat map (from the word "Go", the downbeat of the third measure) may help:
1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1
D C F E D C A D C Bb C Bicycle...
Think over how difficult it is to compose a melody that sounds natural, catchy, easy to memorize, but one can hardly pick up its beat. For example the famous riff from "Smoke On The Water" by the Deep Purple: try to hum it and hit along the beats with your leg. Lacking big portion of talent, one would never come up with such a riff/tune, rather than melodies with more quantized rhythm. Give it a try! This fanfare-like guitar-fill is composed by Freddie, while Brian arranged the harmonies for guitar and did a fine job on that.
3) The third segment consists of three "bicycle race" phrases in three measures shared between two unisono groups of vocals. The new key is C-major:
| G | C/G | G7 |
| V | I | V |
This part is closed by the same melody as the verse; only the "all I wanna do is" lyrics are missing. There are three problems that Freddie had to solve when returning to the chorus:
1) The meter is different. The last measure here switches it back to 4/4.
2) By the start of the Bridge the tempo was slowed down, not much but abruptly. The return is done gradually.
2) the key (C-Major) is a whole step higher than it "should be" (Bb). These problems are solved in the halved Chorus (see above).
This part also consists of more segments:
1) the bicycle rings. As I counted, there are bicycle rings of seven different pitches in action here. Ordered as they enter: A, D, F, E, Ab, C^, G^. As originally bicycle rings aren't made for playing music on, most of them are a bit false. The concert of the bicycle rings starts with some musical concept but soon gets totally chaotic, so there's no need to analyze it. An earlier appearance of a bicycle ring can be found in "Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon". The end of this segment overlaps with the next one.
2) The guitar solo starts with a four-part guitar harmony built up from bottom to top. The chord consists of only two different notes: A and Eb (A A^ Eb^^ A^^), and each note is thrilled by a half-step. The A-Eb relation however is called "diminished fourth" or simply tritonus (the distance of three whole steps). This chord aims to picture the tension of a start of a bicycle race. Following this chord, four upward D-major scales come, starting from degrees 1st, 5th, 1st, 5th respectively. The 1st and 3rd (and later 5th and 6th ones as well) measures are backed with similar (parallel "thirds") figures in the bass and piano parts. The 2nd and 4th measures feature arpeggio in the bass and an extra guitar figure (have you noticed before?). The ones starting on the 5th are so-called Mixolydian scales.
These first four scales are eight notes long, each one preceded with an extra note four steps below their starting tone. The next four scales are each four notes long. The first two of these consists of the first four notes of the D-major scale, the second one an octave higher. The third and the fourth mini-scales have the same concept upon the B-major scale. The next four "scales" are just two notes long and are backed with an Em piano chord. Three of the four scale-pieces (the 1st, 3rd and 4th) feature the same two notes shifted by one and two octaves. These scales can be associated with the bicycle race itself as they are racing, too, one overtaking the other and vice versa. Similar effect is often used in cartoons. If you listen to the individual channels muting the other ones, this part sounds funny. The gambit is called hocket, a recurring element in Queen songs. In the song A Kind Of Magic (1986) we find another guitar solo of similar concept. Although Brian was usually given free hand composing solos, Freddie might also be credited for composing this one. Unfortunately, I don't have information about such details. After the scales comes a dissonant four-part guitar harmony again (this time the notes enter from top), resulting a F#aug-add7 chord with three neighbor notes in it. The special effect here is that the notes are bent. Examples for four-part dissonant guitar chords with bent notes: Dead On Time, The Dark (Brain May's solo track from 1992/1980). Example for guitar harmony chord with more neighbor notes (cluster): Long Away. The finale of the "Race" part acts like a connector. We can find more similar ascending riffs closing a section or a smaller chunk in this song (riffs behind the phrases "all I wanna do is" and "president of America", but also the title phrase of the song Let Me Entertain You). Here we can hear another rhythmic anomaly: 3+3+3+4+3+3t+3+2 patern of eights that creates meters of 6/8 > 7/8 > 6/8 > 5/8 . The last '2' is rather a '4' that is overlapped by the next section (verse). The last few beats feature quickly dampened crash cymbals. The harmony of the "Race" section after the tritonus harmony:
| D | A | D | A |
| I | V | I | V |
| D | B | Em | F#aug-add7
| I | V-of-ii| ii |
B:| I | iv | "V"
A programmatic section similar to this "Race" can be found in Ogre Battle (1974) where we can find a section of, well, "Battle".