You know that feeling when a song’s intro seems to trip up your ear, so that when the band comes in it sounds like the timing’s out? There are a few rock classics that play with our rhythmic ears in this way. When I first heard Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll I thought the drum intro featured several time signature changes, until I realised that it’s just four bars of 4/4 with three eighth-notes before the downbeat (to hear it ‘properly’, start counting 4/4 on the fourth drum hit – the downbeat is the first accent).
The reason I think Rock And Roll fools us (well, fooled me), is that many people interpret the first sound they hear as the downbeat, and thereafter it’s almost impossible to un-hear the song this way… so I was hearing a bar of 3/8 at the end of what I thought was four bars of 4/4 with various accents. And although the intro is so well-known that most drummers play (and transcribe) it correctly, some professional sheet music transcribers are still being fooled by John Bonham’s beat displacing games, 45 years on.
Another intro that messed with my inner metronome for many years was The Eagles’ Take It Easy. Same phenomenon – when I heard the first sound of the recording (in this case, a big G major electric guitar chord) I thought that was the first beat of bar 1. Here’s another professional example where the transcriber’s ear was tricked just like mine.
Below is a transcription of what’s actually happening in Take It Easy. The guitar comes in one eighth note before the downbeat, and if you can hear it this way and start counting exactly one eighth-note after the first sound you hear, Don Henley’s snare drum fill is a simple three-note pickup and sounds perfectly in time.
When you hear how the band played it live it’s easy to feel the pulse, because of the vocal count-in combined with Henley’s helpful off-beat hi-hat.
One of my favourite displaced intros is the Beatles’ Drive My Car, which I originally heard as two eighth-note upbeats (it’s actually one, as correctly transcribed here).
Here, with full vocal count-in and hi-hat click, is McCartney playing it live.
Which brings us to the arguably clickbait-y title of this blog post. How might we be hearing Bohemian Rhapsody incorrectly?
Let’s start with the received wisdom. Here’s a transcription of how how I thought BR’s intro was counted:
And then today I saw this video from 2002 (embedded below). I think I might even remember seeing it a few years ago, but the timing difference hadn’t registered with me at the time.
Listen to the video from [7:48], and start beating time along with Freddie’s vocal count-in. Instead of hearing a rather rubato/stretched “[rest] is this the real life? (pause) / [rest] is this just fantasy…” you’ll perceive the vocal as just starting on the first beat of the bar – “is this the real life? / [rest] is this just fantasy?”. So bar 1 and bar 2 have entirely different rhythmic feels from each other. The first word we hear –”is” – appears right there on the beat. Brian comments earlier in the film that Freddie had a very accurate sense of timing, and it’s true – you can click or conduct along with the vocal count-in, and everything lines up pretty well.
Here’s my transcription of how I think we should be counting Bohemian Rhapsody’s first two bars. I haven’t found a professional/published transcription that interprets it this way.
Brian May, of course, must have spent many hours listening to the backing track in the studio, so presumably he hears it the same way Freddie counts it – that is, as transcribed above. But because no-one ever asked him (or Freddie) how the timing works, the transcribers just went with the simpler interpretation, and kicked into the long grass the issue of how to transcribe the apparent pause at the end of bar 1.
But that’s the thing with music – you can never hear it through someone else’s ears. We all have our own inner metronomes, and unless we play or sing with others, we rarely have a reason to reveal how they’re ticking. Freddie’s vocal was perfectly in time, all along. And I will never hear Bohemian Rhapsody in the same way ever again.