Killer Queen is the fourth set work in the Edexcel GCSE Music Anthology. This set work is from Area of Study 2 – Vocal Music. I have already looked at Purcell and so now we jump on a few centuries.
I love this set work because it opens the door to a whole world of great music. Not only do we get to study this song, but its a chance to look at the whole album, as well as other music by Queen. The other great thing is that the recently released movie Bohemian Rhapsody gives a great overview of the band. I think watching this movie could be seen as valuable research and homework!
At the start of this blog I want to stress the importance of understanding music from this era, the 1970s. We can get so bogged down in embracing Baroque, Classical & Romantic music and forget to really get to know music from more recent eras. And the exciting thing is that music has changed so much since 1970. Every decade we can hear the changes taking place. We are given the chance with this set work to explore bands such as Queen, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin – the list goes on.
I think that Wider Listening is a great place to start with this piece. It doesn’t really matter what order you approach set works, but it is good to have a grasp of music from the 1970s before you embark on any study. I have put together a playlist that you might like to try and there are links to Youtube Videos for each piece:
As you listen to these Wider Listening pieces there are two key questions:
- What makes this an example of Glam Rock?
- What makes this clearly from the 1970s?
This focus on context is crucial and will help with any future comparisons and exam questions. In terms of the Edexcel GCSE specification we also have to consider the use of voices because Killer Queen comes from the Vocal Music area of study. I am not sure comparing to Purcell is necessary. But I think it isn’t a bad idea to think about how the use of voices has changed over the years.
I like to use the word “Weigh” to represent the idea of comparing pieces and weighing up features. It is also a word that begins with “W” and that fits into my approach for Set Works of having 5 W’s. Having now listening to some more examples of Glam Rock from the 1970s, how do they compare with Killer Queen:
- Are there clear similarities in the instrumentation used?
- Do the pieces all share a similar approach to vocals & how they are used?
- Would you suggest that there is a clear style that represents the 1970s?
- What feature of the music, if removed, would change the whole style & genre?
- What makes them all Glam Rock and do they all share the same Glam Rock features?
Queen released their first album in 1973 and Sheer Heart Attack followed in 1974. They were writing, recording and performing in the heart of the 1970s and do continue to perform today, sadly without Freddie Mercury. All members of the band wrote songs, which is interesting and not always the case with bands. This is true also true of the band Coldplay. It could be suggested that this helped them as a band as they were pulling on each others resources as writers and musicians. And they were all very strong and competent musicians. Freddie had a huge vocal range as well as being a very good pianist (he also played a little guitar). Brian May is an incredibly accomplished guitarist and could be described as a Virtuoso on the instrument.
They were very much a stadium rock band and much of their music was Glam Rock. They were known for flamboyance and putting on a great show. Freddie in particular was a larger than life character both on and off the stage. It is important to think about their music as being a show, a display of musical ability as well as commanding the attention of everyone in the audience. Glam Rock takes all of the features of Rock n Roll and then adds that stage-show flamboyance and glamour.
There are a number of features in this piece that need to be looked at. I don’t ever see the need to regurgitate the notes & textbook, so I am going to focus on one area. What key features make this 1970s Glam Rock? What features show progression and also show links back to the previous era?
- Huge vocal range shown by Freddie Mercury gives the piece that extra bit of extravagance.
- Use of over-dubbing shows the use of current studio recording technology.
- The lyrics and the story behind the song are more complex and obscure – less obvious when compared to some songs from 1960s.
- The finger clicks at the start are unusual for a Rock Song but are yet dramatic and add to the “show” of the song.
- Virtuosic Electric Guitar solo from Brian May.
- Backing Vocals do make us think of the 1960s – The Beatles & The Beach Boys used this Close Harmony Style.
- The use of Piano does make us think of music from the previous eras in Rock & Pop.
When considering features in a piece of music it is always good to “Hang” these features on a “Line of Argument”. You can do this more literally to create a visual representation of the music. Instead of thinking about the piece from Beginning to End, this of the Line of argument and then elect features that hang off of that. The Line of argument in this case is a 1970s Glam-Rock/Stadium-Rock Song.
We have already touched on the Why for some aspects of this piece, but it doesn’t hurt to make this clear. Any feature that we mention needs to have a why. If a feature can’t be explained in this way then it may not be worth mentioning. It is often he case that we discuss a musical feature that we can’t then fully use to back up our arguments.
If a piece is in 4/4 time for example, that might just be a fairly simple decision that the composer made and it may not explain the genre. This piece is in 12/8 with moments of 6/8 and this allows for some sense of Swing & shuffle to be injected into the music. There is a clear WHY that we can link to the time signature. We need to pick features that help to backup our Line of Argument, at least we need to for the Long Answer Question at the end of the exam.
The most important part of the learning process is the listening process. We can read up on pieces and get to know all the features. But until we have heard them, the style, genre and mood simply don’t come to life! Once we have listened to one example of a genre, our understanding goes deeper when we listen to more. Wider Listening for this Set Work is as crucial as any, but I feel that sometimes we gloss over Pop & Rock because we think we inherently know it. Getting to know the 1970s is crucial for this piece and it might be good to also be familiar with music from other decades – there is so much out there to learn.